Bankrupt policies from Defra

Last week George (Gideon) Osborne had to do something different because it was clear that his economic policies weren’t working (he did the wrong thing, but he did have to do something) whereas there is no sign that Defra is going to do anything different even though their policies aren’t working either.

The differences between last week’s Autumn statement and last week’s announcement of the Farmland Bird Index are many – but one crucial one is that the Chancellor keeps making predictions about the economy and can be shown to be falling short of them every few months.  Defra does not tell us how high (or low) the Farmland Bird Index will be next year or in five years time and so can never fall short.


Source: RSPB, BTO, JNCC, Defra
Note: i) figures in brackets show the number of species,
ii) the dotted line shows the smoothed trend.

The overall FBI for England edged up a little thanks to increases of generalist species but farmland specialists continue to decline and the overall picture remains utterly bleak.

It’s not as though this, and the previous, government has no policy on this subject. Hundreds of millions of pounds pour into farmers’ pockets every year through agri-environment payments that are supposed to reverse these stark declines.  And they could, easily, as proved at the RSPB’s Hope Farm where farmland bird numbers have increased for years, if only Defra got off their backsides and gave the schemes a good tweaking.

When c70% of English farmland is covered by Entry Level Scheme and farmland bird numbers continue to be in free-fall then it is time for Defra to realise that its policy response is wholly inadequate.  Defra is failing farmland wildlife and failing the tax payer with its bankrupt policies.

It’s all very well concentrating on CAP negotiations and the ‘big’ picture but if we are wasting agri-environment spend through our own inept policy response here in England then it really doesn’t matter too much whether funds are doubled or halved (and neither will happen).

Whereas George Osborne looks foolish because he stated his recipe for economic recovery, and its timescale, and has not delivered, Defra looks foolish because it has no recipe for ecological recovery, has set no timescale, and is not delivering.

The only part of CAP spend that demonstrably works for wildlife in England is HLS.  ELS delivers very little wildlife value for insects or plants and precious little for farmland birds either.  And yet it costs us, the taxpayers, as much each year as five RSPBs.  Almost anyone could deliver more wildlife benefit with half a billion pounds a year than Defra do for us at the moment.

The taxpayer is being robbed, wildlife is being short-changed and Defra policy is bankrupt.  Can I have my money back please?


43 Replies to “Bankrupt policies from Defra”

  1. The NFU likes ELS because farmers do not have to do anything. It is basically an additional single farm subsidy payment through the backdoor under the pretence that it has environmental benefits. Great for the landowner terrible for the tax payer and wildlife.

    That said – I claim it – thanks for paying me to do nothing!

    1. Cowboy – that’s the first time I’ve been thanked by a farmer for my financial contribution to their business – so thank you! I won’t say ‘You are welcome’ for the reasons set out in this blog but I can say ‘You would be welcome’ if only I were sure that my money was being spent widely by Defra. I want you to get my money provided it is making a difference for wildlife. It would be very difficult for 50 million of us in England to find ‘our’ farmers and negotiate a good deal for wildlife in return for our taxes – and that’s why we have governments and the civil service to come up with and administer such arrangements.

      No-one can blame you for taking our money. No-one can blame you for wanting as easy a life as possible. But we can blame this Government, and the last, for making it too easy for farmers to get taxpayers’ money without that money really buying any wildlife benefit.

  2. One of the big problems with ELS is that farmers effectively use them as gamebird rearing areas. Surely when you over populate an area with non native pheasants which will eat or peck to death anything that moves (reptile, insects, amphibians, the contents of ground nesting birds’ nests) and most the seed availible, it cant be good for the wildlife the scheme was supposedly meant to benefit?

  3. I would have to say “something is better then nothing”. I’ll let the “farmers” on this blog debate the real benefits of the ELS scheme, but as a keen birder would have to also feel short changed by DEFRA. BUT for many reasons and not just ELS. I have seen some of these ELS schemes in “action” sometimes, were the farmer themselves have a genuine interest in wildlife the scheme has worked, but in others were the farmer just wants the extra cash for themselves it hasn’t. It’s odd that the money is handed out to the farmer for the scheme, yet what experience has that individual got in knowing how to create and maintain a habitat (I can hear the furious typing already 🙂 ). But let me justify that, many who work in conservation, be it on a nature reserve or restoring a damaged habitat, spend years at Uni, and still can get the balance wrong, so why do we expect a farmer to get it right, but also if lets say the welfare system hands out benefits for Housing Benefit, that money goes direct to the landlord, the reciptent of the benefit doesn’t get it, it doesn’t go to their bank account, but to the bank account of the landlord/housing association or local authority. So why doesn’t DEFRA pay the money for subsidies direct to a conservation body, who then has to create the habitat and manage the habitat, but also account where exactly the money has gone. But also what does DEFRA do to check to validtyof the schemes and make sure the monies have been spent for the purpose it was given out for.
    Anyone looking at those figures in the graph should/could feel downbeat about ELS schemes and DEFRA, but it doesn’t paint a true picture, as most figures don’t. For example in reference to farmland birds, it doesn’t indicate the causes for the drop, how much of the drop in species numbers, using the graph to provide the answer, can be attributed to disease, how many have dropped do to pesticides, how many have dropped due to habitat destruction, how many have dropped due to enviromental pressures (rain/floods/snow/ice/drought) and finally how many have been predated by either natural causes (sprawks etc) or unnatural causes (car strikes and cats).

    1. Douglas – lots of points there. And many of them good ones. Thank you.

      Your last point is important and quite easy to answer – we do know that properly implemented (most notably, I would claim, at the RSPB’s Hope Farm but also at the GWCT’s farm at Loddington (but also on the farms of lots of wildlife-friendly farmers)) the scheme can work and work very well for farmland birds. It’s not a theoretical hope, it’s demonstrated on the ground over and over again. And that’s not a surprise because it took a lot of research by GWCT, BTO and RSPB (and government agencies, academics etc) to come up with the menu of options that is embedded in ELS. So although the world is a complicated place and lots of things could, and do, influence bird numbers we also know how to make their numbers go up again.

      Something is better than nothing – that’s true. but when you are paying hundreds of millions of pounds you expect to get something quite a lot better than nothing, I would say. If you had to take your £150 a year that the CAP costs you, down to your local farmer, and get in a queue with other taxpayers to hand over your money i think you might ask him (or his nice lady wife) quite what you were getting for your money. would we look at the NHS or education and blithely say ‘Something is better than nothing?’ – I don’t think we would and I don’t think we should either.

      We can’t expect every farmer to be a wildlife expert and that’s why the wildlife-friendly farming schemes (which are voluntary for farmers to enter0 need to be simple and straight-forward. That’s the role of government and the civil service to ensure. We can’t blame farmers if the schemes allow them to take our money and do little for wildlife (see Cowboy’s comment) – that’s the fault of Defra.

  4. The Farmland Bird Index’s arbitrary allocation of 1970 as a baseline (or target) always bemuses me. 1970 was hardly a halcyon year for birdlife. Silent Spring had been published just a few years before and DDT was still in widespread legal use. We are trying to get our bird numbers back to a level where they had already been decimated. That farmland birds currently exist in numbers below even this historical nadir is desperately sad.

    Can I say thank you to Mark for again highlighting the ineffectiveness of ELS and propose we all write to our MPs to shine a light on Owen Patterson’s wilfully ignorant defence of this abysmal policy.

    1. Hugh – thank you. I suggest you write to your MP and ask them to take the matter up with Mr Patterson. That way, your representative will get to hear of the issue. And the Secretary of State will reply quicker to an MP than he will to you.

      I was talking to someone about the 1970 start point only last week. It is quite a sensible one to choose but you are right that it doesn’t represent where we would ideally like to be – although the chances of getting there in bird terms seem slim. 1970 was chosen, perhaps you know, because the CBC only started in the early 1960s and was partly a response to the very harsh winters of 1962 and 1963. Many bird populations were hit hard by the cold winters and so pre-1970 the scheme was young and growing, and some bird populations were on their knees because of cold winters.

      1. Done. Copied below.

        Dear Anne McIntosh,

        I would like you to ask Owen Patterson why it is that with approx. 70%
        of English farmland covered by DEFRA’s Entry Level Scheme (with a
        government/taxpayer spend of hundreds of millions), farmland bird
        numbers continue to be in free-fall (see
        Surely it is time for Defra to review this criminally ineffective use
        of our taxes?

        Yours sincerely,

        Hugh Webster

        1. Hugh – and your MP is chair of the EFRA Committee too, so even more reason to get her on the case! Well done and thank you.

  5. I was very interested to read a press release from the Countryside Restoration Trust – the inimitable Robin Page’s vehicle – about how its farm has increased farmland birds, too. And it gave the reasons: decline in mixed farming, shift from spring to winter sowing, change from hay to silage, increased agro-chemicals and loss of non-crop features – headlands, margins, hedges. Simple, spot on and, amazingly, not a Sparrowhawk in sight !

    So it can be done and it isn’t that difficult – except for the economics and even more so the trouble of, for example, minimising chemical use when chemicals are so cheap you might as well do what your agronomist, and the big chemical companies tell you, and splash it on like Brut.

    The ELS problem goes right back to year zero for agri-environment schemes – the Original Environmentally Sensitive Areas which suffered exactly the same problem of the bar set too low. I don’t accept it’s all Defra’s fault: farmers bully Defra, with the support of Conservative Ministers whose constituents they are and the indifference of labour Ministers who feel they don’t understand the countryside. Conservationists help by saying of course its all wrong but its the CAP so the only thing we can do is hope to tweak it a bit.

    There’s a whole range of problems for both farmers and conservationists. On the conservation side, if there is no clear vision of the alternatives – which should go far further than farming for food as this is about total land use- they simply won’t be on the table, which they aren’t. Farmers shouldn’t accept the assumption the money will always be there – there are rumours elements in Treasury would be ready to drop some CAP expenditure even though it would mean losing EU co-funding – the one thing that has up to now protected farm spending. If farmers were doing well (which some currently are) it would be one thing – but the whole countryside, whether it’s birds or dairy farmers incomes, are being squeezed by a ‘cheap food’ mythology that leaves far too many farmers, particularly the more traditional farmers who are potentially the best guardians the countryside has, impoverished or out of business – did you note David Cameron’s resistance to the cap on maximum CAP payouts because it would limit consolidation ? (ie bigger & bigger agri-businesses).

  6. I am surprised you have not mentioned the fact that ELS has recently been revised as part of the NE’s Making Environmental Stewardship More Effective (MESME) project. From the 1st January 2013 all new ELS agreements will not be able to claim as many points for less effective farmland bird options such as boundary management. The points for the FER have also been reduced. New options for farmland bird options are being introduced including one for supplementary feeding farmland birds and one for ryegrass seed setting.
    I welcome the MESME driven changes but wish that NE had made further changes. Not increasing the pts/ha for wild bird seed mixtures and nectar flower plots from 450 pts/ha to around 650 was an extremely poor decision and fails to recognise the full management costs of these options and makes a mockery of NE’s pretence of basing options points on income foregone.

    Interestingly I ran through a potential ELS renewal with a cereal grower last week, using the revised options. On this particular farm ELS makes little or no financial sense, but the farmer is keen to enter because believes its the right thing to do and because both he and his wife enjoy seeing the hugh number of tree sparrows and yellowhammers that frequent his wild bird seed mix plots most winters.

    1. Joe W – thanks very much for your comment. Yes MESME makes ELS more effective (less ineffective) but it doesn’t make it very effective, or even effective enough. Like you, I wish that MESME had gone much further.

  7. Repetition breeds credibility Mark so please avoid repeating uncritically the “70% of farmland is covered by ES schemes” nonsense peddled by Defra (under both parties). The 70% refers to the total area of agricultural land on farms that have entered an ES scheme. This does not mean all that land has an ES option on it, because ELS is a whole farm agreement. You could have a 500ha farm with only hedgerow options under ELS and all of that 500ha would count towards the percentage of farmland metric. Thankfully Defra has now dropped this ridiculous metric from the indicator set.

    ELS is poor value for money by any account, so it is absurd that SoS Paterson is holding it up to the rest of the EU as a paragon for delivering greening of Pillar 1 (under the “greening by definition” banner). This only brings pillar 2 schemes into disrepute and increases the chances of their budget being cut across the EU.

    Defra/NE is unable to calculate what benefit ELS provides for biodiversity listed species and habitats (let alone any other threatened or important wildlife) because they never asked farmers to carry out a farm wildlife audit before handing out the money. But some options are providing biodiversity benefit eg for semi-natural grasslands which are being managed extensively under EK2/EK3 OK2/OK3 options. But nobody knows how much of the priority habitat resource is being protected from improvement/cultivation under these options, indeed I have seen examples of farms where the highly paid EK3 option had been placed on worn out ryegrass leys, while semi-natural grassland was being damaged through fertiliser application and had not been entered into ELS. No criticism of the farmer, as he had not been advised of the value of the SN grassland.

    I was involved in MESME (and the previous ESROP) and a number of sensible recommendations were made to Defra as a result of both those reviews. But most of the changes were not adopted, under pressure from the NFU, I understand.

    Now that NE are not allowed to provide policy advice to Defra any more (and whither NE anyway after the triennial review), in effect the influence of NFU et al is even greater than before. This means the conservation NGOs have to step up their pressure on Defra/EC on agricultural policy. Unfortunately with the continuing recession/depression affecting charity income, and with policy work always being the hardest work to fund, if anything the pressure is being reduced just when it needs to increase.

    Buglife is campaigning hard on neonicotinoids though! On that note, is anyone researching the countervailing impact of neonics’ use on the capacity of arable ELS schemes to contribute to helping farmland bird populations recover? And if not why not.

    1. Miles – you are right about the phrasing of 70% – I will try not to err in this way in future. Farms which cover 70% of England’s farmland are signed up to Environmental Stewardship so something good is happening on those farms but not on every scrap of land on those farms. However, the ‘70% of farmland’ figure is very telling isn’t it. The failure of ELS is not because nobody is doing it – most people are doing it! It just doesn’t work very well. So the solution cannot be ‘get more farmers signed up’ it must be ‘get better stuff done on all the farms that are signed up’.

      You and I both heard Owen Patterson telling Wildlife and Countryside link members what a great thing ELS is. I think he may have gone away wondering whether that was true. I’d guess that was why Arik Dondi (from Defra) commented on an earlier blog (28 November). I wonder what Arik and Defra would like to say about the FBI graph now?

      Thank you for your comments on how these schemes work on the ground – you give some interesting examples.

  8. Let me just clarify when I say something is better then nothing. I’ll take a field you can actually go and have a look at Mark,sp you know what I’m saying is true and not just made up. When the EU scrapped the set aside ruling. Many farmers took it and got rid of the set asides, now head for the Worlds End pub at Ecton, turn off the A4500 and head towards Overstone, have a look at the field just after the water tower on the right, where the lanegoes towards Sywell CP. That field had a set aside down two sides, when the rules changed, he chopped down the hedgerow and planted right up to the road, not good.
    Would I expect some accountability for my £150, too right, but thats down to DEFRA like you pointed out, but I expect for my £150 someone other then the farmer to set up the scheme and to monitor it/implement it, I’m sorry but I just don’t think the majority of farmers are up to the task, as someone who is an avid birder, I don’t think I could! The farmer has to much on his plate, work wise, on his farm already.

  9. I agree the ELS is not very good for wildlife.
    However the bit I do not understand is that conservationists want hedges trimmed bi-annually so more berries for birds and I would suggest that almost all if not all ELS farmers do this so why not mention this good part of it.Conservationists made enough fuss about wanting bi-annual hedge trimming.

  10. Mark – is it possible to ask your former colleagues at Hope Farm and friends at Loddington to show their graphs for Specialists and Generalists so they can be compared directly with the national ‘picture’. As well as their financial statements so farmers can see that improving wildlife doesn’t affect their bottom lline.
    I would suggest that before receiving payments the farmer should be given a target eg an increase of yellowhammers from x to y pairs, or a suite of farmland birds/insects etc to increase by eg 10% per annum measured against a current baseline and receive payment retrospectively (or 50% now: 50% on completion)…but that is probably too difficult to achieve and have we got enough suitably qualified monitors/advisers to help them achieve their target.
    As someone with a 1970s farming background I would love to visit Hope Farm one day and see for myself how it all happens; I can almost hear the house sparrows chiruping in the talll dense hedgerows from here

    1. David – yes that split would be interesting. There is some information about the financials on the RSPB and GWCT websites. Start here for RSPB

      Setting individual targets would be great – of course there would be lots of arguments to be had over them and the cost of setting and monitoring them would eat into the money for farmers to do anything. There’s always that balance between administration, action and monitoring. luckily for government the monitoring of the national Farmland Bird index is done as a collaboration between Defra, BTo, RSPB and thousands of people like me who do the work for nothing.

  11. Farmers certainly do not trim hedges biannually around here (N. Cumbria). Berries ran out months ago.
    The main thing about any kind of conservation scheme should be permanence. I totally agree with Douglas when he suggests there is no point in throwing money at farmers for some kind of environmental project when a couple of years later they destroy all of the good work. The only permanent way for conservation action to be taken is for the government to use this half £billion to purchase potentially or actual wildlife rich areas and lease it back to farmers to manage it under a strict conservation weighted plan.
    If this were done correctly then the government would not experience a vast loss of monetary resources as they would still own the land. If done correctly such as at Hope Farm then the government could possibly make a profit from this whole business. And pigs might fly !!

  12. It seems to me that the farming industry should have a strong interest in making this scheme work. Rather than pretending that everything is rosy the NFU should be working hard with Natural England, RSPB and other interested parties to try and address the weaknesses of the scheme. They must be aware that receiving money for nothing is not a situation that can endure indefinitely, particularly in the present economic climate.

    I believe that potentially the scheme can work and Hope Farm provides evidence that this is the case. In order to work it probably needs to remain relatively simple to implement and perhaps what is needed is tuning of the existing scheme rather than complete overhaul. Further adjusting the points allocated for different types of measures to encourage wider adoption of the most effective measures and more stringent policing of schemes to ensure that the measures paid for are appropriate, fully implemented and maintained are two areas to look at I would suggest.

    Although Douglas’ suggestion that stewardship money should be paid to a conservation body rather than to the farmer sounds interesting the two main drawbacks that I would see are (a) I am not sure which conservation body would be able to take on a task of that scale and (b) I am not sure what the incentive would be for farmers to participate if they don’t receive any money (they are after all running businesses and managing their land to encourage wildlife does involve foregoing potential revenue from that land).

    Changing the subject slightly, and a propos Roderick’s comment about Robin Page, I sneaked a peak in Shooting Times last weekend whilst in the supermarket and saw that had an article which was essentially arguing (true to form) that the solution to all conservation problems is to kill predators! He dismissed skylark plots as a gimmick. I have tried writing to Shooting Times in the past but I have the strong impression that they only publish letters agreeing with them.

    1. There’s several reasons why I would want conservations bodies to take the money and do the work. A)They have a track record I can trust B) They seem to get the results and I bet they can probably do it cheaper then £150 per person C)Some areas of the country are devoid of the RSPB (reserves etc) take Northants. Now land isn’t cheap, the local wildlife trust membership is low, so the ability to purchase land is near impossible. So the government gets a farmer, who’s knowledge and time is limited, the government then give my £150 pound to the local trust, in return they and the army of volunteers create the habitats and get money to monitor, repair, replace etc. Do all the requirments to create a “wildlife friendly farm”, sure it’s not the same as reserve or meadow you can walk around but it’s conservation.
      I wonder with the vast bank funds the RSPB can either create their own scheme to offer farmers?

    2. All too familiar with Robin “Goebbels” Page, Jonathan; he’s like a scratched record. I’m amazed that anyone still listens to his pathetic ranting, let alone publishes it! But then, that’s Shooting Times for you.

  13. There is a phrase “It doesn’t matter how big it is, it is what you do with it that counts!” – Now I’m not sure that it was written about Environmental Stewardship, but it certainly applies if we want to talk about the scheme’s benefits. Every farmer has options within the scheme that could fit on their farm and produce worthwhile benefits for farmland birds and other wildlife. So why is it not happening?

    There is no difference in the reward for the farmer that invests time, effort and money into his scheme over the farm that just does the minimum necessary. The monitoring and enforcement simply concentrates on the amount of the option, with little regard for how well it has been done – this is key to delivering benefits. I know that some growers are loathe to “farm” their WB Mixes properly for fear of breaking a rule, so they are not as good as they could / should be.

    Quality is basically fitness for purpose or use, but measuring quality in an Environmental sense is extremely hard. It would not be fair to base the payment on the number of birds using a WB Mix for example as the grower may have done a great job of growing the crop, but his area was just not well populated with birds. I think that Natural England have actually done a pretty good job of formulating a suite of options that could deliver, but I agree with other contributors that they do not give a high enough value to the options that we know deliver the biggest benefits (in general terms). If an option was high value, but had stiffer conditions attached to it, then those growers that were prepared to do a good job would be attracted more readily to it.

    I agree that the benefits of ELS are quite hard to see, but those farms with HLS schemes show what can be achieved by Environmental Stewardship, when it is done in a well-informed, properly funded and sensibly monitored fashion. It sometimes takes time to get the options working wel on an individual farm, with small tweaks to the methodology making a big difference to the outcome. None of it is particularly hard, but it does involve time, engagement from the land owner and following through with correct management. Invest in good advice at the outset and you will be a long way towards a successful outcome.

  14. Mark,

    I agree with you Els is not working and I dread to think how much as been spent on inspections by the Rural Payment Agency and on admin. Regardless of the options or how effective or not they are the whole basis of the scheme was flawed right from the start. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t a perfectly good simple to administer model already out there which was the ESA and Countyside Stewardship models. Unfortunately the advent of the Single Farm Payment scheme with its simple (once the mapping issues were sorted) admin left a vacume after the IACS finished which the inspectors filled with this horribly over burdensome stewardship scheme.

    To give you some examples of this it took as over four months of work to complete out first HLS with farm environment plans, historic plans etc plus a completely seperate environment plan for each land parcel and so on. On 400 hectares or so it ran to over 600 pages ! Recently we had an Els inspection (just checking where your cash went !) which took five days. Every hedge was measured and so on. Total madness really went an extension to cross compliance would have cost admin wise almost nothing to administer.

    The latest review by NE on the scheme is also in my opinion a wasted opportunity. Yet again the goalposts have been moved too far which like it or not means that more land comes out of crop production to gain points. The admin burden plus the commodity price now is I think going to badly damage uptake as is the uncertainly over Cap reform and the 7% greening issues. NE have badly got the timing wrong.

    My last point is this NFU issue. At the risk of upsetting some of my fellow farmers the NGO,s and NE just haven’t got it on this. Farming has changed out of all recognition in the past two decade in that the important stakeholders have changed. A practically based consultation with those stackholders who were going to deliver the scheme on the ground would have transformed the delivery and results. I could get twenty land managers in a room who between them would account for by far the largest block of production in the Eastern Region and they would all tell you the same thing.

    I’m grateful that at least we had something stewardship wise and and grateful for the financial support to deliver what we have had (so thank you Mark and the other taxpayers). I’m frustrated we couldn’t have done more for you.

  15. Mark,a question?,are some of your readers and Hope Farm followers being misled into thinking that all farms could be like Hope Farm because Hope farm is a profitable going concern.
    Now I agree they do a remarkable job proving that Hope Farm(reserve)gives farmers good ideas(if they would take them up)but saying it is a representative modern farm and all farms could be like this and be really profitable seems to me stretching the imagination.
    Seems to me over a period of a decade(ignoring the last year which must be the best one for over half a century)the RSPBs share of profit from Hope Farm is less than £100 per acre which on commercially run farm would not pay the mortgage and result in bankruptcy.
    If my interpretation of profit is wrong then the correct interpretation would be appreciated.

  16. ELS ? Appears not to be working!

    It would be interesting to plot (on the graph above) the RSPB annual membership numbers and income for each year – add it all up and see what the Members got for their money on their ‘Balance Sheet’ – and ask if the RSPB didn’t exist what would the position be?

    Looks like the RSPB is sadly having very little effect. Surely!

    Perhaps it should drop projects such as the Henderson Petrel?

    Time to re-focus – both sides!

    Just a thought – like.

    1. This rspb member is very satisfied with the value had over the last 38 years, from species saved to destinations to go birding created. The rspb has held its end up with many species of conservation concern saved from extinction in Uk. The farming community has not done as well as the graphs show. Sounds to me that you are making an argument to put rspb in charge of els. That’s one privatisation of government services I would strongly support. It’s probably the only way to improve our farmland bird populations.

    2. Trimbush – it would be interesting to plot the increase in bitterns, stone curlew, avocets, marsh harrier, corncrake, red kites and cirl buntings on a graph, indeed.

  17. Dennis

    In 2011 the return to the Landowner was around £157 per acre. There is no area listed on the accounts but if you divide the single farm payment by the flat rate for England it is possible to approximate the acreage.

    Given the drought in 2011 that level of return is maybe some £20 to £30 per acre below what might be expected but to be fair the payment to the contractor is set at quite a high level. I suspect this is to compensate the contractor from any losses which might be expected in what is in effect not a purely commercial farm. That seems fair.

    There are no management costs in the accounts for conservation projects but to be realistic in any contract farming agreement the landowner has an unpaid role in managing is interests.

    Frankly it’s not that far adrift from mainstream farming.

  18. Jonathan – very interesting about Robin – you see why I was so surprised about the very good CRT position.

    And, on Trimbush’s comments, I’ve pointed out before the stark contrast between species targeted by conservation – for birds, especially by RSPB – and the ‘wider countryside’ . Targeted species have generally done remarkably well – any RSPB member can see what they’ve got for their money in Bitterns, Marsh harriers, ospreys, even Corncrakes and Cirl Buntings. A very, very sharp contrast to the wider countryside and the half hearted Government schemes like ELS.

    The refocus that is needed is to ask why if we can do it for one range of species we shouldn’t do it for the others, too.

  19. The graphic at the top of the post shows a rapid decline in specialists from ~1977 whereas the generalists remain more or less constant. I think this indicates good grounds for treating them as separate populations – in the statistical sense – as the combined trend line hides a clear divergence.

    The rapid decline in specialists coincides with the rise and rise of winter cropping, mostly of oilseed rape and winter barley, in the intervention years of CAP before the McSharry reforms. This happened with the development of low erucic acid – low glucosinolate OSR, and the development of Igri winter barley by Ackerman – a high yielding short-strawed 2-row variety which kicked spring barleys into touch as far as yield was concerned. The net effect was a very rapid swing away from spring crops, which allowed overwintering stubbles. Winter cropping invokes lots of pre- and early post-emergence herbicide use – ie applied to soil, with residual activity.

    Apart from an up-tick in 1990-1991 – a bit of an arable downturn (?) – nothing else seems to have affected the trends. In the absence of any upturn in total numbers one might regard all the schemes as ineffective and what is needed is to correct the cause of the decline instead of tinkering. Why don’t we know the cause? It’s like polishing the lino without dysoning the shag-pile, and wondering why there’s still dust everywhere.

    For the most part, I don’t begrudge genuine farmers what they receive in subsidies. For thousands of small farmers, especially in the uplands, it’s the income support which keep them afloat despite their loss-making from farming. If we just called it farm income support and had done, we could dispense with all the angst and hand-wringing of managing our own expectations. If we didn’t give it to the farmers the government would just waste it on something else [please insert pet rant here]. At least our farmers are providing us with 60% of our food.

    1. “If we just called it farm income support and had done, we could dispense with all the angst and hand-wringing of managing our own expectations”.

      That’s a fair comment. Many people overlook the fact that SPS helps farmers to compete in the global food commodity market whilst meeting exacting European standards.
      I’m not arguing that the CAP is perfect, far from it. There is a great deal of room for improvement, but its not as bad as some people would have you believe. Having the lowland arable and intensive livestock sector operating without public support, may have some bleak environmental repercussions. Take the Nitrates Directive as an example, although there is still much room for improvement, the way farmers use fertilisers and utilise manures has improved markedly over the last 10 years, but particularly during the last 3-4 years. A lot of this improvement is market driven e.g. rising fert prices, tighter margins, but most of it can be attributed to farmers wanting to avoid costly SPS penalties, certainly in the part of the NW that I work in. Although the NVZ reg’s are statute in law, I don’t know of any instances when the EA/DEFRA have succesfully taken legal action in an attempt to enforce the regulations. If we relied soley on the law to enforce legislation such as NVZ’s, Groundwater Reg’s etc the taxpayer just could end up with a huge legal bill, some even wealthier lawyers and little improvement on the ground.

      1. “lowland arable and intensive livestock sector operating without public support, may have some bleak environmental repercussions”

        Spot on. Conservation measures get a much better reception when agricultural markets are depressed. Our farmers struggle with UK input costs producing food at world prices. Stoke up the prices and they are likely to follow the money.

        EA have always professed to adopt a “light touch” with regard to NVZ rule infractions and let farmers know that their reaction to first breaches would be proportional and invoke only warnings – plus notification of the non-compliance to the RPA. The last tranche of NVZ increases in 2008 put many more farmers at risk of SPS non-compliance.

        So they keep all the records like they should, and stick to the slurry closed periods – but apart from that, NVZ compliance is happening against a background of falling total fertiliser use for two decades and falling ruminant numbers. Any improvement in the diffuse pollution by nitrate situation is more down to market forces, not the regulations. The restrictions on nitrogen application rates aren’t all that tough.

        1. “Any improvement in the diffuse pollution by nitrate situation is more down to market forces, not the regulations”

          I think this perhaps varies in different parts of the Country. I have always found the arable farmers in the south and east to be much more enlightened with fertiliser policy than their intensive grassland counterparts in the north and west. I can only relate what I have observed in the intensive grassland areas of the NW.
          You are right that the 2008 NVZ Action Programme put more farms at risk of non-compliance, especially the rules regarding the livestock manure N farm limit, the requirement for N planning, 5 months slurry storage, the prohibition of high trajectory slurry spreading techniques and the requirement for all high manures with high N availability to be incorporated within 24 hrs when applied to bare soils or stubble. Most farmers now have 5 months slurry storage, having previously only had anywhere between 3 weeks to 3.5 months.

          The days of the EA ‘light touch’ that you accurately describe are set to end, as the RPA have become responsible for NVZ inspection outside of WFD problem catchments.

          Since 2009, I been retained by around 15 or so new clients, in order to advise them on NVZ compliance and nutrient management, all of them intensive dairy farms. So I’ve been in a good position to observe the changes that have occurred.
          Interestingly, the farms where I have noticed the most significant improvements, are the more intensive farms who exceeded the 170 kg/ha farm limit and have applied for the ‘Grassland Derogation’ (which Natural England is opposed to). It’s hard to believe but some of these farms had never previously undertaken any soil analysis, other than some ad hoc sampling for pH. In some instances the fertiliser policy had changed very little since the visit from the man from ICI in the 70’s.
          These farms now have full analysis for entire farm, which in most cases have exposed some severe imbalances in P & K indices. Very high P & K (far too many 5’s) on those fields closest to the farm and on pasture fields and very low indices on the outlying and silage land. They have a full nutrient plan drawn up at the start of each year, manures are regularly sampled and are targeting on the land that needs the nutrients most, as well as avoiding the unnecessary use of compound fertilisers to grazing, DAP on maize etc. SNS/SMN is now being accounted for and the practice of plastering grass leys with FYM and slurry before reseeding in autumn has ended (well mostly, some bad habits die hard!). They all have now have 5-6 months storage, some have installed seperators. None of them now use high trajectory slurry spreading equipment, and are mostly used trailing shoe spreaders, helping to reduce ammonia emmissions and localised ammonia deposition.

          Although these businesses have had to invest large sums into necessary infrastructure and equipment, they are all generally quite glad that they have, as they are now seeing the benefits. Most admit that they wouldn’t have done this without the threat of regulation. Over time the market would have forced them down this route, but perhaps not for another decade or so.

          1. “Most admit that they wouldn’t have done this without the threat of regulation”

            The threat was there from 1991 – they ignored it until recently when the prospect of RPA sanctions and loss of SPS money loomed via XC. NRA (remember them?) / EA were always wimpy about prosecuting anything but gross slurry spills, because their budgets couldn’t take the hit from any legal costs against them, so maybe the RPA’s dogs will have sharper teeth.

            Nutrient management planning by intensive dairy farms is a Good Thing. You are right about the NW/SE divide. It has been pointed out that dairy farmers have more decisions to make every day before breakfast than an arable farmer makes in a month – so arable farmers just have more time :-). Intensive dairy farms have underestimated or ignored how much hidden NPK they imported in bought-in feeds, and the effect of this and its uneven distribution around the farm. The savings on wasteful fertiliser purchase are a slow but welcome offset to the huge costs of new infrastructure.

            Regarding the Grassland Manure-N Derogation – it was supposed to be a transitional arrangement while herds were downsized to fit the landholding or alternative spreading land was found. Intensive dairy farmers shouldn’t rely on it lasting indefinitely. It’s up for review every 4 years and Brussels may lose patience eventually and insist that we use the number they first thought of.

  20. Julian,very suspicious when my comment said the last decade ignoring the last year and you then quote a year that seems approximately 40% better than previous decade.The acreage is stated as 450.

  21. There’s a question I’d like to ask the farmers – I’ve wondered for a long time whether oilseed rape may have had a much bigger impact on the value of stubble because as I understand it the tiny seed size meant combines had to be made much less ‘leaky’ than when harvesting much bigger wheat and barley grains. Do you think it’s a cause for far less spilt grain ?

  22. Roderick

    No ! Is the simple answer to that but it’s an imaginative theory !

    Modern combines are really very little changed from their distant ancestors which first arrived from the prairies. Obviously they are vastly bigger with electronics which control everything from steering to speed and grain loss from the back of the machine. Loses of grain are balanced with output and a certain amount of loss is acceptable and might run at 1-2%. In some circumstances with say hard to thrash ears or green straw losses can be much higher but of course the grain germinates fairly quickly hence the green lines you see in stubble sometimes. Actually there is very little food value on stubble fields by this time of year but going back to the age of steam thrashing in a stack yard the stooks of grain would have been left out in the field far longer.

    Hope that helps but interestingly from my view point it just shows how farming practicalities are such a mystery to most people these days in an age of specialisation. I’d imagine that forestry would be an equal mystery to me.

  23. “Most admit that they wouldn’t have done this without the threat of regulation”

    This was poorly phrased, I meant without the threat of SPS penalties. You are correct about the EA’s wimpy approach, in the main they seem to spend a lot of time bothering extensively farmed dog and stick outfits whilst ignoring those farms that blatently flout the rules.

    The NRA were a bit before my time, although circa 1990, whilst fishing on the local pond, I did once have to hide in a blackthorn thicket in order to avoid the attentions of a rather over-officious NRA bailiff…my rod licence had expired.

    Regarding the Grassland Manure-N Derogation, I suspect you may be right, although I gather that several other EU countries (Holland, Denmark, Germany, Ireland) are already quite far down the line regarding the Derogation and are now on the 2nd or 3rd renewal ? I may be wrong.
    I hope that they do not decide to do away with the derogation, in a way this would penalise those farms who have held their hands up and tried to deal with the problem. There are far too many farms who should have applied and instead are reliant on dubious manure export figures and ‘paper acres’ to feign compliance.

  24. “in the main they seem to spend a lot of time bothering extensively farmed dog and stick outfits”

    Thus flying in the face of risk-based selection for inspection. Soft tappers!

    England & Wales are now on 2nd period of derogation. I have the document which mentioned it as a transitional arrangement. In my language that means temporary, but I can’t get too worked up about it as the limits are arbitrary, anyway.

    There ought to be an agri-environment blog where we could chew fat endlessly. But there isn’t.

Comments are closed.