Farmers to be paid for protecting countryside

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Once they were strictly food producers. But from today England's farmers are officially something more: guardians of the countryside.

Once they were strictly food producers. But from today England's farmers are officially something more: guardians of the countryside.

Their new role was signalled yesterday by the Government in the biggest shift in the way in which agriculture is funded for more than 30 years. In future all farmers will be eligible for annual payments for environmental protection and enhance- ment work on their land.

They will be able to add thousands of pounds to their income, from a range of work that includes looking after hedgerows to providing habitat for birds and small mammals, creating wildflower plots for bees and other beneficial insects, or protecting ponds from pesticides and fertilisers, to encouraging wildlife such as frogs and newts.

Although there have been two sets of environmentally friendly farming schemes in the past, only about 12 per cent of English farmers have taken part, because the schemes were highly restricted, either to specific geographical areas or to a limited budget.

The point about the new scheme, called Environmental Stewardship and launched yesterday by the Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, is that it is open to every farmer, and every farmer will be encouraged to take part.

It marks the climax of an enormous shift in the way in which agriculture has long been funded under the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In the past, farmers' subsidies were directly linked to production - the more wheat and beef they produced, the more they earned. But this system led both to wasteful over-production and immense damage to the natural environment. Britain has lost about 40 per cent of its farmland birds because of intensive farming in the past three decades, thousands of miles of hedges and much wildlife-rich landscape.

Two years ago, EU member states reformed the CAP and agreed to break the link between production and subsidy; now farmers are paid a single payment based merely on the area they farm, not on how much livestock they have or how much cereal they harvest.

To get this they have to observe a certain number of minimum environmental standards. But now they can top up their income substantially with further Environmental Stewardship payments.

The scheme was welcomed by the National Farmers' Union, which strongly urged its members to take part. "Environmental stewardship is at the core of our businesses," said the union's deputy president, Peter Kendall. "We hope the system will help maintain and deliver the kind of British countryside the public demands."

The scheme is a key component of the Government's strategy for sustainable farming and food. It was recommended two years ago by the commission set up under Sir Don Curry to look at the future of farming after the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001.

Sir Don said yesterday that it represented "a fundamental step in farmers committing themselves to sound environmental management".

Mrs Beckett said the launch marked "a real red-letter day for English farming".

BRINGING BACK WILDLIFE

Adbury farm near Burghclere in Berkshire is in beautiful countryside, within sight of Watership Down, where Richard Adams' rabbit heroes played out their epic - in fact, in the novel the rabbits crossed the farm to get to the Down - and it is appropriately rich in wildlife, with no fewer than four species of deer.

The farm manager, Peter Clarke, is already in a wildlife-friendly farming scheme under which he leaves stubbles unploughed to encourage ground-nesting birds, has unploughed margins around his cereal fields and plants seed-bearing crops for insects and birds. Lapwings are breeding on the farm and there is a healthy population of skylarks.

Under the new scheme he could plant more pollen- and nectar-rich plants to encourage butterflies and bees, and sow other areas with plants bearing seeds for wild birds. His ambition is to attract grey partridges back to breed on the farm, which may take five years. He is also considering environmentally-friendly management of woodland edges and ditches - which means not trimming them or clearing them out so frequently.

The annual payments for which the 1,100-acre estate will be eligible under the scheme could amount to nearly £9,000.

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