Much has been made in the past few years of the opportunities for livestock farmers to expand through grazing taken on a non-rent paying basis, but few have found the ground as easy to come by as many believed it would be.
RAMSAK Grazing project manager Chris Smith, who co-ordinates the matching of farmers wanting extra grass and landowners with spare acres across Kent and Sussex, says in many cases it is simply knowing where to look.
“We have been approached by landowners with some significant acreages in the past year or so, much of which can be had for no rent at all, so long as the landowner retains the single farm payment.”
And while many believe environmental schemes are of limited value, thanks to the restrictions they place on land use, such as restricted fertiliser applications and cutting dates, they can be good for sheep farming.
Harvel, Meopham, farmer Stephen Jones runs sheep and cattle on more than 101ha (250 acres) of ground under countryside stewardship and other environmental agreements within a short distance of his base unit at Harvel House Farm.
But while this ground may not be the most productive of the farm’s 324ha (800 acres), with much of it taken on non-rent paying agreements, it can often prove to be the most financially beneficial.
“Over the years we have managed to increase the area we farm and develop a closed flock through taking on this ground, which some other farmers are less keen to manage.
“Having the extra acres means we can retain all our own female replacements and run them on this poorer quality grazing for much of the time, freeing up better pasture for ewes and lambs,” he says.
On top of this, Mr Jones has been able to establish a small suckler herd to feed demand for locally produced meat from the surrounding population.
This herd, based on native breeds, also grazes some of the rougher environmental ground and will supply Mr Jones’ soon to be operational butchery.
“We are just in the process of establishing a shop to retail our own lamb, beef and pork, having sold it as freezer packs for a number of years and the local council reckon there is 134m of household income within two miles of the farm gate, so the potential is definitely there.”
And as well as the benefits to flock management, Mr Jones says grazing land subject to environmental agreements has also enabled him to improve forage management, as he is able to make more haylage at home, lowering transport and labour costs.
But as yet he has not been offered any ground which landowners have wanted to pay him to graze, something he is reluctant to consider.
“For a landowner to need to pay me to graze it, there are probably two reasons.
First, the grass is really poor or it’s a fair distance from home.
Either way it is unlikely to be worthwhile entertaining it.”
The only sticking point with some land has been fencing, but generally this can be overcome so long as the landowner is willing to allow Mr Jones to graze for a number of years, offsetting the cost of any fencing he has to undertake.
And, while these sorts of arrangements may be unconventional, they do offer an excellent chance for younger farmers wanting to expand their sheep enterprises, adds Mr Smith.
“Land is the most expensive and limiting part of a sheep operation, particularly here in the south east, where competition with horse and other recreational users is fierce, so any way of reducing costs is a bonus.”