Patrick Wrixon is set to use herbal leys and break crops on his Herefordshire farm to prepare for the end of direct farm subsidies, and also help improve his soil’s health and his farm’s resilience.
He was an early pioneer of environmental work and is now preparing a more expansive scheme, included these two new elements, to dovetail into the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes to be rolled out from 2024.
Mr Wrixon is looking to enter a new Countryside Stewardship mid-tier plan worth up to £30,000 a year for his 200ha farm in the Wye Valley to prepare for the disappearance of area-based subsidies under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), which pays him annually £40,000-£45,000.
The switch in support is creating an upsurge in interest in environmental schemes to prepare for a future “public money for public good” farm policy, but there are plenty of doubts over how certain this new money will be.
“There is real potential for optimism, but I do have reservations over whether the government really cares about British farming,” Mr Wrixon, a former NFU county chairman, tells Farmers Weekly.
See also: Free app to help growers with cropping for ELM scheme
Even if future financial environmental support does match BPS levels, there will be extra hidden costs in terms of management time, taking land out of production and the additional costs for seed and drilling, he points out.
Therefore, new ELM schemes will have to be generous enough to replace BPS and take into account these costs, but on the positive side Mr Wrixon stresses that the new policy is likely to make his farm more resilient for the future.
For him, it makes perfect sense to be in a wide-ranging environmental scheme, incorporating herbal leys and break crops, and then switch from Countryside Stewardship into ELM as direct subsidy payments are tapered away.
BPS payments will be gradually reduced, with the first cuts made this year, then halved by 2024, the last payment made for 2017, and then phased out completely by 2028. ELM schemes will replace BPS and Countryside Stewardship funding and their rollout is planned for 2024-27.
Therefore, Mr Wrixon is planning a new scheme in preparation for these big moves in farm support on his mixed family farm at Devereux Wooton, Norton Canon, nearly 10 miles north-west of Hereford, where he has 130ha of arable cropping and 70ha of grassland on his deep silty loam soils.
Soil health harmed
He is determined to make these schemes work as they help soil health, improve crop rotations and make his whole farming business more resilient, whereas many believe that BPS may have harmed soil health in the past.
“We were early to step into the stewardship mould with one hand on heart and one hand on wallet,” he says.
This enthusiasm developed into a five-year Countryside Stewardship scheme starting in 2017 and ending this year, including 6m flowering field margins, hedges cut every other year, 10ha of wild bird mix and 5ha of pollen-rich mix, along with cover crops and supplementary farm bird feeding.
Now the aim is to expand this scheme for the next five years (2022-26) in order to make a smooth transition into a full-blown ELM scheme.
“We are trying to make it work as it benefits soil health, crop rotations and the makes the business more resilient,” he says.
Break crops and leys
Two key elements for the new scheme to boost its value up to £30,000 from the previous one at about £20,000 will be, first a break crop in the arable rotation and second, herbal leys to provide good grazing along with benefits for soil health and insect pollinators.
The break crop will be a two-year sown legume fallow, which is designated AB15 under Countryside Stewardship and pays £522/ha/year. This must not be grazed or silaged, but allows the land to build up fertility.
Neil Harris, western technical adviser for King’s – the cover crop and wildflower seed business of agronomy group Frontier – says because the crop can be cut at least twice in the first 12 months this can be used to tackle troublesome grassweeds.
“This land under AB15 cannot be grazed, but it is proving popular for blackgrass control as the cutting prevents blackgrass heading,” he says.
Mr Harris points out these schemes are useful for the hidden areas of the farm that were probably not profitable without BPS, and so it makes sense to farm these areas through stewardship.
The second element is legume- and herb-rich swards, designated GS4, and paying £309/ha/year. These can include grasses such as ryegrass and cocksfoot, and legumes such as red and white clover, as well as plantain and chicory.
Lee Ward, local agronomist at Frontier, says these have a lot of positive benefits for grazing livestock, as chicory – as well as sainfoin and trefoil – have anthelmintic properties encouraging livestock to expel parasitic worms.
“These leys are high in protein and with their anthelmintic properties can act as natural wormers, and both sheep and cattle do well on them,” he says.
Mr Wrixon’s arable land is contracted out and the grassland used by a sheep grazier, so he will need to work with both on the new scheme.
The scheme will take some arable land out of production, while the herb-rich swards, with no nitrogen able to be applied, will see a lack of early season grass for the grazier.
“With BPS disappearing we have to deal with it and recognise the financial hit, but these new schemes will make the farm more resilient,” he says.
Applications for the five-year scheme starting in 2022 need to be submitted by 30 July. He hopes to finish his application this spring but will probably not know whether he is successful until October.
Countryside Stewardship schemes
Not competitive so anyone can take up the offer. Includes such elements as nectar flower mix (AB1) at £511/ha/year and wild bird food (AB9) at £640/ha/year. Experts say such schemes can bring in a payment of between £3,500 and £5,000 a year for 100ha, giving a reasonable income for taking less-fertile land out of production.
Competitive schemes and includes such elements as a two-year sown legume fallow (AB15), which pays £522/ha/year, and also legume- and herb-rich swards (GS4) which pay £309/ha/year.
Competitive and for land requiring complex management, such as sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) and salt marshes.