Tide turns as farmers switch fields to marsh

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The Independent Online
For hundreds of years, farmers have been draining Britain's marshes and bogs to bring them under the plough. Governments have spent millions in the post-war years subsidising their ditch digging, pipe-laying and pumping in order to produce more and more food.

Today is World Wetlands Day, and Britain's leading environmental groups are using the occasion to decry the huge loss of the nation's marshlands - and the birds, insects and plants which rely on wet places.

But the tide is starting to turn. The Government is paying farmers to make their land boggier, turning arable fields back into marshy meadows.

This week, Elliot Morley, the farm minister, will announce new grants aimed at creating and conserving boglands in six of the Ministry of Agriculture's 43 Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs). It is part of a gradual move towards greener farming in which, instead of farmers being subsidised to over-produce crops using intensive methods, they are paid to look after fields in a way which conserves landscapes and wildlife-rich habitats.

Altogether, 9,000 farmers within the ESAs have entered into agreements with the Government. For following government instructions they get pounds 27m a year in compensation, which works out at pounds 3,000 for the average participating farmer.

The six ESAs earmarked for better bogs and marshes in the latest review are the Breckland of Norfolk and Suffolk, the North Kent grazing marshes, the Test Valley in Hampshire, the Suffolk river valleys, and the Clun grasslands of Devon and the South West of the Peak District.

Geoff Newsome, of the ministry's Farm and Rural Conservation Agency, is responsible for the North Kent marshes ESA, encouraging farmers to join in the scheme and touring the flatlands along the south bank of the Thames estuary to find out if they are sticking to their agreements. The aim is to improve conditions for the wildfowl and wading birds which breed there in summer, and to provide a feeding and resting ground for thousands which migrate there for the winter.

"There are new goodies for the farmer to go for," he says. The farmers will be paid to reduce the number of sheep they keep on their fields in spring, when the birds are nesting. There are payments for "microengineering" of ditches and dykes to keep water levels higher, for not using artificial fertiliser and for curbing weedkiller use.