Policy into practice: the development and delivery of agri-environment schemes and supporting advice in England


*Corresponding author. Email: david.smallshire@defra.gsi.gov.uk


There has been significant progress in recent years in translating the knowledge gained from farmland bird research into mechanisms which deliver sympathetic farm management. This progress is described for England, focusing on the development, targeting and delivery of agri-environment schemes and supporting advisory materials and services. Following the successful implementation and evaluation of the Arable Stewardship Pilot Scheme, modified arable land management options were introduced into the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in 2002, targeted at scarce farmland birds and other threatened farmland wildlife. An enhanced suite of options will be introduced in 2005 in a new scheme, Environmental Stewardship, encompassing both simple ‘Entry Level’ and more demanding ‘Higher Level’ options. The former were piloted successfully in 2003, while the latter will replace existing schemes and focus more on defined environmental outcomes. The valuable synergies and contributions of partnerships in developing, targeting and evaluating schemes is acknowledged. Recognizing the targeting value of recent distribution data for declining farmland bird species, a project is underway to collate recent records and to make interpreted data accessible to farmers and their advisers. Appropriate advisory materials and demonstration sites have been used to engage and motivate farmers, by providing feedback, a sense of pride and better public appreciation. Examples of best practice in knowledge transfer are given: individually tailored advice and the use of suitable demonstration farms are very powerful mechanisms for achieving environmental results, but are costly. The policy and advisory infrastructure currently in place, across and between government and the voluntary sector, provides an unprecedented basis for an optimistic outlook for farmland birds.

Agri-environment schemes have been recognized as a major, if not the main, mechanism by which many of the targets included in UK Biodiversity Action Plans, including those for farmland birds, may be achieved (Swash et al. 2000). With the adoption of a Public Service Agreement (PSA) target in 2000 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and subsequently the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), to reverse the population decline of a suite of farmland birds by 2020, the scope of schemes has been expanded, principally to address birds of arable farmland. Arable set-aside land, if managed appropriately, has been shown also to benefit a range of farmland birds (Evans et al. 1997, Poulsen et al. 1998, Buckingham et al. 1999, Aebischer et al. 2000, Henderson & Evans 2000, Henderson et al. 2000a, 2000b, Bradbury et al. 2004). In addition, since linking the causes of decline in the Grey Partridge Perdix perdix population to the indirect effects of pesticides (Potts 1986), the Game Conservancy Trust (GCT) and Allerton Research and Educational Trust (ARET) have developed a range of voluntary game management techniques that also benefit birds (Boatman et al. 2000, Aebischer & Ewald 2004, Stoate et al. 2004). Overall, the knowledge base on the ecological and land management requirements of farmland birds has improved substantially in the last decade (Grice et al. 2004).

In recent years there has been an unprecedented move towards close and constructive working partnerships between central government, agencies and farming and environmental organizations, with a much greater level of consultation. Considerable mutual benefits have accrued in developing and evaluating land management options and schemes. Advisory literature has been produced for farmers and their advisers, much of it also through partnerships. Meanwhile, however, progress with developing mechanisms for more direct contact with farmers has been constrained by the resources available for professional advisers and suitable demonstration farms.

This paper describes in more detail the developments in agri-environment schemes, partnerships and advisory services, giving examples of key successes and highlighting some constraints to progress.


Arable options

As part of continuing scheme development, those arable management options shown to be successful in an initial evaluation of the Arable Stewardship Pilot Scheme (ASPS) (e.g. Bradbury & Allen 2003, Bradbury et al. 2004) were incorporated into the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) from 2002 (see Table 1).

Table 1.  The development of agri-environment scheme options likely to benefit farmland birds.
SchemeStrips or blocksWhole or part fields
Arable margins; buffer stripsConservation headlandsUncropped, cultivated marginsBeetle banksSeed & flower mixturesWinter stubblesSpring cropsSummer fallowsOthers*
  • *

    Options also covering a range of semi-natural habitats are available in CSS and ESAs and are proposed for Higher Level ES.

Arable• Grass leys
Stewardship Pilot ± fertilizer   also reduced herbicide in previous cropincluding low-input and undersown options  
Stewardship (new arable options from 2002)available± fertilizeravailableavailable  including low-input  
Entry Level • Skylark patches
Environmental Stewardship (proposed options) ± fertilizer    including undersown and whole- crop silage • Brassica crops
• Permanent grassland • Rush pastures
• Mixed stocking
Higher• Fodder crops
Levelincludingunharvested,also in enhancedalso reducedlow-input; • Wet grassland
Environmental Stewardship (proposed options)flower-rich marginswithout fertilizergrassland bird seedherbicide in previous cropalso in grassland • Improved, semi-improved and rough grassland

Review of schemes

A mid-term review of the two main agri-environment schemes in the England Rural Development Programme (ERDP), CSS and Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs), has been guided by the findings of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food (Curry 2002). Among the Commission's recommendations were that a ‘broad and shallow’ agri-environment scheme, with simple yet effective management options, should be introduced and made available to the majority of farmers. As a result, a pilot ‘Entry Level Scheme’ was developed rapidly and introduced in 2003. Evaluation suggested that the scheme had been largely successful (Boatman et al. 2004) and a modified scheme with similar options has been developed. This will be available from 2005 as part of a new scheme, Environmental Stewardship (ES), alongside more demanding ‘Higher Level’ options. The proposed ES options (currently subject to approval by the European Commission) that are likely to benefit farmland birds are summarized in Table 1. Both Entry Level and Higher Level options include a range designed to benefit declining farmland birds. They also extend the current suite of arable-orientated options to address deficiencies in grassland-dominated areas, highlighted by Wakeham-Dawson and Smith (2000), Vickery et al. (2001, 2004) and Atkinson et al. (2002). ES has been designed to address five primary (biodiversity, landscape quality, historic environment, public access and natural resource protection) and two secondary (flood management and genetic conservation) objectives. It is hoped that the majority of farms will be entered into Entry Level agreements, while a carefully targeted subset of these will enter into Higher Level management agreements.

Partnership working

A close working partnership between MAFF/Farming and Rural Conservation Agency (now Defra/Rural Development Service (RDS)), English Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and GCT has been acknowledged as a key to the success of ASPS (Evans et al. 2002) and was praised by the National Audit Office as a model for evidence-based policy. The benefits of partnership working have also been realized during the development and evaluation of the ELS pilot and in the concurrent development of the Higher Level ES. The approach to the latter differs from current schemes in being less prescriptive, allowing farmers to develop and use their skills in providing environmental outcomes described through ‘indicators of success’ (acceptable measures of habitat quality). A partnership approach involving statutory agencies and a range of conservation organizations, overseen by Defra's Conservation Management Division and led by RDS technical advisers, has proved extremely valuable both in deciding the range of management options needed and in formulating their prescriptions, indicators, thresholds, targets and supporting technical guidance.

Partners have also been involved traditionally with national and regional CSS targeting, an approach that will continue with ES. More intensive involvement by RSPB field staff (part-funded through English Nature's Species Recovery Programme) has proved highly effective in increasing the populations of two highly localized farmland species, Stone-curlew Burrhinus oedicnemus and Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus (Aebischer et al. 2000, Peach et al. 2001). Close contact has been established and maintained with farmers within the restricted ranges occupied by these two species. Despite being costly, this level of involvement has been used increasingly since the introduction of arable options in CSS for targeting more widespread species of farmland birds.

Applications for Higher Level ES will have to be accompanied by a Farm Environmental Plan (FEP). This is a grant-aided survey and condition assessment of the environmental features (e.g. declining farmland bird species) present on a farm, or with potential to occur there, and will directly inform the management options that should be undertaken. Partners may have a role in undertaking FEP and subsequent surveys and in providing recent location details of farmland birds. To facilitate the latter, a partnership led by English Nature is collating recent distribution information for declining species and will make interpreted data available to farmers and their advisers.


Under the ERDP, the funding and uptake of agri-environment schemes have increased greatly in recent years: in England, 1.16 million ha (13% of agricultural land) was subject to 32 000 management agreements, costing £120 million in 2003. Over 35 000 ha were subject to CSS arable options, offering benefits to farmland birds through the provision of nest-sites, winter food or chick food and contributing substantially towards an English total of 26 475 ha of Cereal Field Margins Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) Priority Habitat; the area of this habitat in the UK is shown in Fig. 1.

Figure 1.

Area of Cereal Field Margin BAP Priority Habitat in the UK. Source: Cereal Field Margins UK Biodiversity Action Plan Steering Group.


Since the introduction of set-aside as a supply control mechanism in 1992, initially following concerns that Skylark Alauda arvensis nests and chicks were being destroyed during summer cutting, more refined management rules have been introduced, principally to benefit nesting birds. Later, RSPB field staff promoting fallow plots in Wessex for Stone-curlews facilitated derogation arrangements with MAFF and Defra to enable the plots to be cultivated, to the benefit of Stone-curlew and Lapwing Vanellus vanellus. Current set-aside rules allow flexibility in cutting regimes that may benefit a range of nesting species. From 2005, new set-aside rules may see even greater flexibility to manage land for birds, particularly through narrower strips, and some Entry Level and Higher ES options will be applicable on set-aside. From the start, cover crops developed and promoted by GCT have been allowed on set-aside, adding to those widely grown for the benefit of gamebirds. GCT and ARET have continued to develop management techniques to benefit both game and other farmland wildlife. These include conservation headlands (Sotherton 1991), beetle banks and wild bird seed mixtures (Boatman & Stoate 2002, Stoate et al. 2003).


In order for farmers to change their farm management to benefit declining farmland birds, they need to go through a process that includes increased ownership, acceptance, incentivization and technical information acquisition.

Awareness of the problem

Many farmers will claim, with some justification, that there are still lots of birds on their farm. However, until farmers accept that some species have declined, they are unlikely to act to prevent further declines. To address the lack of awareness, government and environmental organizations have used communication opportunities already used by the farming community, including agricultural publications (e.g. Farmers’ Weekly), farmer meetings, markets and shows (Christine Ward Agricultural Market Research 2001). Such communications have presented not only national statistics on population declines, which are not generally trusted by farmers, but also regional and local trends and examples of where birds have declined or disappeared on individual farms. The total loss from an area of a localized species, such as Lapwing, has been more readily accepted than the reduction in numbers of a species such as Skylark that is still relatively widespread. This approach has been successful across the UK and some 70% of farmers are now aware of the declines in farmland birds (Kynetec 2003).

Ownership of the problem

Among farmers who accept that there has been a significant decline in farmland bird populations, there remains a large proportion who believe that farming methods are not the cause of farmland bird declines. Fifty-five per cent of UK farmers still believe that predators, including corvids, Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, Buzzard Buteo buteo, Red Fox Vulpes vulpes, Badger Meles meles and feral/domestic cats Felis catus are responsible for the decline (Kynetec 2003). If farmers do not believe that their farming practices are largely responsible for the decline in farmland birds, then they are unlikely to change the way that they farm in order to benefit farmland birds.

In trying to get farmers to accept that agricultural changes have caused farmland bird declines, it has proved to be important to avoid being overly critical. Getting farmers to accept that the solution to the problem lies with them, and that things they can do on their farm will make a difference to farmland bird populations, is more likely to bring about change. This acceptance has been enhanced through positive publicity for good conservation work that farmers carry out. Awards such as the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group's (FWAG) Silver Lapwing Award, the English Nature/National Farmers’ Union Biodiversity Award and the RSPB's Operation Lapwing competition are good examples of encouraging a more positive profile for farmers within both the farming community and the wider public.

Incentive to tackle the problem

Not losing out financially is an important factor for many farmers in changing the way they farm. Financial incentives are an important motivator, particularly for more complex management prescriptions (Wilson et al. 2004). However, there is a wide range of other reasons why farmers are motivated to change their farming practices (Sutherland 2004). These include commercial or other game management; farm diversification (e.g. to support tourism); niche marketing of wildlife-friendly produce; public recognition of the value of what they do beyond food production; personal commitment to the countryside and custodian role; and to enhance their standing in the local community (e.g. through farm walks).

With good advice, measures can not only be integrated successfully into farm businesses, but actually benefit the business. For example, the establishment of grass margins can help to control Cleavers Galium aparine and Barren Brome Anisantha sterilis on headlands, thereby reducing the need for herbicide use. Increasingly, supermarkets and other retailers expect farmers to show evidence of environmental responsibility and brand their products accordingly (e.g. Tesco's ‘Nature's Choice’, Jordan's ‘Conservation Grade’ cereals).

Knowledge transfer

To many farmers, conservation has come to mean hedge planting and pond creation: 32% of farmers have created new hedgerows and 24% have created a pond, but only 12% have implemented a whole farm conservation plan (Kynetec 2003). In order to get those who are aware of the plight of farmland birds and motivated to take appropriate action, farmers need good information on the most appropriate solutions. Ongoing information and support are usually required to help a farmer to deliver more complex management, rather than just one-off advice. For Higher Level ES, these issues will be addressed through the FEP, which evaluates the whole farm, the provision of guidance material and farm visits and demonstrations.

It is important that clear, succinct advice is produced for all involved with the countryside. Leaflets, booklets and websites have been developed, including an RSPB series on farmland birds and habitats available in printed form and on its website (http://www.rspb.org.uk/farming) and GCT information sheets on Grey Partridge, conservation headlands and set-aside. Farmers want clear, concise, practical information. Defra's guidance booklet for the ELS pilot was based largely on ‘bullet points’ and was well illustrated. It was praised widely by farmers and hence future literature will be planned in this style. In addition, English Nature, RSPB and FWAG produced advisory leaflets for each of the four ELS pilot areas. The Higher Level ES will require more complex supporting information and advice, but this also will be more illustrative, following pilot examples funded by English Nature showing grassland condition for ground-nesting birds.

Although it is expensive, direct on-farm advice to farmers by well-trained advisers is the most effective way of disseminating information onto farms. But no two farms are the same. Differences, for example in soil type, size of workforce and individual farmer preferences, need to be taken into account by an adviser, but are difficult to encompass in generic advisory literature. Winter et al. (2000) showed that the best conservation plans, both from the farm business and biodiversity perspectives, are also those in which one-to-one advice has been given. However, the farm advice industry is currently unregulated and uncoordinated, with a wide variety of sources of advice on different topics and of variable quality, making the farmer's choice of adviser rather difficult. It remains a significant challenge to government to provide a framework for better integration and delivery of the advice on offer to farmers. However, a project in Defra's Learning, Skills and Knowledge Programme will identify criteria for evaluating the competence of Defra-funded advisers delivering advice on environmental conservation, pollution minimization and organic conversion (Defra 2004). It will also identify ways in which various competence frameworks could be developed to support standards for advisers and in which others can be encouraged to adopt similar criteria and frameworks, in part through requirements on contractors (and subcontractors) delivering services on behalf of Defra.

A full training programme for countryside managers is therefore a key to success. Advisers need a good understanding of farming and wider environmental issues, as well as biodiversity, and must be able to adapt their advice to individual circumstances. With the introduction of Entry Level ES, the need for environmental training has never been greater. Although most farmers are expected to join the scheme, the sheer numbers of agreement-holders will preclude individual advisory input. Instead, mechanisms such as those used in the ELS pilot (pre-application meetings, workshops and farm walks) will be used, backed up by supporting media such as simple advisory leaflets and decision support systems.

Agronomists are often important players in the success of certain management options, such as conservation headlands and wildlife mixtures, and many are undertaking the new Biodiversity and Environmental Training for Advisors (BETA) courses designed specifically for them. The Farmed Environment Company (FEC) gave training to agronomists responsible for advising on more than one million hectares in 2003 (M. Nowakowski pers. comm.). Looking ahead to the next generation of land managers, up-to-date information needs to be available for use in colleges and universities. With this in mind, a tutor manual and student resources pack has been produced (RSPB/LBCNC 1999).

If selected with care, demonstration farms can be a very powerful and efficient mechanism for showing practical ways of integrating conservation and farming to a wide range of land managers and advisers. The latter, in particular, have benefited from visits to a few farms undertaking environmental research and demonstrating the results (e.g. ARET, who trained over 1000 people in 2003, FEC, RSPB and the Institute for Grassland and Environmental Research). However, if they are to address successfully the needs of the majority of farmers, such farms need to be available throughout the country, covering the full range of farm types and demonstrating good examples of important farmland habitats in optimal condition. There are grant opportunities in the ERDP for educational access in agri-environment scheme agreements and for the provision of training through the Vocational Training Scheme. Some suitable venues exist now on LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) demonstration farms. Here, farmers are also working to improve their own environmental profile with the public through LEAF's ‘Speak Out’ programme. This trains farmers to make the most of opportunities to promote positive environmental work on their farms and has the potential to create a virtuous circle of increased recognition of environmental work on farms leading to further environmental improvements. Defra has recently piloted a demonstration farms project (Forward Farming), but decisions on how this will be rolled out have yet to be taken.


Farming, conservation and biodiversity are constantly changing and environmental schemes and the advice that accompanies them must be adaptable. To evaluate the success of any scheme, it is important to monitor the results (Kleijn & Sutherland 2003). In particular, any detrimental effects need to be detected early, both at the individual agreement level and at the scheme level. Within a broader environmental monitoring programme for agri-environment schemes, bird monitoring to date has included breeding and wintering birds on a sample of ASPS sites (Sheldon 2002, Bradbury & Allen 2003, Bradbury et al. 2004) and in upland, lowland wet grassland and downland ESAs. The monitoring of Cirl Bunting recovery has provided exemplary evidence of agri-environment scheme benefits. All of these have benefited from collaborative effort.

At a strategic level, the contribution of schemes to the PSA target on farmland birds and the UK BAP represents a key indicator of sustainable development. The annual calculation of the farmland bird indicator is a benchmark against which Defra will be judged. It is hoped that ES uptake will be sufficient to secure the desired outcome within national Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) trends (Gregory et al. 2004), although BBS is not representative of agri-environment outcomes alone. So, more detailed study of BBS-derived data may be needed to obtain an informed analysis of the benefits being supplied by ES. Regional trends could be related to the uptake of key options.

A second strand of monitoring could evaluate trends in species requiring favourable management of specific broad habitats and hence would be geared primarily at assessing the performance of Higher Level ES options, such as those covering arable farmland. This should build upon existing programmes, including Defra's ESA surveys and periodic national surveys, but may be extended to include a representative farmland bird survey.

Sample surveys provide relatively little feedback to RDS advisers, partners and agreement-holders to inform individual agreements. There is a need to focus more on the performance of specific agreements, to ensure that farmers understand fully the management required by their agreement and what environmental outcomes are expected of them. The introduction of structural and operational changes with Higher Level ES has been referred to earlier. RDS is undergoing substantial change in order to shift the emphasis from getting quantity of land under agreement to getting quality outcomes on that land. The indicators of success for options and features will be used by agreement-holders, advisers, partners and perhaps skilled volunteers to assess the progress of agreements against agreed benchmarks.

Volunteer RSPB members have been orchestrated in the Volunteer and Farmer Alliance to survey farms at the request of land managers. Since 1999, 2419 farms have been surveyed by 1689 volunteers, in turn supported by ten full-time RSPB staff. The data gathered are used to inform scheme applications, but demand, including a desire to revisit farms and monitor change, currently outstrips the volunteer resource, with a 2-year waiting list in some areas.


There has been a substantial increase in the main agri-environment schemes since the ASPS began in 1998, both in the area under agreement and in the scope of arable management options available. On top of this, there will be further significant expansion with the advent of ES in 2005. The anticipated massive increase in the proportion of farmers entering into agri-environment scheme agreements (Entry Level) for the first time will pose a considerable challenge to staff administering the agreements, to advisers helping to transfer the requisite knowledge and skills, and not least to the farmers in adapting to a less production-orientated future. Those land managers who choose the more demanding Higher Level route will also have to grapple with a more sharply focused and challenging scheme, as will those administering and advising on it. Although the full details of both ES and new environmental cross-compliance and set-aside rules have yet to be finalized, there will soon be in place a very comprehensive range of opportunities to help farmland birds.

Great progress has been made in the production of advisory information, in both paper and electronic form, by various bodies. Excellent examples of knowledge transfer mechanisms have evolved, but the most effective practices – one-to-one advice and demonstration farms – are still used sparingly at present because of limited funding. Nevertheless, with the policy and advisory infrastructure currently in place, across and between government and the voluntary sector, there is an unprecedented basis for an optimistic outlook for farmland birds.


We would like to thank Phil Grice, John Osmond and an anonymous referee for commenting on the draft paper and Juliet Vickery and Richard Brand-Hardy for helping in various ways.