The Sustainable Farm Incentive (SFI) is the one of the three ‘schemes’ that will make up the forthcoming Environmental Land Management. At the moment it is being operated as a pilot with 932 farmers having signed up this year. The purpose is to have standard land management actions that create greener landscapes and improve biodiversity, promote cleaner air/water and reduce environmental risks such as climate change and flooding.
To join the SFI farmers would select which of eight standards that would best suit their holding. In the list are arable soils, woodlands, hedgerows, grasslands and ‘water body buffering’. As an example, let’s pick arable soil.
The next decision is at what level of the standard is to be followed. This could be Introductory, Intermediate or Advanced at annual payment rates of £26/ha, £41/ha and £60 respectively. Let’s say the Intermediate level is selected. What actions have to be taken to secure the payment?
Before getting into the detail, any farmer would want to be sure about the set Aims of any standard and the Actions. There is a difference – the former is not mandatory, the latter is not!
In our example the farmer is now looking at his arable fields. What are the mandatory actions and what is the thinking behind them?
|Protect the soil surface, maintain soil structure, support soil biology, minimise nutrient leaching, erosion and run-off||Establish green cover on 10% of land e.g. by sowing an autumn crop or green manure or cover crop.|
|Improve soil biology and structure||Add organic matter e.g. organic manures, certified compost, retaining straw, green manures, cover crops or grass/herbal leys in rotation. This is required on a minimum 15% of land in scheme.|
|Improve soil structure and biological activity, reduce soil disturbance.||Use minimum tillage or no tillage techniques on at least 25% of land in the scheme.|
Our farmer thinks, well I already sow autumn crops and often incorporate some straw each year so do I just need to use min. or no. till to qualify for the £41/ha? Unfortunately no as the three levels build on one another – each one includes the actions from the previous level. The farmer also needs to ensure the following Introductory level actions have also been addressed. In this introductory level the key point is the action to first assess the soil.
|Identify priority areas to deliver water quality improvements, carbon storage, flood mitigation or biodiversity.||Assess soils at risk of surface run-off, soil erosion, compaction, waterlogging or regular flooding by soil texturing, drainage, slope and connectivity to a water body or sensitive habitat. Soil structure, biology and organic matter is required on 20% of land annually.|
|Alleviate soil compaction identified by the assessment.||Apply measures such as sub-soiling, additions of organic matter, natural soil recovery through resting the field.|
|Protect the soil surface, maintain soil structure, support soil biology, minimise nutrient leaching, erosion and run-off||Sow an autumn crop or a green manure crop or cover crop. This applies to 5% of land and targeted at the highest risk of erosion or run-off and light sandy soils identified in the assessment.|
|Improve soil biology and structure||Add organic matter to 10% of the land annually e.g. certified compost, retaining straw, green manures, cover crops or grass/herbal leys in the arable rotation.|
Confused? Hopefully not, but so far of the 938 farms in the pilot, 700 farmers and their agents sought help from RPA – nearly three quarters!
Perhaps something simpler will appeal? Let’s look at ‘water body buffering’ a subject close to the heart of any Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer.
This standard is applicable to ponds/lakes, rivers, streams, canals and field ditches including temporarily dry watercourses beside arable or intensive grassland. The action is to have in place grass buffers the width and extent of which varies according to the level chosen. The annual payments are per 100m length of river, ditch etc.: Introductory level £16, intermediate £29 and advanced £34. Note, any buffers already being paid for under another scheme would not be eligible.
The two actions that are required at all levels are:
1.To do a runoff and soil erosion risk assessment (NB Guidance is available.)
Identify where to put grass buffer strips by doing a run-off and soil risk assessment and keep that document for monitoring purposes – prioritise the higher risk areas when deciding where to put the buffers.
2. Establish grass buffer strips
The grass buffer strips will protect water bodies from pollutants carried in field run-off.
Establish and maintain water body grass buffer strips next to at least 50% of the total length of water bodies in the agreement.
For the introductory level, these buffer strips will be 6 metres wide on at least 50% of the total length of water bodies in the agreement. For the intermediate and advanced levels, these buffer strips will be:
- 6 metres wide on at least 20% of the total length of water bodies in the agreement
- 10 metres wide on at least 30% of the total length of water bodies in the agreement
These are measured from the edge of the watercourse at the top of the bank and include the 2 metre or 1 metre cross compliance buffers required under GAEC 1 (see below).
The location of the buffers will be informed by the soil and runoff assessment and, should complement field-scale actions to reduce soil compaction and runoff at source.
For the intermediate and advanced level actions the buffers size and location varies…
6 metre grass buffers are located where there is low to moderate risk of soil erosion or run-off whereas 10 metre buffers are placed next to water bodies in high-risk locations, High risk would be where there is greater upslope pollution pressure and a wider buffer is needed to slow run-off water.
There are conditions as to how the buffer is managed. You are not allowed to:
- apply any fertilisers or manures
- use pesticides, except for herbicides
- drive on margins, or use margins as tracks – access for essential maintenance should be planned to cause minimal disturbance to the margin
- allow livestock on to the strip
- Information on how to establish grass buffer strips and the best species to sow for the environment can be provided by your Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer.
For those wish to receive the maximum grant rate the advanced level requires the addition of a wildflower mix to at least 20% of the total length of water body grass buffers to introduce more diverse rooting depths, aid good soil structure and intercept nutrients.
There is also an optional action to establish in-field grass strips or blocks on cultivated land. This would be applicable where additional in-field measures are needed to intercept run-off water. The payment is an additional £0.05 per square metre per year.
GAEC 1 Establishment of buffer strips along watercourses
- take all reasonable steps to maintain a green cover on land within 2 metres of the centre of a watercourse or field ditch, or to land from the edge of the watercourse or field ditch to 1 metre on the landward side of the top of the bank. This rule does not apply to land forming part of a parcel of 2 hectares or less until 1 January 2017.