Guest blog – ELS/HLS madness by Andrew Carter

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.


32 Replies to “Guest blog – ELS/HLS madness by Andrew Carter”

  1. This is not the fault of ‘bureaucrats’ but the result of a deliberate policy of slashing public spending over the last 20 years or longer. It’s not just nature that’s suffering it’s everything from roads and hospitals to schools and the residents of tower blocks in Kensington… Do you really think Gove and friends give a toss about birds?! What they really want is to stay in power long enough to dismantle the apparatus of government, eliminate all forms of tax for the elite, lower wages to the point where everyone is desperate to do anything to survive while they own all our public services and charge us whatever they think they can get away with for them. As for your farm, they’d be more than happy to drive you out of business so they can buy it cheaply for themselves! If you love nature and believe in rational subsidies for worthwhile causes then it’s important to think very carefully about who you vote for.

    1. They may be crass and incompetent, but they are not quite as calculatedly evil as you seem to think.

      There is a general political problem in that no party thinks it is possible to have too many people, or that having too many people is the basis of our environmental problems.

      Farming lies at the heart of that conundrum.

  2. Very well written and clearly stated. It is indeed madness, and makes no sense on any level. There needs to be continuity from one scheme to the next. Years of agri-environment investment in wildlife will be lost. So is there any hope of a change of rules? Is anyone or NGO trying to improve this?

  3. Andrew, thank you for this blog and all your conservation work. Yes, to rip it all up would be heartbreaking.
    You’ve probably already thought this: Is your NE adviser really up to speed? Can you not apply higher up the chain for this vital conversion grant? Someone with authority from NE needs to get off their bum and see what is about to be lost on your farm.

  4. ‘The Beast from the East’ just killed 1000s of sheep here. One farm alone lost 350 and you are worried about 11 months of none payment! As I write a big chunk of snow has sat for over a month out of my window. In many local valleys this snow will slowly go and dead sheep will finally be found. In most cases sheep have been reduced from the mad years when 2500 alone were found in my valley. Now 6000 acres has non but 125 cattle and lots of Roe Deer!

    Like a previous comment. It is presumed most farmers voted to leave Brexit.
    What a mess we are in!

    1. This comment makes no sense John. It’s a bit like telling someone not to worry about their broken arm because someone else has suffered a broken leg. Farmers who lost sheep to the ‘beast from the east’ are undoubtedly in a shitty position as a result but that does not have any bearing on whether or not the situation with environmental subsidies that Andrew describes represents not just a threat to his income but more importantly – from the point of view of this blog – a serious threat to habitat for birds and other wildlife, especially if we assume that Andrew’s case is replicated on many other farms with existing HLS agreements.

      The situation Andrew describes does seem to be madness and hopefully Murray is right that by going higher up the chain of authority a sensible solution to this problem can be found.

  5. This is complete madness. Worst, it comes at a time when conservation of species, especially wild flowers and insect pollinators,is in the news almost daily. One despairs at the forked tongue with which our authorities speak.
    What can us mortals do?

  6. I hope you have made an appointment with your local MP to discuss this predicament. I think government ministers often have a very poor understanding of the way changes in policy are implemented. It’s supposed to be the Civil Service’s responsibility to fine tune procedures but we already know that DEFRA has been shorn of many experienced staff so it really needs our political representatives to shake things up.

  7. Have you looked at the new CS offers which run for 5 years. Not as many options as higher level but enough to keep stewardship ticking over on your farm until we see what brexit has to offer. Much easier to apply and no upper limit.

  8. Creating unnecessary breaks in agrischeme continuity does seem entirely counter productive. However, cash in the schemes is under extreme pressure and a follow on scheme is not guaranteed to be granted.

    Just remember that the UK pays less per Ha agricultural land for agrienv schemes than any other EU country and when the UK government had the opportunity to bump the funds up to 15% the NFU were delighted to successfully lead a campaign against Owen Paterson’s proposal –

  9. Well I’ll go t’foot of our stairs. What a surprise, nay shock, to hear that govts (and Goves) will talk the talk without walking the walk.

  10. Perhaps Michael Gove and his 25 Year Environment Plan is going to address this? Was it July last year the words flowed, since then so too a lot of ‘water’? Yes, they (Government) will be judged in the distant future (2022) but the majority of the public are and will still be paddling against the tide of impact of cuts to services that directly affect them and reduced income etc.

    Usual suspect NGOs, have demonstrated support for (B)DGS so we at grass roots with high profile champions like Avery, Packham, Dyer et. al. carry on regardless as it is difficult for the establishment to silence or manage community critical mass who now benefit from social media. Look at the impact RPUK research and reporting has had. Long may they continue to expose the reality of moorland mis-management for the benefit of the few? Never has it been more necessary for a reality check on public benefit from public funding?

    Statutory conservation advisers went from being ‘Muzzled Watchdogs’ (1997) to the current ‘lap-dogs’ and one has to ask if it would be kinder to put them out of their misery? NNRs excepted what else would be missed? Yes, I’m sure there are many good people, but look at where we are with cases like this? Does this represent good science or value for money?

    The public needs to better understand where their food comes from? But who should educate them? Farm to fork, conservation NGOs ….

    Rant over, thank you Andrew for your post. The more people speak out the better chance we have to reform ….

  11. “… Mr Gove saying …”

    Never in the field of Popularity Contests has so much been promised by so few to so many at so little cost

  12. More senseless tinkering by our government methinks. Come on Mr gove do the job you are being handsomely paid for.

  13. The role , of well run, low ground shooting estates ( following advice from the GWCT, amongst
    others), will become increasingly important in the years to come.

  14. No point you going to the NFU about a farming problem (and a wildlife friendly farming problem at that), they are all too busy helping the government fight a culture war against the poor and the environmental charities to care about farming; and especially not wildlife friendly farming. You get the representation you deserve.

  15. Andrew, I truly sympathise with your dilemma. I know your beliefs so what a heart rending cross to bear. And as for them that run the country. I despair!

  16. Thank you Andrew. I kindly suggest you also send your excellent blog to your local Councillors, local Press and MP. It is a case which needs fighting…

  17. I have to disagree. In my lifetime, born in 1952, UK population has grown by about 25%. Environmental damage is way worse than that. It is irresponsible economic growth, not population growth that is the problem.

    Before anyone misunderstands, I would like to see a stop to population growth, and a slow decline.

    To go back to the topic of the article, it is heartbreaking that this sort of crass indifference to the future should go on. We have people who vote for governments who cut their taxes, and look after their own interests.

  18. I’m sorry to hear the predicament you’re in. However, I’m always sceptical when I read a phrase like ‘no other choice’. We’re often led to believe that we can choose either A or B, but there’s a whole other alphabet of choices out there. I’m not a farmer, I’m a business woman, and this is how I see it: if I was dependent on a subsidy to run my business and that subsidy was withdrawn, I’d start thinking creatively about how to raise the difference by alternative means. For example, you have lots of wildlife on your 88 acres – people like me would love to see it. One option would be to allow paying visitors to come and see the wildlife. I’m sure a couple of hides wouldn’t cost much. Here’s another suggestion: try getting a higher price for the food you’re producing on the other 600 acres on your farm. Or grow a more profitable crop (there’s a great demand for bird food nowadays). Or offer tractor rides, or rent out a barn to a local business, or run farm tours, and so on and so on. My business depends on my creativity, not public funds, to keep it afloat. I’m sure that people reading this will come up with lots of “Yes, but”s for all my suggestions, but the point is this: you do have choices other than ripping out the natural areas on your farm, and I hope for the sake of the wildlife that lives there, in fact all our sakes, that you understand there are other options.

    1. I certainly hope that before he rips up the natural areas on his farm, Andrew will consider what other options are open to him, Andrea, and for all you or I know he may already have done so. With respect, some of your ‘creative’ ideas are a little bit glib but to be fair it is Andrew’s job not yours to find creative ways to keep his business running profitably whilst maintaining the wildlife whose presence he clearly values. But irrespective of what Andrew ultimately decides to do or not do we have to accept that if agri-environment schemes are effective in promoting wildlife friendly farming – and at least with HLS this seems to be the case – then their abrupt termination/interruption is likely to have adverse consequences for wildlife up and down the country. If the government’s intention is to stem the decline of wildlife and to use agri-environment payments as one of the tools to do so, this situation makes no sense.

      1. Hi Jonathan, I agree with you that if the government intends to protect wildlife then Andrew’s situation makes no sense. My reaction was to his solution which is to rip out the nature. He suggests that he only makes a profit because of HLS, and without it his farm will be unprofitable. If he can’t make a profit farming 600 acres the way he currently does, it’s very unlikely an extra 80 acres is going to make much difference to his income. British wildlife has endured decades of marginalisation and removing the wild areas shouldn’t even be considered as an option, let alone the only choice.

        1. “If he can’t make a profit farming 600 acres the way he currently does, it’s very unlikely an extra 80 acres is going to make much difference to his income”.

          It seems quite likely to me that the return he makes from more than 10% of his overall holding will have a significant impact on his bottom line – a manufacturing business that had 10% of its factory space capable of only a low output would soon act to change that (probably by axing jobs) or face going out of business. If they were told that it was for the public good that that 10% should be kept in low output they would expect to be compensated for that. I absolutely agree with you that the marginalisation of wildlife in the British countryside (and elsewhere in Europe as recent reports have demonstrated) is a catastrophe and we urgently need to implement measures to reverse it but we have to recognize that there are substantial costs involved in this. If we do not have agri-environment subsidies we cannot expect farmers to bear the costs of protecting wildlife themselves. And by “we cannot expect” I am not talking about moral expectations about what people should or shouldn’t do but simply predicting pragmatically what they will do in the real world. If skylarks and cowslips don’t pay, then on many farms (whatever Andrew ultimately decides to do on his) they will be pushed out the way (where this has not already happened) and it seems to me that the only realistic way of making them pay is through payments from the public purse for public goods.

          1. Hi.
            I’m a farmer from East Anglia who faced a similar situation to Andrew. We were very fortunate in getting a conversion agreement because of a specific wildlife conservation issue. Had we not, I would have faced just the same dilemma as Andrew.

            Andrea, a lot of your suggestions seem over simplistic. I’ve tried lots of them. Bird hides (along with car parking and other access facilities) are not cheap – we spent c.£6,00 on a small one c.20 years ago. The opportunities for significant income from this are very limited. There may also be issues of what the landlord will permit and the proportion of the income they’d like. Growing bird food may very well be no more profitable than more common crops. Farmers tend to grow the crops our weather and soils suit – to move outside this is a risk. We’ve grown millet for the bird food market and find it is our lowest gross margin crop, and, if October is wet, then it can become unharvestable (so the cost of all the inputs has been paid, but there’s nothing to sell, just some income from the Basic Payments Scheme). And, ask for more for my crops? – I imagine my customers would soon be looking elsewhere.

            We’ve had a better financial year, something our farm needed as a business. Had we lost 11 months of Stewardship funding, this would have been a severe blow and turned a good year into another marginal one. Stewardship is not a highly profitable endeavour, but, in my opinion, in some situations it allows farmers who are highly enthusiastic about wildlife conservation to do work they want to do but could not afford to without funding from Stewardship. In some ways, the keenest farmers are going to make the most out of their agreements and are more likely to ‘go the extra mile’.

            It appears Andrew has some cracking habitats but I can really believe what he says about the impact of loss of 11 months funding and the threat that puts those habitats under. I suspect this situation has arisen because of a balls up, not a plot. It’s really down to DEFRA to decide how much they want to put into bridging this funding gap. there may be farms that they/NE don’t want in the new Countryside Stewardship. However, farms with very good conservation records that they want inn CSS long-term should have to face a huge penalty in order to retain much needed, quality habitats.

  19. Mark
    This is an area in great flux. Andy Roberts has a good solution and meanwhile, don’t wait for NFU or anyone else, feed in to the govt’s green paper on this very matter before 8 May
    Andrew has slightly mixed his wording – agri-envir payments are not subsidy to his ‘bottom line’ income but support payments for costs foregone in undertaking the works. This is where it gets really complex. Any future schemes will have to sidestep WTO rules to ensure that agric payments can pay farmers a profit for providing public goods. An area on which Gove is probably scratching his head.

    The holy grail is getting farmers and land managers to do stuff without having to be paid for all of it – click on some fascinating studies in this piece as to how it can be done
    ps off course there are some land managers with an interest in shooting who may undertake habitat improvement without public funding…but that is another matter on which wrote a guest blog for Mark way back in 2013

  20. I agree with Andrew that this is a ridiculous situation (why have we got into this brexit situation if there is no money to play with?) and I sympathise but I agree with Rob Yorke about responding to the Govnt consultation. Anyone who cares should take the trouble to read it and respond. Also everyone should write to their MPs and copy them in on your response.

  21. Tenant farmers are limited by their landlords about the diversification activities that they can initiate. Inviting ‘the paying public’ onto the farm is something that would not be countenanced.

  22. Thanks Mark, for including a farmer’s story – conservationists need to listen to farmers like this one, as well as the farmers they come across/hear about that seem to be working at odds with conservation priorities.

    1. Jamie – thank you.

      I would be keen to post further similarly interesting accounts from farmers. If you know of any then feel free to point them in this direction.

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