Revolution in the countryside

Will a scheme to repay farmers for helping to conserve the wildlife on their land pay off? Sanjida O'Connell reports

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The biggest changes to farming for a generation are underway. Farmers are now applying to the new Environmental Stewardship scheme, launched earlier this month. This comes on the heels of the start of the new Single Payment - which removes the incentive for farmers to produce more in order to maximise their subsidies - and which includes new rules setting basic standards, such as hedgerow maintenance, on farmers in order to qualify.

The biggest changes to farming for a generation are underway. Farmers are now applying to the new Environmental Stewardship scheme, launched earlier this month. This comes on the heels of the start of the new Single Payment - which removes the incentive for farmers to produce more in order to maximise their subsidies - and which includes new rules setting basic standards, such as hedgerow maintenance, on farmers in order to qualify.

The English countryside has had a tough time since farming became more intensive after the Second World War. Increased use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers have meant a drastic loss of species - the numbers of breeding lapwings have declined by 50 per cent.

Under Environmental Stewardship, every farmer will have the possibility of earning at least £30 per hectare for looking after their land in an environmentally friendly fashion by protecting ponds, providing habitat for mammals and birds, and growing hedgerows. The scheme will help wildlife damaged by intensive farming activities, says Environment Minister Elliot Morley, adding, "It will make a major and visible impact on rural landscapes, restoring wetlands, heather moorland and replacing lost hedgerows. In turn, farmers will get the credit they deserve for their key role in protecting and enhancing the countryside." The scheme aims to reconnect farmers with the needs of society in protecting and enhancing our countryside.

Farmers who are already committed to the environment will also be rewarded by being able to apply for grants to become certified organic, or to earn more money if their land is already run on organic principles (certification schemes are run by various organisations, including the Soil Association). Aid has been set aside for traditionally farmed orchards and planting wildflower meadows. A higher level of stewardship is available for farmers who already have important species such as stone curlews on their land, or to help them recreate lost habitats like water meadows or to encourage the return of species such as orchids. The RSPB already provides conservation advice to about 1,500 farmers every year and is keen to support this scheme.

One farmer who has benefited is Cumbrian Gavin Johnston who says that with the RSPB's help he's "developed a strategy for the birds on my farm as well as securing our long-term economic benefit".

Perhaps in the future we may not only see species such as lapwings and skylarks returning in greater numbers to enhanced and newly created habitats such as wetlands, but will also be able to enjoy forgotten delights like the striped apple Young's Pinello in recreated heritage orchards. This will depend on farmers and their willingness to embrace Defra's new schemes - the Department is confident, however, that at least 40,000 of them will be on board by this time next year making our countryside a more sustainable environment.

Further information

More information on Environmental Stewardship, see: www.defra.gov.uk/erdp/schemes/es.

For the Soil Association: www.soilassociation.org

For a free CD-Rom on Entry Level Environmental Stewardship, see www.rspb.org.uk/countryside/farming/advice/els/index.asp

Food procurement Bridport Centre for Local Food

In a world of dinosaur nuggets and electric fizzy drinks, it's hardly surprising that plain old fruit and veg are out of favour with today's schoolchildren. Jamie Oliver's doing his bit; meanwhile local farmers, parents and teachers in Dorset - and increasing numbers across the country - are also fighting the battle for our children's taste buds. And it seems to be working.

"It's lovely to hear the children pestering mum for a bag of organic carrots," says Marian Smith of the Bridport Centre for Local Food, which runs a scheme to get children eating locally grown fruit and veg.

The initiative got underway almost two years ago at Bridport Primary School, with a team of parent volunteers preparing a daily selection of fresh fruits and vegetables that are served in a coloured cup and eaten mid-morning in the class.

"We charge 15p a day and for that the children get to choose three out of four different prepared fruits, vegetables and dried fruits like raisins and apricots," explains Marian.

With the help of a £84,000 grant from Defra's Rural Enterprise Scheme, the scheme has now been rolled out to five schools in West Dorset.

A stall selling locally grown fruit and veg, mostly organic, is also set up outside Bridport School once a week offering parents the chance to buy more of the green stuff.

"Parents are delighted with the scheme," says Marian. "Their children are trying things they would never try before and that carries home."

Teachers also have positive feedback, reporting better concentration spans and behaviour in the classroom. And local fruit growers are also enjoying the benefits of a ready market for their produce.

The Government's School Fruit & Veg Scheme provides free fruit for four to six year olds, so the Bridport scheme is now concentrating its efforts on older children. "The Government scheme came into effect round here in November and because that involves mass distribution we can't really compete on price," says Marian. "We make a tiny profit on the 15p we charge because we want to make the scheme sustainable when the Defra funding ends. But we can't charge any more because we want to make sure it's within reach of everyone."

The classroom take-up has been a pleasant surprise - and the peer pressure that creates such pressure for the latest chemical-riddled designer snack also seems to come into play with the coloured cups of fruit. "It's something the children really look forward to and there's definitely peer pressure as more and more of them have the fruit," says Marian.

But the ambitions of the Bridport Centre for Local Food don't stop here. The Centre also runs after-school cookery workshops for children and their parents and there's also a youth-led café, where children excluded from school or students can gain work experience in the catering industry.

A "Soup At School" day is also on the cards - offering a fresh vegetable soup made from local produce, a bread roll from a local bakery plus a healthy dessert - in a bid to present a hot, healthy and affordable lunch alternative for local school children.

Amy McLellan

Further information

Rural Enterprise Scheme: www.defra.gov.uk/erdp/schemes/res

Farming Guilden Gate Smallholding

Forget Felicity Kendall in The Good Life. There's a lot more to running a sustainable organic smallholding than looking good in dungarees.

"It's exhausting," admits Simon Saggers, who, with his wife Jacqueline, runs a successful sustainable smallholding just outside the village of Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire, where the family has farmed for centuries. "It's very hard work - I will never be a millionaire but it is very rewarding."

The Saggers began planning their five-acre Guilden Gate smallholding in 1999 and have transformed the battery chicken sheds and ploughed arable land into what Simon calls a "mixed mosaic" of native hedging, wildflower meadows, coppice woodland, vegetable fields and fruit orchards.

"In many ways it's taken the holding back to how it would have been in my great-grandfather's time," says Simon.

The smallholding rewards the Saggers with a bounty of produce, from seasonal vegetables, fruit and herbs to home-reared chickens, eggs, mushrooms and honey. Once the two-acre woodland is better established, they'll add pigs.

The Soil Association-certified produce is sold though an organic box scheme, with the seasonable vegetables picked and packed every Friday from Easter to Christmas. This came about with the help of a grant from Defra's Rural Enterprise Scheme, which is delivered in the regions by the Rural Development Service. "The demand is very high," says Simon. "We've never advertised and we've always had a waiting list for our box scheme."

But Guilden Gate is much more than a small organic farm. The Saggers are also trying to live and work in harmony with nature, aiming for net zero carbon emissions.

"We've tried to create a holding that's as sustainable as possible and that goes for our house, too," says Simon. The family built their "eco-cottage" from scratch and this blank slate meant they were able to use the latest techniques to minimise their impact on the land. Rainwater is harvested from the roof - a borehole tops up their needs - and all greywater is recycled through straw and bark filters, a horizontal flow reed bed, a flowform pond and a willow trench soakaway. A dry twin vault compost toilet deals with other waste.

Solar panels and a soon-to-be installed wind turbine - also funded by Defra's rural enterprise scheme - mean they will also be energy self-sufficient.

Simon is evangelical about the benefits of smallholder farming, not just for the environmental benefits but also the health and sustainability of rural communities. Guilden Gate is a revival of the type of smallholding that used to be part of life in every village but that have sadly all but disappeared in south Cambridgeshire.

He said: "In Europe, small holdings and local markets are embedded in the culture but it's gone from our rural culture and that's terribly sad. The food miles on the typical dinner plate, with tomatoes from South Africa and peas from Mexico, are beyond belief."

Amy McLellan

Further information

www.guildengate.co.uk

Rural Enterprise Scheme: www.defra.gov.uk/erdp/schemes/res

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