With spring upon us and the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) juddering into action, Policy officer Tom Lancaster turns his focus to the new agri-environment scheme in England, Countryside Stewardship.
The application window for the new Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme is approaching, and we’re hopeful that many farmers are thinking about applying. With the window running from July to September, perfectly timed for harvest (!), thinking seriously now about your application, will pay dividends as the deadline looms. Whilst a lot of detail remains to be ironed out, Defra and Natural England have recently compiled all that does exist on their website, providing information about the new options, payment rates and other scheme details.
More focused than Environmental Stewardship, CS is a competitive scheme, using targeting to try and make sure that every penny counts. But this does not mean that farmers will be somehow ‘freezed out’ – everywhere will be a priority for something. For lowland farmers in particular, a key element of the scheme is the ‘Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package’, a collection of measures designed to be simple to deliver but effective for wildlife.
Image 1: Options available under the Farm Wildlife Package will include sown wild bird seed mixes. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com).
The Farm Wildlife Package includes options such as pollen and nectar mixes and wild bird seed mixes, and applicants to the so-called ‘middle-tier’ of the scheme will be expected to aim for 3-5% of their farmed land under these sorts of options. Although the coverage of the scheme will decline compared to Entry Level Stewardship (ELS), the hope is that focusing effort and resources will have a greater impact. For those in HLS under the current Farmland Bird Package, all of this will be very familiar territory, and a similar package of options has been developed for the ‘higher-tier’ of CS.
These packages are based on the best available evidence, and have been developed though a partnership approach, with Natural England working with NGO’s, the farming industry, farmers and national pollinator scientists to bring together the evidence, knowledge and practical experience to make it possible. A recent scientific paper by the RSPB and Natural England found that this package approach used in Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) led to positive impacts for a range of priority farmland birds. Across forty farms surveyed in 2008 and then again in 2011, monitoring found that lapwings, grey partridge, yellowhammers and more all benefitted from this sort of proactive management.
Image 2: A recent paper has shown that Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) benefits reed buntings, with a 7% increase on farms under HLS between 2008 and 2011, compared to a decline on control farms of 40% over the same period. The Countryside Stewardship Farm Wildlife Package replicates many of the options that benefit this species. (Mike Richards: rspb-images.com)
If Countryside Stewardship provides the tools, and this evidence the confidence that the Farm Wildlife Package could make a real difference, what we need now is farmers and land managers to be enthused and engaged with the new scheme.
We recognise that CAP fatigue has well and truly struck. IT breakdowns, new rules and a lack of information means that it’s a near full time job just keeping up to date with developments. But the time is now or never to recover farm wildlife, and although the new scheme will be more competitive than ELS, managing 3-5% of your farmed land through the Farm Wildlife Package should significantly boost an applicants chance of success.
If you’re a farmer, and interested in applying for Countryside Stewardship, one of our regional advisers may be on hand to provide advice and support, or come at see us at Cereals stand 434 for help putting together an application for your farm. We a running a series of free 1-2-1 advice sessions at Cereals, where advisors will use digital mapping to help explore how you can maximise the benefits of CS for wildlife on your farm. As the sessions are likely to be popular please email the following address for more information and/or to book: firstname.lastname@example.org
For further updates on Countryside Stewardship and or the RSPB's stand at Cereals please follow the farming blog or updates on @AgriODowd
By Tom Lancaster (Agricutural Policy Officer): email@example.com
One of the most rewarding parts of my job as Cirl Bunting Project Manager is to go back to a farm and see management underway. Last month I was invited back to Boohay farm near Dartmouth by Paul Burnell to look at the work they have been doing on one of the coastal fields to restore the species rich grassland that was being lost under scrub and bracken.
This grassland restoration was part of an HLS/ELS application I helped put together in 2013. The family run farm is important for its population of cirl buntings but has many other wildlife (including rare arable plants) and historic features of interest so the application submitted was quite complex and incorporated many different management options.
One of the most challenging aspects of the application, now a live agreement, was the grassland restoration on 5.04ha of steep east facing coastal slope running down to sheer cliffs.
Image 1: A view of the restoration site prior to management with extensive bramble and bracken scrub. The steep coastal slope running down to steep cliffs posed a challenge for restoration management.(Mike Ingram).
This land was at one time open grassland but in recent years had been largely abandoned (which is common with many coastal grasslands) and the important wildflower communities have been lost under bramble and bracken scrub. It was felt that by removing up to 80% of this scrub (retaining some is important as it also provides an important habitat in its own right) and reintroducing appropriate stock grazing, the value of the site would be greatly enhanced for wildlife but this presented many challenges. The site is very steep and uneven and being directly adjacent to the sea was too dangerous to use tractor mounted equipment so any scrub management would have to be done by hand. This obviously makes management expensive and time consuming.
This site is adjacent to National Trust cliff land on either side that is also being managed through HLS to enhance its value for biodiversity and landscape. Using the experience gathered from these adjacent sites, I drew up a scrub management plan and recommended management techniques and contractors with experience of this type of work.
Image 2: An area of hand-cleared scrub. Conservation Advisor Cath Jeffs drew on experience from adjacent sites to draw up a scrub management plan. Despite being labour intensive, hand-clearance was the only safe way to remove scrub from the steep site. (Cath Jeffs).
Scrub removal is only part of the story as once it has been cleared it is essential that stock is reintroduced to help maintain the grassland. As Paul did not have animals suitable for grazing this type of land, this involved bringing in the right animals. The South West Coast Path runs along the lower part of the site so it was important stock would be able to cope with walkers.
Image 3: Dartmoor ponies graze the hand-cleared areas. Once hand-clearance of scrub has been completed, ongoing grazing management is needed to maintain the open ground and encourage re-establishment of coastal grassland. (Cath Jeffs).
Paul has now undertaken two winters of scrub clearance. He has borrowed Dartmoor ponies from a Dartmoor farmer and has brought a small flock of Hebridian sheep from a neighbour. On the day I visited there was brisk cold sea breeze and it was overcast but I was delighted to see how the site is being transformed. The ponies were looking very much at home grazing on the sparse vegetation whilst the sheep (nowhere to be seen but no doubt sheltering somewhere from the elements) had also settled well and are doing a good job grazing the hard to reach bits of the site.
Image 4: Farmer Paul Burnell and the Dartmoor ponies used to graze the coastal fields at Boohay Farm. The type of stock selected for restoration-grazing were chosen for their suitability to the terrain and compatibility with walkers on the SW Coast Path. (Cath Jeffs)
Although there is still along way to go before the site is restored back to its former glory it is a fantastic start and Paul said he was really enjoying doing the work which was good news as it is such a long term management commitment.
It is important to recognise that although agri-environment can provide payments to help with this sort of management/restoration, farmers like Paul should continue to receive on going support and encouragement. As a conservation adviser I hope this continues to be a big part of my role and I look forward to revisiting the farm in a few years time to see even more wildlife, though I may see if I can visit in the summer next time!
For more information please contact:
Cath Jeffs (Project Manager, Conservation, South-West England): firstname.lastname@example.org
For more stories of how RSPB is working with farmers to benefit farmland wildlife follow this blog or, on Twitter @AgriODowd.
By Cath Jeffs
In January 2015 the new Scotland Rural Development Programme (SRDP) opened for business. Well... sort of! The programme has numerous schemes and these are opening on a rolling basis – so far we have seen the launch of for example, the Crofting Agricultural Grant Scheme, the Small Farms Grant Scheme and the New Entrants Grants (although no payments will be made until the new programme has actually been approved by Europe). We don’t expect to see a fully operational programme until the middle of 2016 when we hope the advisory service will be up and running, but there is plenty to be looking at in the meantime.
Not least of course from our perspective is the new Agri-Environment-Climate scheme (snappy!), which should have launched by the time this blog is released! It will come as some relief to a lot of people to see that the old ‘uber’ scheme, Rural Priorities, has in effect been broken down into its constituent parts – this scheme being one of those parts and the new Forestry Grants Scheme being the main other (although there are more). We think this is a mixed blessing, and it actually goes in the opposite direction in terms of integrating land management decisions as most other UK countries at this time. But at the very least it makes for clearer and easier to follow web pages and scheme information.
Image 1: Species such as lapwing require integrated decision-making over land management. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
The new Agri-Environment-Climate (AEC) scheme combines amended versions of options that used to be in the Rural Priorities and Land Managers Options schemes, and some welcome new ones as well, covering a range of objectives including biodiversity, water quality and organics. There is something in the scheme for every land manager so we would encourage you to have a look - here. It is open to all but some of the options are spatially targeted so you are given direction in terms of which options will deliver real benefits on your holding. It is a competitive application process, with a points threshold set at the beginning of the programme over which all applications must get to be successful.
I’d struggle to say AEC is a ‘higher level’ scheme - even though it is the main means of delivering on designated sites, simply because of the range of things it is trying to deliver and the very limited budget it has to do this. But it is not an entry level scheme either and we are hopeful we’ll see some real environmental benefit from the new assessment process, that has a strong emphasis on ensuring land managers understand the plan they are seeking funding for and has added new elements such as the Farm Environment Assessment. We hope that this process will drive up the quality of applications (from an environmental benefit perspective) without being too cumbersome for land managers. The financial support available for the production of the Farm Environment Assessment at the moment will help in this regard but it is too early to really tell - the proof will be in the pudding.
Image 2: 'Creation of wader scrapes’ is a new capital item within the AEC scheme and one which will help the scheme deliver real benefits for our rapidly declining wader populations. (RSPB Scotland)
Given that we have been almost two years now in Scotland without a scheme to apply to, with Rural Priorities running out of funds towards the end of the last programme, RSPB Scotland is very excited by the launch of the AEC scheme. We are already talking to and working with land managers across Scotland keen to get in and deliver benefits for priority species such as Corn Bunting, Lapwing, Corncrake and Black Grouse.
Image 3: The new programme will provide valuable support to Scotland’s crofters, whose land management helps maintain the rich biodiversity of Scotland’s highlands and islands (in this photo habitat for Choughs). (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
The other element of the programme that we look forward to is the new Environmental Co-operation Action Fund (also snappy!). This fund is due to open to applications sometime in 2015 and will provide valuable support for the establishment and delivery of landscape scale conservation projects. So far as we currently know this fund will be open to everyone, allowing for project ideas from land managers and NGOs alike. The fund will be primarily for facilitation costs but this could be a range of activities including but not limited to talking to land managers, reconciling interests and producing strategic plans. We watch this space carefully and hope to see what the fund is focusing on in terms of its objectives some time soon.
Importantly also, there will be a new advisory services in place to support this new programme, hopefully up and running by the middle of 2016. It is not yet clear what this service will look like but we remain hopeful there will be a one-to-one dedicated agri-environment and biodiversity element to it.
If you would like to talk to the RSPB about an application to the AEC scheme or any other elements of the programme for biodiversity purposes, then please do contact a local adviser or our Scottish Headquarters and speak to our advisory manager – Chris Bailey: email@example.com
By Amy Corrigan, Agriculture and Rural Development Policy Officer