Autumn is well and truly upon us. Dark nights, high winds and waders arriving on our shores from further north, filling our estuaries with haunting calls.
I spent October feeding back the results of this spring’s breeding wader survey to farmers. Overall pair numbers were slightly up on 2018. Fledged chick numbers were down, although this probably doesn’t reflect the true situation on the ground, as the late arrival of chicks this year meant that it was very hard to accurately count them in the increasingly long vegetation.
Working with farmers is very much a two way process and I spend as much time listening to the farmer’s experience and their concerns as hopefully they spend listening to my advice about land management.
Along with them, I feel increasingly frustrated at the flaws in our current system of farming subsidies.
There are two types of subsidy that affect the farmers in my scheme. The Basic Payment Scheme, which pays farmers to actively use the land for agriculture and the various Countryside Stewardship Schemes, which pay farmers to manage the land for the benefit of wildlife.
But these two schemes often conflict, creating a minefield of unwieldy rules and a system where the government gives money for wildlife management with one hand but takes it away by penalising farmers for doing just that with the other.
This month I am trying to encourage farmers to manage the rills and scrapes on their land. Features which are a traditional part of wet grassland and vital for our breeding waders, in that they hold water for a couple of months of the year, allowing wader chicks to find food in the soft ground.
Lapwing chicks need areas of wet soft mud in which to feed.
Many of the rills on farmland were filled in during the past or have become too shallow to hold water during the spring months. Deepening them a little would allow them to hold water during the time when waders need them most.
The farmers have been great. Happy to agree to this work, partly because keeping the land wet in the spring is a vital part of their Countryside Stewardship Agreements. If they fail to do this they could be slapped with a hefty fine by the Rural Payments Agency, who oversees the grant system.
More wet rills in spring mean more waders breeding but farmers are being penalised for creating them.
However, the same agency are penalising farmers for undertaking the very management that is expected of them. Farmers are being told that holding water in rills during the spring makes those areas of land ineligible for the Basic Payment Scheme and therefore they will receive less money.
The whole system is dogged by a lack of clarity. The RPA’s own rules claim that, “Flooded agricultural land is still eligible for BPS if the flooding is temporary and the land would otherwise still be available for agricultural activity.”
How then can they justify removing payment from farmers who have temporarily wet features on their land that are available for grazing for the majority of the year?
This lack of clarity, coupled with late payments and a lack of a human face to the organisation is directly resulting in less farmers signing up to Countryside Stewardship Schemes at a time when we really need farmers to get behind wildlife friendly management.
How can we ask farmers to do more for wildlife when they will lose money by doing so? Good will between conservationists and farmers is a fragile thing and has taken years to build up but our Government Agencies are threatening to destroy all the hard work that has been put in.
Our farm payment system is a mess, lacking clarity and common sense and until it is fixed then our wildlife will continue to suffer.