Saturday, 9 May 2015

A marginal decision from Europe - but I welcome it!

A grass margin - actually offers a number of benefits to the farm 
For what seems like an eternity, numerous organisations, including the GWCT, have been asking Europe to clarify if temporary grassland, including grass margins, placed on arable land under a government Stewardship Scheme can retain its arable status. This is important, because many farmers feared that if these areas of grass within their Stewardship Scheme stayed down for too long, Government might have to designate them as “permanent grass”, and in turn not allow them to ever be returned into arable production. 

This has resulted in a number of grass margins and field corners being ploughed up, not because the farmers wanted them back into production, but because he wanted to retain the possibility to do this in the future. In some cases they have been destroyed, cropped for one year and then sown back into grass once more – crazy or what! But, I hasten to add, understandable. Farmers should never have their hands tied behind their backs like this.
Anyway – good news! Finally, DEFRA’s Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has announced that the EU Commission has clarified that, in effect, the status of grassland that is placed within an Agri-environment scheme is “frozen” throughout the duration of the agreement and resumes the moment the agreement ends. So, for example, if land is in grass for three years and then goes into an agri-environment agreement for five or 10 years, on completion of the agreement the clock starts at year four, provided the land is still in grass.

This ruling will result in farmers being far happier to place temporary grass into Stewardship Schemes or Ecological Focus Areas under “Greening”, so I for one welcome the decision.

The good old grass margin has begun to receive quite a number of negative comments from a range of sources. “Money for old rope”, “they really don’t offer much”, “there are far too many of them” are just some of the comments I hear. I disagree.

I am old enough to remember the days when hedge bottoms were sprayed out and the plough was pushed in as close as possible, churning up the hedge's roots as it went along. There was no place left for wildlife and the hedges themselves suffered too, as they might as well have been planted in a narrow trough for all the room the roots were given.

So, grass margins give hedges breathing space and move agricultural inputs further out into the field, thereby acting as a buffer. This buffering element is of course absolutely crucial when grass margins are placed next to a water course of any sort – playing a fundamental role in keeping water clean.

Grey Partridge, Pheasant, Whitethroat and Yellowhammer are just some of the birds that use grass margins to nest in, as do Harvest mice. Raptors of all sorts hunt small mammals along these margins. Numerous butterflies use these grass strips to breed, and if part of the margin is left uncut, then they will successfully over-winter here too, along with literally trillions of other beneficial insects joining them to hunker down in the tussocky grass to hibernate.

I could go on (and on ….!) but I won’t as I can quite easily bore for Britain (and Europe too it now appears!) on this subject. Just take it from me - they are very worthwhile!


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