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Conservation Crops

“The most surprising thing is that I get every bit as much pleasure from growing crops for the environment as I do my cash crops." - Farm Manager, Richard Ward

Home Farm in Barton-on-the-Heath comprises a variety of arable crops, a small shoot and a deer breeding and rearing enterprise. Farm manager, Richard Ward has worked with Kings technical advisor, Neil Harris, since 2016 following his ambition to do more to safeguard the environment on the farm. Initially, however, he was unsure of the mechanics of Countryside Stewardship and what it could offer him.

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“Having successfully put the farm into Entry Level Stewardship for ten years, without actually needing to do too much to qualify, I was somewhat sceptical about applying for the Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship scheme,” explains Richard.

Marred with complicated administration, the application process was often considered difficult and led to many farmers feeling hesitant about applying.

Richard continues, “The paperwork involved looked extensive, let alone learning and coming to terms with the options and rules. I simply couldn’t face the prospect of it all in terms of time or enthusiasm.”

Indentifying opportunities with Countryside Stewardship

Aware of Richard’s environmental aspirations, his Frontier grain buyer put him in touch with Neil Harris to learn more about Countryside Stewardship and get a better idea of the support available.

“When I met with Neil, it took him less than five minutes to convince me that we should make an application. He was extremely knowledgeable and had significant experience from his time working at Natural England,” says Richard.

As Neil explored the farm, he mapped the relevant features and identified the opportunities to incorporate stewardship options. It wasn’t long before a substantial application began to form.

Richard recalls how simple the process was: “It became obvious that we should stop trying to farm several different areas and fields where it was rarely possible to make a profit. Having identified exactly where these problematic areas were, Neil suggested a variety of options to consider and then filled in the forms and maps for us. All I had to do was sign them!”

Following acceptance and a considerable amount of planning, unproductive headlands on heavy soil were eventually taken out of production and replaced with flower rich margins. In addition, large blocks of wild bird mix were positioned on poorer field areas. Here, they benefit the shoot along with a supplementary winter feeding option. Since their incorporation, the population of small wild birds has increased significantly.

Legume and herb rich swards were also sited on fields with black-grass issues. These now provide all the winter forage for the deer enterprise, forgoing the need to shut-up expensive deer-fenced areas to provide the haylage to do so. As a result, this has increased the breeding herd by 50%.

Furthermore, the extensive network of farm hedges was entered into a management option and some old pastures adjacent to a watercourse were incorporated into a ‘low input’ option too.

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“We are incredibly proud of how the farm looks now,” explains Richard. “Those that walk the many footpaths and tracks throughout our land often comment on how wonderful it looks. It really is beautiful and is of course fantastic for wildlife and the surrounding environment.”

Now, unprofitable areas of the farm have been transformed into something that makes both commercial and environmental sense, all while looking incredibly picturesque.

Talking about the experience with Richard, Neil says, “Richard’s hesitance towards Countryside Stewardship is not uncommon – the administrative troubles that some have experienced have plagued the scheme somewhat. However, with a scheme as good as this, you shouldn’t let that put you off, especially with Kings on hand to offer support.

“Furthermore, with changes on the horizon for our agri-environment schemes, Countryside Stewardship is the ideal opportunity to perfect how you deliver your stewardship options. Taking part now is a great way to get ahead, gain experience and stand yourself in good stead to benefit from the new payment regimes of the future. Richard is a fantastic example of someone who is now well prepared, with Countryside Stewardship a positive and worthwhile addition to his farm.”

Having seen such great results, Richard’s enthusiasm for the scheme and the benefits it brings are greater than ever. As well as protecting and enhancing the farmed environment, the scheme makes good business sense as it delivers for the farm enterprise too.

Richard concludes, “I am utterly convinced that without Neil’s help, we would not have achieved the maximum benefit from the scheme nor would we have been awarded it by Natural England. I have learnt an awful lot during the process too. During Neil’s visits, he has pointed out so many plants that I knew very little (if anything!) about before this project.

The most surprising thing though is that I get every bit as much pleasure from growing crops for the environment as I do my cash crops. For someone initially quite cynical about the scheme, I think that certainly says a lot."

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