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Radical changes down on the farm

By Juliet Hawkins

Field with grassy marginHuge changes are underway down on the farm - and it should be good news for the environment. New agricultural policy recognises the vital role of food production but, at last, the environment and wildlife will become another valued output of farming. Instead of particular crops being subsidised to encourage production, very soon the entire farmed area of the country will receive financial support in return for a range of both compulsory and voluntary environmental activities on the farm. Irrespective of farm enterprise, farmers will be supported across their whole farm including those growing vegetables, sugar beet and grassland, on which support payments will be made for the first time (only permanent crops such as modern fruit trees, biomass and woodland will be excluded). In return, farmers receiving support payments will have to comply with rules contained in what is called 'cross-compliance'. These measures include the protection of hedges with cutting allowed only at certain times of the year; the widening of hedges and field margins to a minimum width, the protection of soils against erosion and the keeping open of public rights of way.

Set-aside will remain compulsory. However, land that has been set-aside for many years and developed a good habitat can now be more sensitively managed under new 'environmental set-aside'. Thus, set-aside can be used to buffer hedges as 6m grassy field margins, and protect other sensitive habitats.

The Environmentally Sensitive Areas and the Countryside Stewardship Schemes will also be replaced, gradually, by a new scheme called Environmental Stewardship incorporating the Entry Level Scheme (ELS) and the Higher Level Scheme (HLS). The ELS will be a simple scheme open to all farmers. It will cover the whole farm, with a range of options from which a farmer will score points to contribute to a total score of 30 points per hectare. Once achieved, the farmer will be rewarded at £1 for each point scored (to a maximum of £30/ha). An incentive, therefore, to create better and bigger hedges, more field margins, the planting of seed for wild birds and flowering plants for invertebrates, the sympathetic management of grassland and set-aside and the careful management of fertiliser and agrochemical inputs.

Running in parallel with the ELS will be the Higher Level Scheme, providing payments to help particular target areas or species. Each farm will be required to prepare a Farm Environmental Plan which will highlight all opportunities on the farm to help wildlife, protect and improve habitat and to preserve our archaeological heritage.

The first year or two of this new scheme will inevitably create some administrative and implementation headaches for farmers and DEFRA alike. However, once through the early teething stages, the 'freedom' to farm for wildlife - and not for arable crop production - will see many farmers managing their land to benefit the expansion of species that have been squeezed off intensive farmland in recent years - skylarks, reed buntings, yellowhammers to name a few. I know several farmers who can't wait to change.

(Juliet Hawkins is a farm conservation consultant involved in conservation projects on her family-owned farm.)