Committed to conservation

It used to be an area on which profitable crops were rare; now it is making Warwickshire arable farmer Stuart Russell £355/ha a year, thanks to Higher Level Stewardship.

The area in question, 24ha (59 acres) of arable land at Toft Farm, near Rugby, used to be in Mr Russell’s crop rotation.

But its regular flooding by the River Leam has made it perfect for the creation of wet grassland under HLS option HK13, which aims to encourage breeding waders and wildfowl.

Crop management shouldn’t be affected, but he is going to have to learn to manage a neighbour’s grazing Highland cattle.

His was one of the first applications FWAG Warwickshire conservation officer Bob Slater helped with, so the learning curve was steep.

But the environmental benefits offered by the application and backed up by a Farm Environment Plan, satisfied the regional target criteria, so the 350ha (865 acre) farm was accepted last February without hesitation.

Other options agreed include species-rich semi-natural grassland covering 36ha (89 acres), wild bird feeding sites, pollen and nectar sites for invertebrates such as butterflies and bees, and 8ha (20 acres) of woodland management to encourage further habitat variation across the farm.

Each option attracts a different annual management payment (amounts are listed in the DEFRA manual).

It’s early days, but Mr Russell expects it to help him through a challenging period in farming.

“It was an easy decision to enter HLS.

We’ve trimmed the cost of growing crops as much as we can.

Sharing labour and equipment with a neighbour, and adopting a min till system into stubble on this Warwickshire blue clay, has been a big help as this clay is good for making pots but can be very expensive to work profitably, especially with wheat at 70/t.

“Over the years, my father has introduced many conservation features on the farm without entering any schemes, and we wish to develop these further.

The new schemes offer more flexibility than the old ones, and I see Environmental Stewardship as another enterprise, which will require different skills of our management, and a fresh challenge, in the same way that the creation of the fishing lakes on the farm has.”

Toft Farm is already a wildlife paradise.

It’s not hard to see why Toft Farm won FWAG’s national Silver Lapwing award last year.

Grassy field corners, and 6m margins – some tussocky grasses, some wild flower mixes – buffer every field boundary, harbouring insects and birds in growing numbers.

Complying with LERAPs is no longer an issue.

Conservation work started in earnest this spring.

All the wild bird seed areas have been ploughed and will be sown to a shooting cover mix compatible with the scheme.

The latest project was laying a hawthorn hedge separating an area of woodland from an arable field.

The contractor’s charges will be covered by HLS payments, the first of which should arrive in August.

The RDS is very helpful with advice and support, but Mr Russell appreciated FWAG’s involvement.

“The Farm Environment Plan (FEP) and the application would be a handful to do alone.

Even with Bob’s help it took four months.

But I’ve no doubt a small investment in setting things up will be worthwhile in boosting our income.

We have no plans to opt out before the 10 years is up, and may continue indefinitely.”

This may be just the start. His wife, Esther, is looking at education scheme options as a public relations exercise.

There are footpaths across the farm and she would like to alert the public to what they are achieving.

RDS will help with information sheets as part of the scheme.