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31 July 2013
Image: Chris Gomersall
Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) forms the basis of Environmental Stewardship. ELS is a 'broad and shallow' scheme, compensating farmers for carrying out a range of cheap and simple measures across their farm.
Within ELS, there are separate strands for organic farms (Organic ELS or OELS) and upland farms (Upland ELS or UELS).
This scheme is available to all farmers in England. It contains all the measures needed to reverse the decline in widespread farmland birds by meeting birds' three main needs: a safe place to nest, food in spring and summer for the growing chicks, and food and shelter over the winter.
The applicant to the scheme is required to choose environmental management options from a list. Each option scores points, and the farmer must achieve an average of 30 points per hectare across the whole farm. For this, the farmer receives a payment of £30 per hectare per year.
The options include buffer strips, hedgerow management, beetle banks, skylark plots and pollen and nectar mixes. The scheme rewards farmers who are already farming in an environmentally friendly way as they can claim points for existing management that meets the option description.
ELS certainly provides the tools to address the problems facing farmland birds, as demonstrated by the success of the RSPB's Hope Farm, and uptake has been good. Almost 70 per cent of farmland in England is in the scheme.
However, to date there is no evidence that wildlife has responded to ELS, except at a few individual sites. Across the countryside the farmland bird indicator is continuing to decline.
This is largely because, although the options list contains everything farmland birds need to thrive, there is no requirement to take up options in the right places or in the right combinations to ensure results. Certain options, such as leaving hedgerows uncut for longer have proved very popular. Others, such as skylark plots have not been taken up in anything like the necessary number to deliver results. Balanced option uptake is essential to deliver environmental outcomes.
So far the Government's answer to this problem has been to improve the advice and support given to farmers to help them to choose the options that work best for both them and the environment. Advice available includes the advice services provided by the RSPB and other environmental organisations, industry-led initiatives such as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, and Natural England's ELS Training and Information Project (ETIP).
However this approach is so far not delivering improved uptake of the less popular options at the rate needed. The RSPB feels that the scheme needs changing to ensure that every agreement contains a balanced package of options designed to deliver for the scheme's objectives. We strongly believe that these lessons from ELS should be central to the development of a new scheme for 2015.