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Farming futures - the Countryside Stewardship Scheme

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) was originally set up by the Countryside Commission in 1991 and is now administered by Defra as part of the England Rural Development Programme. One of its main purposes is to help to reverse the decline of many threatened habitats and their associated fauna and flora by making payments to farmers and landowners to carry out appropriate land management. Stewardship works in a number of ways to try to create a balance between natural landscapes and modern farming. Landscape types eligible for grants include arable farmland, chalk grassland and field boundaries.

At the Cholderton Estate, Stewardship funds are being utilised in many ways. For example, existing hedgerows are subject to a special management agreement, and many new hedges are being planted. Twenty-foot (6m) field margins, composed of a special mixture of herbs and non-agricultural grasses, border many fields. Areas have been set aside to encourage threatened ground-nesting birds such as skylarks and lapwings. Whole fields have been taken out of arable rotation and returned, either by natural regeneration or by the sowing of specialist mixtures, into downland. Both regenerated downland and existing old permanent pastures are grazed, using small groups of animals, to encourage the development of a diverse, species-rich sward that is rich in invertebrates. The use of fertilisers is not permitted because nutrient stripping is fundamental to the regeneration of species-rich pasture.

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme, together with help from Defra advisors, has been crucial to the process of turning Cholderton into the exceptional wildlife habitat that it is today. Some 500 of the Estate’s 2,500 acres are held under CSS.

Agri-environment schemes are currently in a period of transition. Two new schemes are proposed: the Entry Level Scheme (ELS) and Higher Tier Scheme. ELS is being tested in four pilot areas and if successful will be rolled out across England in 2005. Under ELS, Defra will make payments to farmers and landowners to continue or introduce environmental management on their land. A complementary Higher Tier Scheme will also be available to those who implement additional, more detailed environmental management. It is intended that the Higher Tier Scheme will replace the CSS and Environmentally Sensitive Areas schemes.

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