Pioneering Dales scheme boosts environment and “puts fun back into farming”, says national park leader

YDNPA Senior Farm Conservation Adviser Helen Keep, NE Tony Juniper, and farmer Dave Metcalfe. Photo: YDNPA.

A pioneering scheme in which Dales farmers are allowed to design and run their own environmental improvement projects has produced extraordinary results as well as helping to put the fun back into farming, a national park leader has revealed.

Neil Heseltine, livestock farmer and deputy chairman of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, was speaking after the government released startling results of a study of a payment-by-results trial to improve hay meadows and habitats for ground nesting birds at 19 Wensleydale farms.

The report concluded the result-based approach has “considerable potential” helping shape the government’s future vision for farming outside the EU.

After a visit to Wensleydale to meet some of the farmers in the scheme,

Natural England chair Tony Juniper said the scheme showed if farmers were supported with the right type of training and guidance, “really positive results” could be achieved for wildlife.

He said: “Farmers must be front and centre in efforts to restore the natural environment and these results reveal huge potential for the future.”

The success of the scheme in the national park, where 2,700 people are directly employed in agriculture, is viewed as critically important as many upland sheep farms are operating at a loss.

Mr Heseltine said: “We are extremely concerned about what Brexit is going to bring for farmers.”

He said while paying farmers for producing species-rich meadows and/or good quality habitat for breeding waders such as curlew, snipe, lapwing and redshank rather than giving a flat-rate payment for agri-environment schemes had proved a game-changer.

Mr Heseltine said: “We feel this can make a real difference to the national park and the farmers of the national park. It is something we would like to see rolled out if we can overcome the challenges.”

As the scheme will now receive government funding until 2022, he said it faced challenges such as increasing the variety of ‘natural goods’ which farmers could be paid to produce, providing training to each farmer for each type of result and a shift in emphasis in the mindset of farmers, particularly as the learning process takes time and effort.

Mr Heseltine said: “That process has been quite enjoyable for them and they have gone on to do more of that for themselves. You get a bit of competition between the farmers over who can grow the most flowers.

“The environmental side is almost becoming a matter of pride to the farmers. If I can have six more curlews and a few more bird’s eye primroses than my neighbour then that’s going to be a good talking point down the pub.”

The farmers taking part in the Payment by Results pilot have recorded a 43 per cent increase in the number and diversity of seed bearing plants than nearby sites under conventional funding schemes – providing a rich food source for farmland birds during the winter months.

The trial areas for species-rich meadows also recorded a greater number of important plant species, such as pignut and eyebright, benefitting bees, butterflies and birds.

Mr Heseltine said “One farmer in the scheme had started growing plants from seed and transplanting them into his fields to try and increase the results they are delivering.

“One farmer told me ‘I’ve got a sense of fun back after 40 years’ farming’.”