Having a farm that is well managed for wildlife, isn't just good for PR and weekend walks – it can boost your profits too.
Good habitat management produces beneÿts for farms and the wider countryside. And it’s not just wildlife habitats that benefit, there can also be financial gains for a farmer and the chance to enhance his or her public image. However, with the margins in farming as tight as they are today, a cost/benefit greening balance is essential. Current environmental schemes are now closed to new applicants, but new schemes will open up in the coming months, so each farmer needs to look at the best options for them. From a regulatory standpoint, greening measures are required under the latest CAP agreement. There is also the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which offers a range of different options and payments, along with various voluntary measures; all of which give farmers a variety of approaches to positive habitat management.
“Clearly, most farmers and land managers don’t want added complexity when it comes to habitat management. An element of ‘greening’ a business is now compulsory; the rest is what works for both farm and environment,” says Stephen Lockwood of Savills Agribusiness.
Large areas of farmland are already in environmental agreements. Over the next 18 months, however, many of these agreements will be replaced by the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and not all farms will qualify.
“Those with HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) agreements coming to an end will have the option of applying to the mid-tier of the new scheme. Many farms, however, will ÿnd measures they have been taking are not targeted enough to qualify,” says Stephen.
“In eþect, ELS (Entry Level Stewardship) options have become compliance measures. ýere are some capital grant schemes for these types of farms, but they are fairly limited in scope,” he says.
Sam Durham, national co-ordinator for the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE), says it is essential farmers see good habitat management as an integral part of running their business, regardless of financial incentive.
“Defra has made CAP greening measures as simple as possible, which shows the government trusts the farming industry to go beyond what is required via EFAs (Ecological Focus Areas), using the CFE’s Voluntary Measures,” says Sam. “The risk for the farming industry, if they do not take up the Voluntary Measures, is threefold: some of the EFA options could be removed, the area of land required for EFAs could go from 5 per cent to 7 per cent, and a national certification scheme could be introduced that puts more regulations on farming and, of course, more cost,” he adds.
Beyond the PR benefits to the industry that come with enhancing environmental value, Sam is also in no doubt that habitat management also delivers benefits to the farm business. “Research shows that sowing margins with nectar mixes, for example, at a cost of around £28 per acre, boosts pollinator numbers, which in turn lifts yields in adjacent crops.”
Margins also help keep plant protection products in the field, benefiting the crop and protecting watercourses, hedgerows and wildlife. “Keeping these products out of water means less likelihood of them being removed from use,” says Sam, who adds that many of the Voluntary Measures are neither complex nor costly.
There are other simple, non-costly actions that can have huge benefits for birds. For example, increasing the variety of grass swards and crops or moving to spring-sown crops.
These practices are strongly supported by the RSPB, which is encouraging land managers to consider wider changes to cropping and rotations. “One of the reasons behind the decline of several farmland bird species is the shortage of seed food,” says Richard Winspear of the organisation’s technical advice unit. “Many farmland birds are increasingly relying on seeds in stubbles or bird cover crops to survive over winter.”
Richard points out that subtle changes to cropping can bring benefits to the farm as well. “There is some excellent work being done on cover crops, including mixes with oilseed radish that mop up excess nitrogen to prevent leaching and create biomass beneficial for soil structure. Mixed rotations where manure from livestock can be used are also good for boosting soil structure and organic matter.”
He does, however, recognise that there are cost implications. “If you take potato growers considering when to plough,” he says, “environmentally, it’s better to have a catch crop and plough later but that additional cultivation cost is carried by the grower not the market.”
“Water quality and availability is an on-going issue for farming. When you consider that water is now valued at around £810 per acre, plus factor in the potential cost of losing abstraction licences due to contamination, the cost/benefit of fencing and buffer strips is easy to see,” says Ashley Lilley of Savills Agribusiness.
Capital outlay is inevitably required but this needs to be balanced against the costs of not doing it: stock damaging banks, eroding soil and contaminating the watercourse. “Not to mention that failure to do so could result in financial penalties following a cross compliance inspection,” warns Ashley.
LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) encourages sustainable farming systems through the adoption of Integrated Farm Management (IFM).
“IFM uses the best of modern technology and traditional methods to deliver prosperous farming that enriches the environment,” says Simon Bull of LEAF. He adds that a recent survey of their members showed that better soil management, the use of minimum tillage and reduced pesticide use, not only improved wildlife numbers and reduced CO2 emissions, but also demonstrated significant cost savings.
Stephen believes choosing the right measures, putting them in the right place and managing them in the right way is key to successful habitat management. “The range of schemes, projects, grants and options available can be daunting, so getting good advice tailored to your own farm business is essential,” he says. “This is a chance for the farming industry to take the lead on issues such as water quality and biodiversity, rather than have more regulations imposed upon it.”
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