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Higher Level Stewardship (HLS)
The Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) is the ecological hero of the countryside. Almost all thriving farmland flower populations known to Plantlife are on farms benefiting from its payments.
HLS requires much more from farmers than the Entry Level Scheme (ELS) and, in return, the payments are higher. However, unlike the open ELS, HLS has a restricted budget and entry into the scheme is competitive. In addition, resources (in terms of finance and adviser time to assess and qualify agreements) are limited and in 2012, HLS covered only just 928kha and was greatly oversubscribed. HLS, however, does have its flaws. All farms are different in terms of history, resources and their business environment. Technical support to ensure that the farmland management benefits wild flowers is fundamental to the success of the scheme but is currently lacking and considered an administrative burden rather than essential. A greater share of the resources available is needed to support skilled advisors who, whilst maintaining a landscape overview, can work with farmers to find the right solutions for individual farms.
This includes identifying bespoke management for species with specific requirements alongside generic management for habitats – a process embodied in the “mosaic approach”. HLS options can be flexible about management – such as levels and timing of grazing – but in some cases, current prescriptions are still too restrictive. For example, the grazing date for Plantlife’s Deep Dale Reserve in Derbyshire was moved from earlier in the year to 1st July at the beginning of the current HLS agreement. Unfortunately, this has encouraged coarse grasses to dominate some of the acid grassland , with the result that some of the reserve’s special flowers have been lost.
This has happened because coarse grasses are less palatable to livestock, so they avoid grazing them until all other fodder has been consumed. As the grazing date now starts later, the grazing period is shorter and the coarser grasses are left untouched. The scheme needs to be more flexible to incorporate mosaic management that can be adjusted locally and, if necessary, on an annual basis to changing local environmental conditions. In addition, payments for specific options – particularly management that encourages cornfield flowers – are under-valued in the current economic market. As a result these options have a particularly low uptake. In recent years, arable crops have produced gross margins of well over £700 per hectare but the income foregone calculations under HLS have not kept pace, resulting in these high-achieving options being less attractive to farmers. The financial values awarded to each management option need to be reviewed at regular intervals to track the market for goods and enable profit foregone to be fairly compensated.
Despite these flaws, Plantlife believes that within the current financial and environmental markets HLS provides good value for money for the taxpayer and is key to maintaining and enhancing areas of our countryside still rich in wild flowers.
DEFRA and Natural England are currently undergoing a review of Environmental Stewardship as part of the NELMS process. The current proposal is to have one scheme with one set of management options. This scheme needs to fit two purposes – targeting protected areas and agricultural sites supporting our highest levels of, or most vulnerable, wildlife whilst ensure that the landscape is permeable to enable wildlife to pass through our countryside. The scheme should be available across the whole of England yet applied in those areas which can deliver greatest wildlife benefits. Adequate financial resources will be essential to achieving this ambition including the transference of funding and high level support for the environmental scheme within the Rural Development Programme.