ECOS 38 (2): Pevensey Levels – a booming future?

New agri-environment payments and policies will hopefully deliver a vision of restored habitats and iconic species on the Pevensey Levels in East Sussex. 

Brexit currently describes an interregnum of uncertainty and shilly-shallying. It is too early to know what it means for our future, but in changing the protocols of environmental and agricultural policy it provides a wind of opportunity, a time to initiate improvements to performance. The late Dick Potts of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and may have put it more succinctly: “We want birds not words.” Achieving this practical exhortation should sit at the heart, literally and metaphorically, of our evolving countryside policies. Removal of CAP spaghetti and EU hair-balls should create a clarity and accuracy of administration to deliver goals of economic sustainability and nature conservation. At least it should alter the excuses currently offered from Whitehall.

Political interest at grassroots

Our local MP, Huw Merriman, recently came to our all grass organic farm at Montague on the Pevensey Levels, with the NFU, to find out what farmers in his constituency need from re-oriented countryside policies. Flattered to be listened to, when it came to my turn to speak, I laid out my vision for both the 300 ha of the farm and the 4000 ha SSSI grazing marshes of which it is a part with some 60 other farmers. Most of them had voted to leave the EU, but now faced a future where the subsidies on which they depended were no longer guaranteed and the markets into which they sold were no longer safeguarded with trade protection. There is a real fear that ordinary farming will be ‘thrown to the wolves’.

Future farming on the Levels, as now, will be predicated upon managing our pastures for wildlife, but with greater oomph and ecological purpose. Despite 30 years of agri-environment work, which has transformed our farm into a developing wetland with increasingly wild and pristine habitats, the conservation of wildlife on the surrounding Levels still faces critical challenges. Grey partridge have been extinct on The Levels since 1996 and last year, 2016 (possibly due to the awful spring) is the first time no redshank bred. Nesting lapwing are facing savage predator and disturbance challenges, and in dark moments I foresee their local extinction also. Bitterns do not yet breed here, but could; the water vole also is locally extinct and otters have not yet returned. There is a lack of diversity in the habitats across the whole site, reed beds and fens being nearly non-existent. Limited conservation budgets have been forced to focus on holding the line.

Redshank at Pevensey. No redshank bred at Montague farm in 2016. Photo: Martin Hole

Curious disincentives

The current EU policy on Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) has created a curious disincentive through rules pertaining to Permanently Ineligible Areas (PIFS). Many farmers are completely disencouraged by the risk and complexity of the current administrative quagmire. At Montague (see ECOS 36 3/4 26-29) we faced, after an intimidating RPA inspection, fines of nearly £10,000 for not excluding these habitats from our subsidy application. One of our landlords, fed up with bureaucracy and interference has withdrawn from stewardship, and said we could continue grazing his grassland only if we gave up Stewardship and organic farming. Sadly, we parted company. Catch 22 here being that the richest wildlife habitats could not trigger support payments, despite fulfilling the objectives of the schemes, and the highest risks to income are carried by those most deeply into environmental management.

Despite this, Stewardship on the Levels has been successfully implemented by Natural England, with whom there is an excellent relationship on the ground. Without this scheme and its involvement the situation would have been incalculably worse. Lapwing would be extinct already and winter birds would be down to the straggling individuals that were all that were appearing 20 years ago. Water levels would be impossible to manage and business incomes on farms so low as to lead to possible land abandonment. Very real work has been done, but the challenges just keep growing. More people and houses now surround the oasis, the vigour of some harmful alien species accelerates and competition for water grows. Returns from livestock farming continually diminish and TB and other diseases stalk the herds and flocks. From lack of income, not interest, apathy is prevalent. Resources have to increase and be redirected in the future to deliver better conservation, even if that is only holding the line.

Rebuilding wildlife habitats

My vision, which Huw was presented with, I had also put to a farming friend who grows flowers and vegetables in Lincolnshire. On seeing our enwilded farmscape, with fields beginning to merge seamlessly in shifting vegetation quilts, he had asked me what I thought the farm would look like in 20 years and what I would be doing. I think he was vaguely concerned for my sanity, investing in wildlife delivery with no long term support in place. The vision has not changed in 30 years of farming. I dream of a fully restored wetland, buffered from surrounding impacts by trees, scrub and wet woods, thickening fens and reedbeds, populated by beaver and otter. The open marshlands, still grazed by our hardy cattle and sheep, of the central parts, would be dappled with winter flooding enlivened with flocks of wildfowl and waders, and spring would herald a closed canopy of territorial lapwing over at least half the total area, not just upon Montague (which currently hosts about half the lapwing and redshank on the whole of the Levels, on about 5% of the total site). The boom of bitterns and the drum of snipe met with the unison courtship of cranes. And, my favourite, nightingales in my ancient PIFs. My fellow farmer friend looked gleeful, uttering that such an achievement would remove some of the pressure on him to deliver wildlife from his Grade 1 soils on the Fens, and he would be free to continue his very commercial line of food and flower production unmolested. Huw, our MP, engaged with my passion warmly, though I sensed he was mentally trying to appreciate what it would mean to the Treasury.

Looking across Pevensey Levels to the South Downs landscape. Photo: Martin Hole

Communal nature conservation in every parish

Having presented the vision of what the farm will look like, and how the surrounding marshes would also change, I then began on the “What will you be doing?” part of the question. Our recent application to make the Pevensey Levels a cluster farm area is part of the creation of a more receptive community, on whom ultimately the vision depends, as Montague is simply not big enough to single-handedly transform the area. I hope for Brexit changes to the agri-environment schemes, deepening them to allow for uncompromised habitats to be funded outside of farming processes and refocusing on a fuller restoration of our nationally dwindling wildlife populations. Agri-environment can be a limited concept based on trying to marry contradictory objectives. Clearer focused funding for purely ecological outcomes should be added to the menu, giving an aspirational structure to environmental delivery. A National Nature Reserve in every parish, but maybe called something less grandiose and less divisive, operated through resident farmers and landowners and guided by cluster farm Boards could help lead the needed evolution. Montague would be one such leader, in 20 years I hope it will be my daughters, not me, at the helm, though I would still be the ‘old man’ on the Board.

Diversifying income and re-connection

About 800 ewes are currently lambed on the farm, and about 70 cows calved, with progeny sold locally with a small organic premium. As the wetlands swell with more diversity our stock will have to grow hardier and our production expectation may fall, along with stock numbers, as is beginning to occur. Changes to our marshland have greatly increased wildlife, but stock-carrying capacity is showing a long term decline. With no lift in environmental payments to reflect increased wildlife delivery, we are actually getting poorer, though there is a small diminution in enterprise costs, but definitely not in fixed costs. Stock fattening may well have to happen elsewhere. Farming profitability will be even more marginal, so at Montague the future must hold a way to develop tourism and other revenue streams. My daughters, on the back of the return of wildlife, have an opportunity to offer pristine countryside and its cleansing powers to a population in need of such soothing and invigorating experience. “Plashy footed through the fen” they will go, offering mental refreshment to their customers, all in need of that essential human reconnection with their planet. One hopes that post Brexit, grant aid will be available to help with the infrastructure costs associated with this change to allow careful use of the habitats by visitors wanting to experience a little piece of Eden.

A role for the Elders

Board meetings of our “clustered community” will need to develop the teeth of being able to determine how some of the money is spent on the Levels. It should be licensed to authorise control of predators and, if they become so, nuisance species, red kites, badgers and beavers alike, where they cause problems with either disease or ecological imbalances. The Board should be given an ability to divert public rights of way to protect habitats and vulnerable species, and to support agencies over controlling any damaging alien species. A role in planning would also be suitable, for continuing development all around the outside of the SSSI boundary and associated population pressure is one of the biggest challenges. It should have an annual account of Key Performance Indicators, not least assessments of the success or otherwise of wader breeding, winter bird numbers, rare species populations and one-off survey work. Ecological achievement must be measured to underpin the works justified across the Pevensey Super Site. In this future I thus see the farmer also being the conservationist, and shouldering that responsibility to receive his or her income.

Lapwing – the currency of Montague Farm and the Pevensey levels. Photo: Martin Hole

A booming future?

Brexit will prove the right decision by enabling easier formulation of bespoke, locally adaptable and ecological ambitious policies only if the political will is motivated and farmers enabled financially. It is important not to languish in uncertainty but to quickly get on with implementing processes that remove the dead hand of short-termism, empowering farmers and landowners to deliver the countryside so desperately required. The removal of 27 countries and 27 different circumstances can only aid in the clarity of purpose that is needed to prevent the spectre of a wildlife holocaust. Leaving the EU will shorten the command chain and rationalise the blame game. As in life, we are left to look into ourselves to thrive. A regaining of personal and national culpability may be the strongest incentive to succeed, and leaving the European Union makes such a prospect realistic. When seeking proof that Brexit will have enabled a better environment to be made across Britain, what better than to count the “booming” of returning Bitterns on the Levels.

Martin Hole

Farmer at Montague Farm, East Sussex. He is Chairman of Sussex Campaign for the Farmed Environment. 

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Hole, Martin “ECOS 38 (2): Pevensey Levels – a booming future?” ECOS vol. 38(2), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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