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Lapwings and redshanks: good news for country stewardship

Friday 22 October 2004

Thriving birdlife on a North Yorkshire farm is a hopeful sign for future of the English countryside, says our countryside commentator John Sheard. Let's hope it works
Lapwing: a pointer to a better countryside?

WE ARE now just over a couple of months away from what the Government hopes will be a brave new dawn for British farming and the countryside in general. And there was good news this week that some of the plans in mind can yield important results.

One of the best ideas to come out of the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs since its creation during the foot and mouth debacle was that a thriving wildlife was a very good indicator as to the general health of the countryside.

This was not new thinking - conservationists and even some journalists had been saying it for years - but it was an idea that had gone un-noticed by the old MAFF with its insistence on squeezing ever more food out of available land (even though a lot of that food had no proper market).

Defra, to its credit, picked up the idea and ran with it and this week Environment Minister Elliot Morley reported on a nationwide survey of bird populations which, he said, proved that Defra-supported country stewardship schemes had halted the decline in several farmland bird species.

One such scheme took place at Newsham Hall Farm In North Yorkshire, where wetland birds such as redshank, lapwing and snipe have benefited from conservation work sponsored by Defra and partner organizations.

Farmer George Westgarth has used a Defra Countryside Stewardship Grant to set up and revert former arable farmland to create a haven for a variety of bird species, Defra reported.

Now a few birds, however wonderful, may not seem to make a massive impact on the countryside as a whole - one swallow does not a summer make - but the importance of this experiment will only become fully known next year when a whole new raft of country stewardship schemes will be launched, giving farmers the chance to be paid for working in more environmentally friendly ways.

And these schemes will be backed by £150 million of new money by way of Defra subsidy. As the minister said, "The impact of agriculture is a key area where integration of biodiversity is vital to our aims, and we are making good progress with this.

"The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy was a major breakthrough reducing the environmental impact by removing an incentive to intensify production and requiring compliance with environmental standards."

Defra hopes that the majority of farmers in England will participate in such agri-environment schemes, a view which many will see as over-optimistic: as I have said many times before, farmers are a highly conservative bunch and don't take to change easily.

However, if there is a wider take-up of the grants on offer, particularly by younger farmers, there is a Holy Grail to be seized here. Defra is holding out the hope of much the same income for work which will take our countryside back to its natural state with birds and insects in the air, wild flowers in the fields and hedgerows, and livestock with more space to graze and grow naturally without being pumped full of drugs.

It sounds like a pipe dream, I know. But there is just a slight chance that it could work and that opportunity should be seized with open arms. So far, this Government's record on countryside matters has varied from abysmal to downright disastrous. Let's hope and pray this one works.


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