A costly margin of error or silence. Both are damaging goodwill

This blog post originally appeared on Peter's 'Fresh from the Field' blog on 10th November 2015.

Following my blog about all the red tape surrounding the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme (November 5th) and how it appears to be dampening people’s enthusiasm somewhat, (which is such a shame), I received this note from a farmer.

“I agree, just too complicated. I have applied for 7 schemes since the first Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme. But this was the most difficult to plan. Sadly I have not applied but left the grass margins and corners (10 years old) in place, in case the scheme becomes more attractive next year.
I was inspected last April/May. What has annoyed me most is the fact that I know the inspector wrote and delivered the report in May, but I cannot see it. I have received NO communication since. Nothing”.

Countryside Stewardship SchemeThe outcome of an inspections can depend on a small margin of error.

Another farmer told me last Friday that when he was inspected, it was found that some of his 6 metre grass margins had a few short lengths where they dropped down to only 5 metres in width, probably due to an overzealous ploughman!

The farmer was not particularly bothered by this news, because he had sensibly followed advice to always have more of an option than you are actually signed up to produce, in case this very scenario occurs. So he pointed out his other grass margins that were “outside” the scheme. The inspector was not interested in these as he was only inspecting the margins marked on the agreement map. A fine duly followed.

Both of these examples shout to me “what a massively missed opportunity”!

I have been saying for literally years and years in meeting rooms around the country, that it would make so much sense to train Rural Payments Agency (RPA) staff, who carry out these inspections, in the fundamentals of farmland conservation and to get them to work more closely alongside their government colleagues, Natural England (NE), who implement the schemes.

NE staff are generally extremely helpful, working with farmers and encouraging them to produce top quality schemes. But this relationship and good will, which is often built up over many years, can be completely dashed by an RPA inspector with a tape measure.

These inspectors can quite easily spend a fortnight inspecting a medium sized farm (I kid you not. Remember that this too is paid for from taxpayers coffers!), measuring, counting, noting down observations in minute detail, which will all then go into a final report. But the farmer only gets to hear anything if they have been a miscreant.

What is to be done? Well, how about this.

New RPA inspection scenario:

Cut unnecessary red-tape and keep rules straightforward.

Send all RPA staff on a recognised farmland conservation course (the BASIS conservation course would be a good start) so that they have knowledge about the “outcomes” that Countryside Stewardship options are trying to achieve.

Inspect a farm where obvious options are missing and rules blatantly broken – a field corner does not exist or a wild bird seed mixture has obviously not been planted even though the plot exists. No sympathy. Throw the book at them. This is public money that is being used after all.

Inspect a farm where it is obvious that the farmer has done everything that the agreement demands, however there are small discrepancies such as the grass margin story above or that the wild bird seed mix is in place, but is not very good. Point out the grass margin mistake and state that you will be back next year to pop in to re-measure it, and if it has not been re-instated by then, fines will be incurred.

Advice could then be written into the report suggesting the addition of more fertiliser to grow a better wild bird seed mix. This positive, helpful approach will not leave the farmer with a sour taste in the mouth and may well encourage them to try a little harder to not make these small mistakes any longer, while also growing a better, high quality crop for birds going forward.

Inspect a farm and everything is exactly how it should be and the various options are all looking very good. How about some praise within the report, stating how excellent the conservation options are and that the farmer should be congratulated on how well the scheme has been delivered onto his or her farm. A pat on the back goes a very long way in helping to achieve excellence.

Following the inspection, write a report and GIVE THE FARMER A COPY!!! How are we meant to improve the delivery of conservation on farms when long reports are written about a farm, only for it to sit in some dusty Government filing cabinet?


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Communication in agri-env and cross compliance

at 14:48 on 23/11/2015 by Sue Everett

Unfortunately I suspect there is not always the best of communication between agreement holder and the person(s) who do the cultivation and spraying (often contractors, personnel who change). Actually I know this is the case. Examples include sprayed, cultivated & damaged field margins (as per above example) also slurry spreading contractors who don't even know the cross compliance rules about the 10m no spread zone to surface water and 50m zone to springs. One potential way to address this would be to have mandatory 'Cab' cards that show the restrictions for each field, that contractors knew they had to use and that compliance is written into the terms of their contract. Also the ability to pass on the said fines if they do not comply with conditions of the agri-environment agreement or cross compliance. Sadly this is the level of detail that needs to be applied if agreement holders want to make sure mistakes don't happen. They probably still will though. The upshot of my comment is it is not just about 'red tape' it is about how the agreement holder effectively communicates with the people doing the farming, and ensuring that if it is them who make the mistakes and they are contractors, it is they who ultimately bear the cost.

CSS - Grass Margins

at 19:05 on 18/11/2015 by Mr P Funder

It is that simple Clem! I have ploughed more land than I care to remember - even in fields where the fence had a " small bend" - and I could quite easily ensure that any grass margins left intact were a minimum of 6 metres . As usual there are some who strive in an attempt to make this complicated by blaming complicated rules - NO - grass margins (simply) require to be a minimum of 6 metres. This is easily achievable - lets get on with it!!!

Grass Margins

at 16:09 on 18/11/2015 by Clem Somerset

If only it were as simple as Mr Funder suggests. The ploughman wants to plough straight, the fence has a small bend. The narrowest part becomes 5 meters, the rest can be eight meters or more, but no, it is the narrowest part that counts. The lack of flexibility and the inability to average out the width is so stupid. None of this helps the birds........ I have just had a six day inspection, very pleasant man, but unable to write his report till the new year as they are behind with the number of inspections to be done this year! I will therefore not know of any discrepancies till it may be too late to correct for next year.

CSS Grass margins

at 12:01 on 18/11/2015 by Mr P Funder

Cant be a "jobsworth" reply Mr Harvey! More like a "taxpayer" response. Surely "common sense" in this situation was to ensure the grass margins were at least 6 metres -thus benefitting both the applicant and wildlife!!


at 19:04 on 17/11/2015 by Paul Harvey

Usual common sense from Peter Thompson and a sadly 'jobsworth' reply from Mr P Funder. While such attitudes exist, the main losers will be wildlife.

CSS - Grass Margins

at 13:00 on 17/11/2015 by Mr P Funder

To achieve the identified/potential conservation benefit (and to qualify for public funding) the minimum width of the "grass margin" must be 6 metres. So, to qualify for public funds (,"from tax payers coffers") - and to avoid any risk to entitlement surely it makes sense for a participant in the scheme to ensure field margins meet this very, very "simple" requirement. So, the "simple" thing for an applicant to do is to ensure the "over zealous ploughman" is made aware of the (simple) requirement - and of course, check the field margins before inspection. SIMPLES!

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