Land management scheme puts clock back 40 years: Oliver Gillie reports on steps to create a more natural environment by shifting the agricultural balance away from intensive cultivation

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The Independent Online
AS A YOUNG man David Bromfield cleared and drained fields in the Somerset levels to provide best quality pasture for his cows. Now he is being paid by the Government to flood the same fields so that the natural flora and fauna can re-establish itself.

'You could say we are putting the clock back to the 1950s,' said Mr Bromfield, who farms 400 acres (160 hectares) near Langport in Somerset. 'I worked with my father to grub up the old withy beds. We got grants from the ministry to put in field drains and to improve ditches so the land would be dry most of the year. Then we seeded it with the best quality rye grass and clover. It made good pasture and we produced a lot of milk off it.'

Mr Bromfield and some 30 of the area's farmers have placed parts of their land in a Ministry of Agriculture scheme that pays them to manage land in an environmentally sensitive way, and helps to reduce EC food production. The aim is to provide a good habitat for waders and water birds which pass through on migration in the winter, and nest there in the summer.

The fields in this Environmentally Sensitive Area, as it is called, must not be ploughed or cultivated in an aggressive way. Use of fertiliser is forbidden or limited to small amounts so that more herbs and wild grasses will establish themselves in the sward. For the same reason herbicides must only be used as a spot treatment for certain weeds, although creeping buttercup, normally attacked by farmers, is encouraged because it provides valuable food for birds.

Some pounds 26,000 has been spent on new engineering works to control water flow. This enables the surface of some fields to be kept wet during winter months, allowing aquatic flora to become established. Birds are encouraged to nest by grazing with a very low density of stock and only at the height of the summer, between 20 May and 8 July. 'We are managing the land so it does not go to wrack and ruin. If it was needed for intensive production we could go back to that in a very short time,' Mr Bromfield said. 'If we did not manage the land it would go back to rough scrubland and forest. Some grazing and cutting of grass is needed to keep it as tussocky pasture, which is what the wading birds like.'

The farmers are paid between pounds 120 and pounds 350 a hectare (up to pounds 141 per acre). The Government is planning to spend pounds 42.2m next financial year on these schemes country-wide, rising to pounds 62.3m the following year. The ideas have been devised by the Government but the money comes from the EC.

The aims vary in different parts of the country. In the Pennine dales, the scheme includes the maintenance of stone barns and walls. But all the schemes, which are voluntary, aim to restore natural meadowland rich in wild flowers and herbs. Other places where the scheme is operating include the Broads, Suffolk river valleys, the Test valley, the Shropshire borders, South Downs, Lake District, North Peak area and parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Somerset scheme has its critics. Julian Temperley, who brews Somerset cider at Kingsbury Episcopi, believes that it is destroying the traditional withy growing and basket- making industry. 'The grant system has gone mad, favouring wading birds at the expense of local industry,' he said. 'They are changing the environment into something which they believe ought to exist, not re-creating something which existed before.

'It pays farmers now to buy up withy beds to get subsidies and make them into an environmentally sensitive area. But I like the environment of the withy beds. They provide cover for deer, foxes and birds. The withy industry will have died out in 10 years and these grants will have killed it.'

(Photograph omitted)