Sustainable Farming - where is the incentive?
Every year I look forward to Spring, the return of the evocative call of the curlew to our small hamlet of farms is the light at the end of the dark tunnel of winter and gives me hope that at least we’re doing something right if they are returning here again to breed and feed their young. Despite residing in this locality for the vast majority of my life, every year I discover something new. This year was the very first time I’ve ever seen a Lapwing landing in the middle of the road as I approached. Usually they dance in spectacular displays of flight at either side, beyond the tall, A-shaped hedgerows that surround the adjoining farmland, but never before have they come to land on the tarmac before me.
Here in the Yorkshire Ings the farming is very much ‘mixed’ with a variety of soils laid down by retreating glaciers and their melt water so we find everything from fields of vegetables growing on the lighter, sandy soils to pasture & woodland on the ‘heavier’ clays, interspersed with meadows, mires and arable crops. This variation is in large part why we have retained a rich diversity of birdlife with many species benefiting from the combination of trees and hedgerows for shelter in close proximity to arable crops and damp meadows for feeding. However, while trees and hedgerows may provide vital habitat for some species, others, such as our ground nesting birds, require open spaces in which to nest and feed, well away from the predators which use the hedgerows both as cover and vantage points. That is what made our Lapwing in the road so unusual - the fact that it had landed in the enclosed space between the tall hedges.
Wading birds are creatures of habit, once they find suitable habitat they tend to return to the same place again. With long lived species like our curlews living up to 30 years and the lapwings up to 20 we will see many of the same birds year after year. One of my favourite places to see nesting lapwings each spring is not far off the beaten track, in fact it’s right next to a main road amid arable farmland. The field is hedgeless giving ideal views of the lapwings as you drive along and, being slightly raised above the level of the surrounding land, the birds have good views of any approaching predators. While perfect for the lapwings, the field is an odd shape so the bit where the birds nest has been left by the farmer for the lapwings.
This year, however, the land has changed hands and it turns out that I, like the birds, will have to find a new nest site to visit. The crop is now a quick growing ryegrass for silage and extends across the whole of the field, up to the roadside. By the time the first chicks would have hatched the field, like so many around the countryside, had already been harvested. Providing the land is neither cultivated nor sprayed during the nesting period, arable land can provide good nesting habitat for lapwing. All the better if there are some damp, insect rich grassland nearby to feed the growing chicks, but silage is a particularly damaging crop for ground nesting birds.
In 2005 English Nature (the former name of Natural England) published the paper The importance of livestock grazing for wildlife conservation, which detailed the concerns over the changes to farm support at the time which took away production subsidies and replaced them with simplified land area payments. This move meant that farmers no longer needed to produce anything from the land to receive the payment, which was made available simply to own agricultural land. It was anticipated that this would result in reduced grazing of biodiverse grasslands and the subsequent gradual decline of grassland biodiversity. Here in the Yorkshire Ings this was particularly relevant as, through a combination of statutory protection and mixed farming, we had retained a large extent and a wide a variety of wildlife rich farmed habitats in the landscape.
The loss of grazing from these lands is, in many ways, as tragic as the widespread ploughing of ancient grasslands in the 1940’s or the accelerated period of ‘improvement’ of grasslands with herbicides and drainage in the 1970’s, but it fails to gain as much attention. Perhaps this is because the land continues to be farmed mechanically and/or is left/abandoned/rewilded (or however you prefer to describe it - essentially it is ‘un-farmed’), from the outside the change looks benign for nature, or even positive. The changes that occur on and under the ground, however, are significant with the range of plants and diversity of plant life changing right before us. The insects change too as wildflowers are outcompeted by more competitive (wind pollinated) grasses, reducing food for pollinators which in turn further reduces the wildflowers ability to thrive. On & beneath the soil surface too the insects that recycle decaying matter, from earthworms to dung beetles, are bereft of their food sources, declining in numbers we hardly notice until the food chain above them - the birds - start disappearing.
We got into conservation grazing having started with no land of our own we were able to benefit from the general decline in cattle grazing locally by taking on small parcels of land that had started to lose both biodiversity and agricultural productivity due to lack of management. Such land parcels were easy to obtain as there is little competition for small and overgrown parcels of land from arable farmers and the rough nature makes them a lot of hard work for amenity use. The problem for us was that, after just a handful of seasons grazing by our Dexter cattle their grassland value began to return so the owners, generally, want to take them back in hand again and any long term land tenure is thus hard to find.
This is the boom & bust cycle of meadow management - as rank growth is controlled by sympathetic management meadow diversity flourishes and the land is subject to far greater competition from conventional farming, especially in years when conventional crops are struggling due to drought or high fertiliser prices. However as soon as the more intensive management takes over, the meadow starts to decline once again and they lose some of their biodiversity and resilience. Eventually we will be back at the start once again, and all that time and effort has been wasted for the sake of a few extra pounds in someone’s pocket.
At the same time the decline in farming generally and mixed farming in particular has lead to many old fashioned farmsteads being sold for conversion to housing - as sad as I view this I ultimately think it is good that the historical brick buildings are being preserved and used where they would otherwise just crumble and disappear entirely (as many have done). The trouble is that much of the existing cattle farming infrastructure is associated with these traditional buildings and, quite understandably, new residents do not want to live in the middle of a farm yard or share their drive with an ancient droveway. This has resulted in a general disassociation of many traditional meadows from the farming that helps to maintain them.
As a farmer I am more interested in working out solutions rather than dwelling upon the problems, so what interested me most about the livestock grazing paper was what we were supposed to be doing about it. The concluding pages gave me some insight into how English Nature were proposing to respond to this;
What they actually did and how hard they looked I am not at all sure as we are, today, facing exactly the same problems as in 2005, only with grazing infrastructure that is 17 years older. At Rosewood we have invested in improvements to our own infrastructure to make it possible to continue conservation grazing and we’ve invested time and money in making the most of the environmental credentials of our product in the marketplace but despite years of talking about and discussing the problems, Natural England could update the 2005 paper now to cover the current DEFRA plans to remove the area payments entirely and they would only add the continued decline of grazing and grasslands to date. Little to no progress has been made over almost two decades of ‘working hard’.
With a tagline like ‘Food as a by-product of conservation’ you’d be forgiven for thinking that we might get paid for carrying out conservation work at Rosewood Farm however, we don’t. While food production is not our primary reason for managing the land the way we do, beef remains our main source of income so it is vital to maintain the supply of it if we are to continue grazing the land in this way. I’m pleased to say that the public response to this has been amazing over the last few years with growing interest in food that gives back to nature. Unfortunately the profitability of conservation grazing remains low because of the inefficient way the land we graze is being managed.
When we talk of ‘efficiency’ in farming it may conjure up images of removing hedgerows and using bigger machinery to manage the land while rearing the livestock indoors, but you can’t do that if you want to maintain grazing so instead we concentrate on breeding animals that are better suited to their environment and reducing the cost of managing them to build resilience and profitability into the system. Despite years of working on the ground planning the grazing and suggesting low/no cost ways of making improvements to the sites to make the grazing more profitable for us and more sustainable for the environment (e.g moving gateway access points to improve the efficiency and safety of both livestock & vehicle movements) the infrastructure, along with the mindset, remains stuck in the 1970’s.
One of the most costly aspects of conservation grazing is the amount of fuel we use transporting animals, hay and equipment around the countryside. Like any logistical operation we are aiming to move machinery and animals as efficiently as possible. However with the disassociation of many meadows from their farms this can result in journeys of several miles on the public roads (with all of it’s environmental impact) to travel a distance of a few hundred yards. By far the most environmentally and efficient way to move grazing animals is by walking them over land, which may involve weeks of planning to ensure that animals can move with the minimum of stress and disturbance to wildlife but is no more environmentally taxing than the opening of a few gates.
Traditionally grazing livestock would have been supplied with water from the many ditches and ponds which covered the landscape. After a century of agricultural chemicals finding their way onto the land the water courses can no longer be relied upon for safe drinking water so we now bring in portable water supplies by road that follow the cows around the meadows. On many sites a water supply will be provided by the landowner but for Natural England it remains the responsibility of the tenant to provide water. After the initial land acquisitions for the formation of the National Nature Reserve this made sense as the land was then leased back to the original owner. The meadows are now let on an annual basis with no guarantees that a grazing site will be available to you from one year to the next so there is no longer any incentive for a tenant to invest private funds in any infrastructure, no matter how much financial & environmental sense it makes in the long term.
The first Saturday of July each year is National Meadows Day, an annual celebration of Britain’s traditional wildflower meadows that takes place across the country. For thousands of years farmers have been gradually mowing their meadows by hand, with gangs of men working across the fields with scythes; working at walking pace it gave any remaining wildlife a chance to flee the steady progress of the blades. The whole community was involved in bringing in the annual hay crop so it would have been impossible to mow all the fields at same time which left a patchwork of different growth states across the fields which enabled wildlife to thrive. This is something we have tried to imitate by a combination of using managed grazing and small machinery to promote heterogeneity in the landscape.
Our SSSI hay meadows are now protected by law from being mown too early, until most birds have ledged but, perversely, the rapid mowing of large areas is also actively encouraged after thie 1st July. With the decline in the number of farmers managing the remaining meadows and the penalties for not removing the crop quickly, the tractors have become larger & faster and the mowing width has increased considerably. You may remember our experiences of trialing Corncrake Friendly Farming back in 2017, mowing carefully to help give the birds a chance of escaping our blades. I’m sorry to say that this wasn’t adopted more widely and the meadows today will be ringing to the sound of high speed tractors with gangs of multiple 3 metre mowers transforming vast swathes of wildflower meadow to hayfield in a matter of minutes. The earlier cuts do at least ensure that there will be plenty of grass for aftermath grazing but without any incentive to graze the aftermaths tenants are encouraged to take a second cut instead, despite a stated need to graze this remains a paper-only declaration.
It’s difficult to begin to comprehend why simple measures such as improving the infrastructure for graziers to manage animals on the ground are not top priority. There seems to be a fundamental blindspot about the reasons behind this decline in grazing. With grazing licenses starting in July and running through to the end of October there is a huge chunk of the year, 8 months, when the grazier must subsidise the cost of keeping animals alive and healthy so they are available in sufficient numbers for the brief summer season. While the licenses put the onus on the tenant to bear all of the responsibility for not damaging the land this encourages a very light-touch approach with few, if any, animals grazing the Ings adding to both undergrazing and compaction of our most precious grassland habitats with large machinery.
An added issue for us, as contract grazers, is that while the landowner can apply for additional funding for grazing sites with cattle, the perceived lack of graziers enables funding to be paid out even where sites receive little or no grazing. Penalties are issued for grazing after a certain date so there is little wonder that land managers will choose the more cautious option of doing nothing. With animals to feed no matter what, we do not have that luxury & our position remains vulnerable to the whims of disinterested land managers.
A year ago Rosewood Farm was invited to take part in the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) pilot, the first of three ambitious new schemes to deliver public goods payments under the umbrella of Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS). The scheme’s stated aim is “to support farmers to become more sustainable and to increase long-term food productivity”. I was excited to receive the details and get started as it promised to be simple and straightforward so I remained hopeful that it might bridge the gap created by the SSSI rules.
Although our grazing sites are spread over a wide area in East & North Yorkshire, we could only claim SFI on the 80 acres that forms Rosewood Farm itself. This is a bit of a blow to rewarding the ‘public goods’ we provide as most of our ‘goods’ are delivered out on third party land. Still, that is no different to the current state of affairs as we are only able to claim any form of subsidy on land that we own. Under BPS we do received a flat rate payment for every acre, the difference now is that you can only receive payment for any acres entered into the specific standards of the scheme.
The first step was to generate a map of all the historical and archaeological features on our land (a ‘Historic Environment Farm Environment Record’ (HEFER)), which I duly did. The farm is split into two blocks of land of almost 40 acres each, several miles apart. This is the only land that we can graze over winter during the ‘off’ season (8 months) for SSSI Ings. Of those almost 80 acres of grassland, 5% lies with a SSSI and faces the same grazing restrictions as the rest of the Ings land. A further 20% is on the edge of the floodplain of the River Derwent so can only be grazed in the drier months when ground conditions allow. What the SFI historic assessment identified was that 50% of our land was classified as medieval ridge and furrow which, if entered into the grassland standard for SFI, would mean that it would face similar restrictions to our conservation grazing. This would have left us with just 25% of our own land to support all the cattle over winter.
I considered the possibility of renting some more land to cover the winter period before realising that the few hundred pounds I could potentially claim from SFI each year would not even make this possible. And if it had been practical, renting a farm that could support the cattle throughout the year would give us little incentive to continue with conservation grazing at all. This is exactly the position that every other farmer faces and a big part of the reason why so few undertake conservation grazing.
While I’m confident that the people at DEFRA who are tasked with delivering SFI are genuinely interested in delivering a system that benefits farming and nature, I do not believe they have been given the tools to achieve that. This year we were invited to apply again for the SFI scheme proper, except with the low and no input grassland standard not being available until 2024 and the hedgerows standard in 2023 it remains to be seen whether improvements have been made that will address these concerns. In the meantime we must tow the line and try to steer a way through the mire of contradictory statements and contracts to survive for another year or two.
My hope and vision for the future would be a landscape and environmental policy that recognises that you cannot break down the task of sustainably managing the land and our wildlife by handing out contracts to the highest (or lowest!) bidder. Farmers cannot run their businesses like widget factories, scaling up or shutting down animals on an annual basis to suit the erratic decisions made by government appointed land agents who could barely find the meadows on a map, never mind manage the complex relationships of land and weather from one season to the next.
I believe that DEFRA should be aiming to integrate what Natural England are already doing under SSSI legislation and Countryside Stewardship, rather than trying to emulate it. What is required in the English countryside is the means to make a living from sustainable farming without trashing the environment rather than compensation for when it falls short. The compounding effects of rules intended to protect our landscape is making it impossible to farm at all. I suggest that the direction ELMS should take is a carefully planned whole farm approach for each & every applicant, taking into account that if you choose to remove livestock from one area for a period of time to protect the land they do not simply disappear until such time as you need them again.
Conservation grazing remains a very low profit enterprise not because people are failing to demand the product but because costs are made to spiral as a direct result of the unworkable expectations placed upon the few remaining graziers. Our needs are very simple, our desires are rather basic, all we ask is for the ability to survive through from one year to the next. Get the basics right and we will thrive alongside the wildlife that has always flourished here in these most beautiful of wetlands.