Plea for meadow seed cash falls on stony ground

While Tony Blair has been trying to save the planet in New York, back home the administration he heads has turned down a request for a paltry sum to help England's meadows bloom again.

The Weald Meadows Initiative, aimed at harvesting seeds of plants such as the ox-eye daisy, yellow rattle, devil's bit scabious and fine-leaved grasses to replant degraded grassland, has been denied a vital pounds 20,000 by the Ministry of Agriculture.

A pilot project is under way and a special harvester acquired to "brush" seeds from some of the few remaining species rich meadows of the High Weald - an Area of officially-decreed Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) between the Kent and Sussex Downs. But without money to pay for a specialist adviser the project will fail.

The ministry's decision appears all the more short-sighted when only this week, as part of a pounds 5m boost to its Countryside Stewardship Scheme, it announced that farmers are to be encouraged to use fewer chemicals and scatter wild plant seeds on their fields instead.

In fact, farmers are already having difficulty getting the right seed for restoring meadows under the taxpayer-subsidised scheme.

Wild flower seed is being imported from France and eastern Europe, but unless it is matched to local conditions and properly tended, the exercise can prove a waste of time and money.

Fine words at the Earth Summit and in council chambers about enhancing biodiversity are beginning to sound like empty rhetoric to farmers like David Hobden of Heathfield, East Sussex, who is hanging on to 50 acres of flower-rich meadow in defiance of economic reality.

Mr Hobden gets about pounds 30 an acre under the stewardship scheme, but if he were to plough the meadow and plant flax - the vogue crop for European Union subsidy junkies - he would be paid about pounds 200 an acre.

He doesn't, for sheer love of the field where insects and butterflies feed on the wild flowers and skylarks can raise their young before the hay is cut.

Under a scheme devised by the High Weald AONB Unit, a partly public-funded partnership, seed would be harvested from ancient meadows and sold to other landowners.

More than 50 Weald farmers and landowners are keen to buy seed from the project. But, according to Ralph Hobbs, of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, without the right preparation the seed could be cast on stony ground.

"Suppose yellow rattle seed had come from limestone country and was sown on the acid soil of the Weald. Probably it wouldn't grow at all," Mr Hobbs said.

"If it did, it would be mingling with local strains and disturbing the very distinctiveness we want to preserve."

Unless funds are found soon the initiative will cease this summer. Despite the early backing of English Nature, the Government's adviser, and public money through other channels, the ministry turned down an application for a pounds 20,000 grant for two years to pay for a meadows specialist. After that the scheme would be self-financing.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture said that there was nothing wrong with the idea, but the amount of money being sought was "too small" to fit the development grant criteria.

Attempts to tap into other sources of central funding have not got beyond the bureaucratic thicket while the Weald's 11 district council's have pleaded poverty.

"Every week meadows are being lost," said Sally Marsh, of the High Weald AONB Unit.

"We understand everybody is strapped for cash, but this is the kind of local action on the ground that makes all the talk about enhancing biodiversity into a reality."