HERTFORDSHIRE farmer Robert Law, who took part in the East Anglian pilot of the Arable Stewardship Scheme, is frustrated and disillusioned by DEFRAs decision to take all the under-sowing options out of the revised scheme.
With 630ha (1550 acres) of arable crops at Thrift Farm, near Royston, and a sheep enterprise, he was attracted by the flexibility of the original programme when it was first unveiled in 1998.
"I initially entered the scheme because the under-sowing options allowed me to take conservation around the whole farm, rather than just restricting it to certain corners and field edges," he says.
Spring barley was under-sown with a grass/clover mix, changing the grazing system for the farms 1800 breeding ewes.
"It allowed us to make sweeping changes by compensating us for the income forgone.
"Although it is technically still possible to establish a grass ley with the revised proposals, it would be madness to introduce rotational grazing on IACS registered land."
As well as under-sowing spring barley, he also created beetle banks, 6m grass margins, wildlife seed areas and conservation headlands under the terms of Arable Stewardship. But he is adamant that the under-sowing options were the biggest change and committed him to a certain farming system.
"Entering the scheme tied us into sheep production for five years, but it also committed us to a farming system which had far greater biodiversity benefits.
"We switched from winter barley to spring barley, and introduced grassland back to areas which were initially ploughed up nearly 10 years ago."
The result has been a big rise in wildlife across the entire farm and a better grazing system. Under-sowing spring barley typically had a 0.75t/ha yield penalty, but it helped establish an integrated farming system.
"If growers want to continue to receive support, this type of scheme is the way they will have to go. But unfortunately, the proposed changes mean that the Arable Stewardship scheme is virtually finished for us.
"We cant make use of over wintered stubbles, as we grow stubble turnips for the sheep. There is very little to keep this farm in the initiative."
He is also critical of the need to sign up for 10 years.
"The farming industry is going through so much change at the moment that few farmers are going to be willing to commit themselves for such a long period of time."
Having contacted DEFRA for an explanation of the reasoning behind the changes he was told that the under-sowing options had been discontinued because they were unpopular.
"There does not seem to have been much consultation with the pilot scheme participants when the changes were made. Since joining the scheme our payments have been revised downwards and another review is due in three years," he adds. *