Twelve Dales farmers participating in a pilot payment scheme have surveyed the species-richness of their traditional hay meadows – and submitted score sheets for potentially the last time.
The farming scheme in Wensleydale and Coverdale – now in its fifth and final year – is paying the farmers according to the results they produce; the more wildflowers in the hay meadow, the higher the payment.
This approach contrasts with the prescriptive approach of conventional schemes, which pay farmers for following set rules such as not cutting before a specific date.
The score sheets from this summer are still to be studied, but analysis of the 2019 submissions showed that the average score for meadows in the scheme was 18% higher than at the start of the project in 2016, with improvements in all except two of the 19 sites. The participating farmers have been taking extra care managing their meadows and this encourages meadow flowers to become more abundant, boosting the score.
The pilot scheme has also tested the ‘results-based’ approach with payments to farmers who are producing suitable habitat for breeding waders such as curlew. The pilot is being run by Natural England in partnership with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
Stephen Bostock, who farms in Coverdale, offered one of his traditional hay meadows, which was already in an agri-environment scheme, to be a control site for comparison against meadows in the results-based pilot.
He said: “Any scheme that can preserve these hay meadows is a good thing. The flowers have gone from a lot of fields around here, as land has been improved. But I think things are changing and people are beginning to value the traditional meadows and what they do for the environment.
“The income from agri-environment schemes has been a lifesaver for family farmers and has also enhanced the land from an environmental perspective.”
A total of 18 farmers in Wensleydale and Coverdale have participated in the pilot scheme, entering 50 hectares of hay meadow and 285 hectares of habitat for wading birds.
Project Manager at Natural England Annabelle Le Page said: “Results from our trial in Wensleydale and Coverdale, and the many others that Defra have commissioned in England, are feeding into the design of the proposed Environment Land Management (ELM) scheme which will replace existing schemes from 2024. It remains to be seen how far the ‘payment by results’ approach will be part of ELM, but one thing is certain, we have seen a great willingness and aptitude on the part of Dales farmers to adapt their land management practices and carry out work to benefit the environment and wildlife.”
Chairman of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Neil Heseltine, said: “I would like to thank the farmers who have participated in this important pilot scheme. We’ve seen farmers with land for breeding waders undertaking rush cutting and creation of wet features to improve the habitat and increase their payment. Some have introduced cattle grazing as they have realised that cattle can produce some great chick habitat with their hoof prints. Others have lessened their stocking rates on land in the breeding season which reduces nest trampling and chick mortality.
“Farmers with hay meadows have also carried out a lot of work throughout their agreements, such as re-introducing hay meadow species seed such as yellow rattle and undertaking targeted weed control. These works were not prescribed or mandatory, but were voluntarily carried out by the farmers who made their own decisions and chose what they thought were the right management strategies for their land.”
He added: “We’ve been proud to help run the first agri-environment pilot scheme in England directly-funded by the government outside the EU Common Agricultural Policy. Upland farmers produce many public goods, traditional hay meadows and habitat for breeding waders being just two examples. It is vital for the Dales that the government comes good on its promise that upland farmers will be well placed to benefit from the Environmental Land Management scheme.”
Working with farmers to demonstrate the benefit of ‘high nature value’, low-input farm systems through a 5-year trial of a ‘payment by results’ approach to agri-environment funding is objective C4 of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Management Plan 2019-2024.