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Last week I received a letter from Natural England.
As some of you maybe aware we were refused Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) when our Countryside Stewardship agreement ended almost two years ago; this despite the fact the farm, a county wildlife site, heaves with wildlife.
Briefly, for those of you new to my blog, I was not a happy bunny and set about trying to find out the reason why we’d been refused. It may appear trivial to some but an HLS agreement is gold dust on marginal lands. Locks Park never has, and never will be, a profitable cereal/intensive livestock farm; our cold waterlogged inhospitable clay soils sees to that. What Locks Park is able to do is generate a profusion of nature, support a herd of native, indigenous Red Ruby Devon cattle, a flock of Whiteface Dartmoor sheep and produce superb beef and lamb. It is also used to train and teach people a variety of different management skills for those interested in farming – or those who advise farmers, with the environment, wildlife and a quality product in mind.
Bristling with indignation, I bristled even more when I found there was an astonishing pot of money available for HLS agreements and yet there were a large number of smaller farms up and down the country in a similar situation to us. Why? An administrative cock up! It was easier to award those huge highly productive estates and pension fund farms an additional sugar-sweet honey pot rather than work at putting the money where it was most needed (and would be best used for the environmental benefits for which it was intended), to those thousands of marginal family farms trying to eke a out a living and all too willing to do their bit for the environment.
I made a noise. We reapplied. We were turned down again. Flabbergasted I tackled Helen Phillips, Natural England’s Chief Executive. The mountain quivered; a small hot stream of lava erupted. I thought we’d blown our bridges. We held our breath. Specialists were sent in to re-evaluate our farm a couple of months ago…
…And last week I received a letter from Natural England.
For those of you not quite sure what it’s actually saying (I wasn’t) – here’s the punch line.
Yes, yes yes! It looks as if we’ve got it! Bang on the floor! Whistle, clap! Open a bottle, jump up and down! Hoorah!
Could this be the cracking of the nut for other farms like ourselves? I most sincerely hope so.
Whilst Robert was hobnobbing with royalty at the Royal Show last week I had one important thing I needed to do.
I wanted to lobby someone, anyone on the Natural England board of directors about the lack of Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements being granted to small and medium sized farms. So bumping into a board member I’d had contact with several years ago gave me the perfect opportunity. Though no sooner had I started to speak she announced that she was not the person I should be talking to and firmly introduced me to Natural England’s chief executive, Helen Phillips.
Well, you can’t get better than that. Now it was up to me to make a strong, cogent case for fellow farmers up and down the country. As luck would have it she was having a heated discussion with the head of policies from the NFU on this very subject before my interruption. I had no idea at the time. Serendipitous.
I was blanked…. My nerves quivered. But no, I thought, this is vitally important, get a grip and get on! So I did. And she listened. And took notice. We agreed to keep in touch. Below is an excerpt of my recent correspondence to her…
From grass roots level this is how things appear. When HLS was first floated the take up was, I believe, mainly by farms that had no previous history of environmental schemes. These first payments were often substantial and included restorations of barns and the like. Then those whose Countryside Stewardship agreements were coming to an end applied, encouraged initially by your staff. You can imagine their surprise, disappointment and frustration when few were successful. It seems that only those applications with SSSIs or many habitats, footpaths, etc were successful. Hundreds of small to medium-sized farms like ours have been left in the lurch, while the large estates often owned by pension companies or similar have been granted agreements – with very large holdings it is, of course, much easier form them to accumulate the necessary points.
The impact on those many, many farms across the country which have not been successful (or indeed have been discouraged from applying), has been significant. They have adjusted their farming systems to meet the needs of their Countryside Stewardship agreements, often with much enthusiasm, only to find themselves high and dry and without a much needed source of income. Many have really delivered the wildlife and other goods that you are seeking. Some are now going into the red and having to resort to commercial farming of the land. Given the good budget settlement from Europe and the Treasury this rejection is hard to swallow. Meanwhile, the large estates and pension funds are benefiting, but will they show the commitment to the environment that us family farms will? I doubt it!
If it helps, I can explain what has happened on our farm. We had a Countryside Stewardship agreement for some 16 years, covering nearly half our land, but when we re-applied a year ago were unsuccessful because we did not score enough points. This despite much of the land being designated a County Wildlife Site, having a magnificent flower-rich meadow, supporting good numbers of dormice, barn owls, snipe, tree pipits, marsh tits, etc, and being crossed by a public footpath. What galled was the fact we were told ‘we were just not good enough’! Please come and see for yourself. I’d like to show you…
So all you farmers out there in the same situation as us – take heart if you can; speak to the various organisations concerned, keep on pushing and perhaps those elusive agreements will be forthcoming…