Exploring the true value of environmental stewardship

Jake Fiennes at the Raveningham Estate. Picture: James Bass

Jake Fiennes at the Raveningham Estate. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2015

Environmental schemes can punch their weight financially and should be treated as one of the most profitable crops in a commercial farming operation.

That was one of the messages from an event which discussed the importance of managing wildlife within farmed landscapes – as well as celebrating some of Norfolk's best examples.

The annual members' evening for Norfolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) included a keynote address by Jake Fiennes of the Raveningham Estate near Beccles.

Although a passion for protecting the countryside was a great motivation for the farmers attending, he said conservation could also be justified in monetary terms to widen its appeal.

He said the payments from environmental stewardship schemes were about 'gross margins, not grass margins' – particularly when compared with arable crops which are suffering from depressed commodity prices.

He calculated the gross margin for winter wheat at £444 per hectare, compared to £515 for a floristically-enhanced 6m grass margin. Meanwhile, winter rape's gross margin of £435 per hectare was eclipsed by £778 for a two-year crop of enhanced wild bird cover.

Mr Fiennes said: 'Agri-environment is your most profitable crop, but do you look after it?

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'I want to enhance the environment and because it is my most profitable crop I treat it as I should.

'When I drive around the countryside it is depressing to see the low level of effort going into such a profitable crop. We want a landscape that is rich in diversity, producing high-value crops, and on the periphery we want floristically-enhanced field margins and conservation headlands.

'That is what we want, and we want it at a landscape level.'

Mr Fiennes said Raveningham had been in environmental stewardship for 16 years, encouraging wildlife such as partridges, brown hares, birds of prey, lapwings, butterflies and a multitude of insects alongside the estate's commercial operations.

'It is a farming system that financially stacks up,' he said. 'It delivers employment and it delivers environmental benefits across each habitat that I oversee.

'You will only deliver diversity if you are committed to the job in hand.

'But we can still produce viable crops, as well as a vibrant environment for future generations.'

Stewardship under scrutiny

Farmers think the country's new agri-environment scheme is too complex and would fail to reward their efforts, according to an industry survey.

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) launched its survey after Natural England confirmed it only received 2,314 mid-tier applications for its new Countryside Stewardship scheme.

The survey found that although 93pc of respondents were aware of the scheme, issues with scheme design, guidance and the application process had deterred applications. Other findings include payments being too low considering the criteria and the associated risks, with 48pc saying that joining the scheme would not be worthwhile for their business.

NFU vice president Guy Smith said: 'The new scheme is simply just too complex for many. The key issues have included last-minute guidance changes and decisions on critical matters such as dual use, poorly-drafted guidance and options, burdensome record keeping requirements and a narrow application window during the busiest time in the farming calendar.

'The key priority now must be to make the new scheme more accessible than it is currently, particularly for mid-tier applicants.'

A spokesman for Natural England said: 'We have received 2,314 applications for the first year of this scheme and are pleased with both the number and quality.

'We have worked closely with stakeholders to make as much guidance available as soon as possible to help with the application process.'