THE ARABLE Op-tions element of the Countryside Steward- ship Scheme shows farm profitability and wildlife enhancement can go hand in hand, says the manager of a Yorks college farm.
“Financially viable – particularly now we have the SFP – but a real challenge to manage in practical terms.” That is how Bishop Burton College farm manager Paul Robinson sums up the Arable Options scheme two years after signing up.
As growers set about applying for the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme, or its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Mr Robinson urges growers to try to minimise the “hassle factor” and think hard about the economic impacts. “Consider how these options are going to be managed in practical terms. Taking land out of production may be easier than going for low inputs, especially if you are using contractors or casual staff.”
Also think where options fit best. He used yield mapping to pinpoint where to put the seven treatments Arable Options selected.
“Finding a way of measuring the effects of environmental schemes is very important. Our yield mapping is done by contractor; for 2/acre, I think it can be justified.”
He cites a typical example from last year. A 24m conservation headland option was chosen to maximise returns from an unproductive area. No herbicide or fertiliser was permitted. Seed at 53/ha, plus fungicide and aphicide at 26/ha were the only inputs.
Unsurprisingly, yields plummeted to 2.6t/ha, giving a crop output of 182/ha. But adding the AO payment of 270/ha and the Area Aid payment of 237/ha gave a 689/ha total output.
“The AO payments more than made up for the loss of production – the headland performed very well financially,” says Mr Robinson.
He admits that it does all take time to organise. “This is a mixed farm, and there is no doubt that Countryside Stewardship and the AO scheme further reduced flexibility. My administration time has gone up by about 5%.
“We have students and contractors working here, and everyone must fully understand the restrictions that apply. Putting maps in all the tractor cabs explaining the rules has helped, and the staff are getting used to the procedures,” he notes.
But has the wildlife benefited? Yes, he says, and RSPB officer, Simon Tonkin, agrees, pointing out that farmland bird numbers have increased. Tree sparrows, which have suffered a general population slump of 90% over the past 30 years, are thriving on the farm and grey partridge are making good use of the wild bird mix cover crops, he says.
And the downsides? “Weeds have increased slightly,” Mr Robinson admits. “I have found it best to tackle them the season before.”
Mr Robinson has already calculated that his farm scores enough points to qualify for ELS payments on top of Countryside Stewardship. “There is no double-funding – land in Countryside Stewardship cannot be used for an ELS claim. However, we have planted and enhanced our hedgerows over the past decade. We have about 12km of hedges, and they will contribute to more than 50% of our total score. “Trees are another important feature. We have nearly 100 on the farm. A ditch, an area of sloping land and the correct management of woodland boundaries will make up the remainder.” Calculations show the farm should net almost 9000 a year in ELS payments. “This is a big chunk of our income. It has got to be managed according to the rules.”