Struggle for points leads to ELS disappointment

Participation in an agri-environmental stewardship scheme has left me disadvantaged and disillusioned.

This week we have received, along with 1800 others, a letter from Natural England saying that we are under the 30-point threshold required for a successful entry level scheme application. This has arisen because the EU has decreed that any applications made since 1 January 2007 cannot include the management plan options, which up until this date were accepted. The vast majority of applications include the management plan options and in our case the four plans would have produced nine of the 30 points that we require for entry into the scheme.

We had hoped to join the ELS when it was launched in 2005 but were unable to make an application until 2007 because we had not received the correct digital maps from the Rural Payments Agency. The mapping farce was of RPA’s making and outside our control. It delayed our entry into the ELS by 18 months.

Our ELS application covers 770ha (1925 acres) of land so the 18-month delay caused by the RPA’s incompetence cost us over £30,000. However, that delay has pushed us beyond the 1 January 2007 “watershed” which now has even greater implications with Natural England’s announcement this week. I suspect the majority of the other 1800 applications made in 2007 were also delayed by the RPA.

Our letter from Natural England says that we now have a shortfall of some 4620 points. We have made full use of our field boundary features such as hedge and ditch management to gain points. But the shortfall may have to be made up from a switch to more spring cropping to use the overwintered stubble option. The other alternative is to take land out of production and to put it into other options to ring up the points. On our light land overwintered stubble’s and spring crops are an option but for those on heavier soils they are not.

With the sharp rise in commodity prices over the past few months and with better prospects forecasted over the next few seasons, I think many of the 1800 applicants for ELS since 1 January will choose to opt out rather than have land out of production or go for overwintered stubble’s and spring cropping where they have unsuitable soils.

That would be a great shame. Modulation is gathering pace and farmers were encouraged to join environmental schemes and get the modulated cash back into their farms. Returning agreements to the 1800 growers will result in yet more administrative costs as Natural England have said they will consult with each grower to discuss other options in an attempt to get them to resubmit rather than opt out.

DEFRA has room to manoeuvre and can not simply hide behind the Brussels decree. For a start they could agree to applicants upgrading their obsolete set aside options to the point levels earned on arable land.

The “winning” arable farmers today are those who never joined an environmental scheme, maximised their IACS area and therefore payments, cropped all their set aside area and never diversified into growing unsupported arable crops.

Robert Law in brief

  • First generation farmer farming:
  • 1200ha (3000 acres) in the Royston area
  • 1000ha (2500 acres) arable crops and 200ha (500 acres)
  • Grass supporting 2000 lambing ewes.
  • All land in Countryside Stewardship Schemes, Entry Level Schemes, Woodland Premiums, and Sheep Wildlife Enhancement Scheme operated on adjoining SSSi

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