Andrew Carter is a farmer in South Wilts with a pedigree Aberdeen-Angus herd which is making use of both chalk downland and meadows in the Hampshire Avon valley – much within the current Higher Level Stewardship scheme. He practices conventional arable farming, but with a high quantity of environmental balancing. A lifelong interest in natural history, especially birds, has led to a long-term involvement in ringing waders on the south coast and an annual trip to the Treshnish Isles to count, record and ring seabirds, as well as a period as BTO regional representative for South Wiltshire. More recently he has taken to trapping moths.
Farmers live and breathe with nature. Many may not take much note of the specifics but most are none the less aware of what goes on around them and indeed are keen to receive information about what is on their land. Some, like myself go way beyond the casual interest, and enjoy forays into the natural world – in my case that of birds and moths.
This interest in the natural world has resulted in me joining the various environmental schemes that have come long over the past 30 plus years – whether the Avon Valley ESA, the (old) Countryside Stewardship, then Entry Level Scheme (ELS) and Higher Level Scheme (HLS), and now we have on offer the new Countryside Stewardship.
But here comes the part with the sting in the tail.
I am a tenant farmer in South Wiltshire, farming some 680 acres which is currently split into about 300 of grass, 300 of cereal and the rest into stewardship plots and margins. I have been engaged in as much conservation work with birds on and off the farm as time permits.
As mentioned above, I am in the ELS and HLS with a substantial part of my tenancy, having converted from the old Countryside Stewardship, and the old Avon Valley ESA before that. But the problem that now becomes apparent, is that my agreement ends on 31st Jan 2019. I asked a year ago what to do and was informed that I must wait and apply next year, 2018.
However I now find I cannot start an agreement for the new Countryside Stewardship until 1 January 2020 – in fact, as I have not asked for the relevant application pack this means I have even missed that start and as a result may have to wait intil 1 February 2021. There is supposed to be a conversion available from HLS to CS – but my NE adviser has told me that this is apparently is not being used, and so that option is not available – no explanation is being offered. As no conversion is being offered, I therefore received no communication from NE advising me of deadlines. I have therefore hit the proverbial brick wall.
The loss of my environmental subsidies for that 11 months would probably wipe out the profit I make on the farm. I therefore would have no other option but to rip up 68 acres of downland arable reversion, 20 acres of arable margins etc etc. and remove miles of fencing and farm these areas intensively, I hardly need to say that to do this will involve a considerable cost. I count my contribution to the various schemes to be a success, balancing intensive farming with the environmental needs of the countryside. This is pure heart rending in its implication. Then in either one year or two start again – although in reality being the wrong side of 60 to find the time and effort will be tough.
As a result the lapwing, the corn buntings and the grey partridge that we have regained, and now breed, plus numerous skylarks, will lose their territories. The nice crop of cowslips would go together with all the other flowering plants brought in by the special brushed harvested seed used, and of course with those go the insects making use of the flowers. In the Avon valley where I farm 100 acres of old water meadows these will no longer be wetted up for birds as I will need to graze more heavily and so need dryer conditions and use my topper earlier in the season for the same reason.
Where on earth is the sense in this? I just despair of the bureaucratic crassness within which we are forced to live and operate. I know I am not alone in being caught out like this. Not just farmers like me who have tried hard to act in an environmentally friendly way, but many nature reserves are also going to be caught out in this way at a time of severe financial hardship.
I have contacted the NFU and feed back from there is that funds are severely limited for the new higher tier. All of which makes it sound like the usual political lip service and pandering to the sound bite. So I, and many others who have managed land with the environment in mind are now going to suffer. This at a time when we have a government minister in Mr Gove saying how environmental subsidies for farms is the way forward. It makes absolutely no sense.
I hope that this blog, for which I thank Mark for allowing me to write, will add to the voice of discontent and help to apply any pressure to Parliament or Natural England so that those and others like me who have gone beyond the norm, can be offered a straight follow on and conversion into Countryside Stewardship. Nature cannot endure a gap – and once something goes it takes time to replace, if at all.