Norfolk farm highlights ecological benefits funded by Countryside Stewardship scheme
As the government simplifies its much-criticised Countryside Stewardship scheme to encourage more farmers to create wildlife-friendly features on their land, CHRIS HILL visited a Norfolk farm which has already made a success of the scheme.
The ecological benefits of work funded by Countryside Stewardship (CS) payments has been showcased at a Norfolk farm during an event aimed at “future-proofing” agricultural businesses.
When it was first introduced the CS scheme, which rewards farmers for creating environmental features on their land, was criticised for its complexity and bureaucracy – prompting the government to simplify it this week, so it can attract more applicants and meet its goal of boosting farmland wildlife.
But, despite initial delays, one business which has already made a success of the scheme is the MacGregor Farming Partnership at Mill Farm in Great Witchingham.
It hosted one of a series of farm walks and workshops run by the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE), in partnership with Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF), and delivered by Norfolk FWAG, the county’s farming and wildlife advisory group.
The 1,000-acre farm has been completely organic for 15 years and in stewardship for 20 years, but is now in the first year of management under the Mid Tier of Countryside Stewardship.
It makes extensive use of flower-rich margins to feed pollinators and birds, and cover crops to protect soil and retain nutrients. Three new ponds have been dug out to encourage amphibious and aquatic life.
Capital projects funded include a new track-way, fencing and re-concreting of the yard to reduce the risk of pollution into the Blackwater tributary of the protected River Wensum.
And cultivated strips have been left unsown on field edges, allowing rare arable weeds, which require annual disturbance of the soil, to emerge.
Farm owner Duncan MacGregor said: “Because the farm has been organic for quite a long time, some quite nice things have come up. It is like Christmas. You never know what’s going to be there.
“It is a particularly good spot for poppies and cornflower, and there are tonnes of what people would class as the boring weeds, but these are the beneficial ones that are feeding the birds and insects earlier in the year, like shepherd’s purse and scarlet pimpernel.”
Despite the successes, Mr MacGregor said there were some early frustrations with the CS scheme.
“It is a new scheme and we were meant to be told we were in it in January, but we weren’t told we were successful until June,” he said. “It means we lost six months of time to bring some of these things to fruition.
“The saddest thing is we were really excited about having put the plan together. It is a whole farm plan, seeing where our strengths and weaknesses were and introducing the things that were lacking.
“As a scheme it is fantastic, but it was a very complicated process and very time-consuming – not something you would enter into without full commitment. Some of the criticism has been about a level of accountability, but I think it if you are being asked to do something, it is not unreasonable to have to show you have done it.”
Mr MacGregor said the digging of three new ponds, on a farm which already had 13, allowed his team to find different management techniques which suited different environments and wildlife.
“We need to be careful we are not making everything the same,” he said. “It is the same with the flower-rich margins. It is very easy for the whole country to have the same mix of flowers, with no regional difference for soil type or aspect. It is important we don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Another CS option demonstrated to visitors was “in-field grass strips” – offering payments for fields above water-courses to be planted with clover and grass to mitigate the risk of run-off and erosion.
Norfolk FWAG adviser Henry Walker, who worked with the farm on its CS application, said: “When you put a little margin around a field at risk of erosion you are putting a sticking plaster on a severed artery. But with fields of open ley you get much more chance of allowing the soil to act as a sponge, rather than it ending up in our water systems.”
He added: “Here, we have embraced the Mid Tier scheme as fully as possible, and we really did get the most out of what was available to us.”