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Could this springtime sea of yellow flowers become a thing of the past?

PUBLISHED: 11:57 30 April 2020 | UPDATED: 11:57 30 April 2020

A oilseed rape field in full flower near Sculthorpe in Norfolk. Picture: Ian Burt

A oilseed rape field in full flower near Sculthorpe in Norfolk. Picture: Ian Burt

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The characteristic crop which turns Norfolk fields into a sea of yellow each spring could be under threat in future without a “joined-up approach” to protect its viability, said farming leaders.

Diss Monitor Farm manager Richard Ling in a field of oilseed rape at Rookery Farm in Wortham, near Diss. Picture: Liz Bishop Photography.Diss Monitor Farm manager Richard Ling in a field of oilseed rape at Rookery Farm in Wortham, near Diss. Picture: Liz Bishop Photography.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is seeking urgent discussions with the government about the future of oilseed rape (OSR), a valuable East Anglian crop which is a key ingredient for products including rapeseed oil, biodiesel, mayonnaise and salad dressings.

It is also an important break crop in farmers’ arable rotations, helping to increase organic matter in soils while providing a key source of food for pollinators.

But it is under increasing pressure from pests following the EU’s ban on neonicotinoid seed treatments, due to concerns over the controversial chemicals’ impact on the heath of bees.

The NFU says the ban has left some growers unable to control cabbage stem flea beetles, which are decimating oilseed rape crops across the country. It is calling for Defra to work with industry on the urgent development of an effective alternative to neonicotinoids, and to provide support for growers until this is achieved.

A oilseed rape field in full flower near Sculthorpe in Norfolk. Picture: Ian BurtA oilseed rape field in full flower near Sculthorpe in Norfolk. Picture: Ian Burt

READ MORE: Lessons learned from farm experiment which solved pest problem – but ruined oilseed rape crop

NFU combinable crops board chairman Matt Culley said: “The country is going through an incredibly turbulent time at the moment and British farmers are doing all they can to get on with the day job and keeping shelves and fridges full.

“But I’m hearing from oilseed rape growers across the country that the risk of losing the crop is becoming too great, and many plan to stop planting it at all.

“Without government support, we could see domestic production dry up which would leave us with no choice but to import these products from other countries – countries which may still be using the very neonics which are banned here.

“A more joined-up approach from Defra and the farming industry is needed if we are to find a way to protect the future of OSR, and more specifically, to protect it from cabbage stem flea beetle.

“In his first address as prime minister, Boris Johnson highlighted that the government would support and encourage the development of new plant breeding techniques, which would be a significant step forward for farmers in building resilience into their crops.

“Farmers need to know that short term financial support will be available to mitigate the risks of growing OSR, but it is absolutely crucial that a long term, sustainable solution is found as quickly as possible and the government needs to put as much resource as can be spared into finding it.”

Richard Ling, of Rookery Farm at Wortham, near Diss has decided to keep growing oilseed rape despite losing a 15ha field to beetle damage last year.

“It didn’t stand a chance,” he said. “When it came up it got eaten as quickly as it was growing. That came down to moisture levels as well as the flea beetles – I had some OSR drilled on August 10 which was fine, while this 15ha field drilled seven days later was lost.

“But I am going to stick with it, and we have moved to a more robust integrated pest management strategy.

READ MORE: Farmers warned that badly-timed chemical sprays could kill young crops

“As an industry we are at a pivotal crossroads with pesticides, with some of them not working any more because there is such high resistance building up to most of what is left available to us. As growers we need to make sure we are not wiping out beneficial insects. We need to be very careful and a lot more targeted if we are going to use insecticide, so we are only using it in extreme circumstances, and not as an insurance policy.

“We are already importing large volumes [of oilseed rape] into this country, but I don’t know if we will lose it altogether. Even in Essex which was hit really hard, there are a handful of growers who have started growing it again and have had no problem since. There is no rhyme or reason to it. Just because an area is bad one year it does not mean it will be bad the following year.”


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