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The ESA Experience

The Oxfordshire sheep farmer, Paul Haskins, looks at the Effects of an Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme on the Welfare of Grazing Livestock

British Agriculture seems to be entering   an   increasingly unnatural regime. As financial support from the public purse has more strings attached, the people pulling the strings are further removed from agriculture. Specialists from quite narrow disciplines can now influence how farmers manage their businesses. I am concerned about the implications for animal welfare and so I wish to record my experience of farming in the Upper Thames Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) for ten years. There were many good aspects to the ESA but here I am going to focus on animal welfare problems.
 
Almost half of my farm, 176 acres, was eligible for entry to the Scheme at its inception in 1994. The northern boundary of the farm is formed by the river Thames for over a mile and the Scheme covered the riparian river meadows in the flood plain and one more field away from the river as the land rose up. The higher fields were integrated   Administration   and Control system (IACS) registered arable land.
 
The land fell into three different tiers of the ESA. Permanent pasture was either in 1B or 2 (wetland), where a ditch was bunded to deliberately raise water levels. The arable land was planted in grass to become 3A (arable reversion).
 
Quality Herbage
 
The predominantly heavy Oxford Clay soil on this farm had always provided good crops of quality herbage without very intensive management. The impact of joining the ESA was less on the permanent grass than on the arable reversion land.
 
 The grass mixtures specified for the arable reversion tier were difficult to establish and of very poor palatability to sheep. The wide range of restrictions on management during the establishment period exacerbated the difficulty of producing the desired balance between grass species of varied growth habits. On naturally fertile fields, tall, dominant species, such as timothy, smothered out the shorter grasses, especially as hay crops were left until July for mowing. Late mowing also encouraged the establishment of creeping and spear thistles.
 
Due to stocking rate limits, the palatability of grazing declined very rapidly early in the season and the late mown hay had very little nutritional value. It quickly emerged that this regime would not satisfy the nutritional requirements of a modern ewe with lambs. Supplemental feeding was banned for its association with over- stocking but was, in fact, necessary because of under stocking. There was a risk of ewes suffering metabolic stress through malnourishment in the summer or acidosis in winter because of the level of concentrates fed to balance nutritionally bankrupt hay.
 
Untidy stubble
 
The late mowing was also detrimental to the aftermath. It was especially obvious on one field that had a fence across the middle. One side had always been mown in July, the other in early June. The late cut side has vegetation that always remains erect until it is cut and this leaves an open stubble. The side previously cut in June, when left until July, lodged. This reduced the yield by up to half and left a very untidy stubble. Much of the lodged grass had already begun to rot and was of poor value as hay. The thick mat left on the ground suppressed re-growth and frustrated the ESA's intention of promoting botanical diversity by allowing annuals to reseed. This shows that a much more gradual shift in the mowing date of permanent pasture would be more realistic to allow the sward to slowly adapt.
 
Re-creation of permanent pasture requires active management. Weather conditions, the natural fertility and recent management history will all affect how a mixture of grasses establishes. Much greater flexibility in the first year would have helped. Fields with an arable history can still require sub-soiling to maintain soil health.This was not allowed in the ESA, allowing soil to consolidate in a way that would not represent its natural state.
 
The ESA sought to produce swards one might associate with poor fertility on naturally rich soil. Clover was not allowed in the mixtures but, over the ten years, returned naturally and is a normal constituent of permanent pasture in the region. Had the clover been present at the outset, supplying nitrogen, the grass would have performed better and suppressed undesirable weeds.
 
Spectacular failure
 
The greatest difficulty in arable reversion was to promote biodiversity without encouraging thistles, ragwort or other undesirables. The ESA failed spectacularly. Despite a derogation to spray once, some of the arable reversion fields ended up with over fifty percent ground cover of thistle. Spear thistle could be controlled through a variety of 'spot' treatments, although this did take many days of hard labour; however, creeping thistle seemed uncontrollable. Under ESA management, ragwort colonised land where it had not been seen within living memory. One 28-acre crop of hay had to be chopped and left to rot because there was too much to hand rogue. Sheep will graze large quantities of ragwort whilst it is young, making it difficult to estimate how much they have ingested. The accumulation of poisonous alkaloids can result in liver sclerosis, which may not be obvious for up to eighteen months. This makes positive diagnosis of poisoning very difficult.
 
Thistle burden
 
The thistle burden impacted on the livestock in a variety of ways. The thistle thorns cause oral abscesses and may be responsible for the ingression of listeria which leads to meningitis. Scratches around the mouth greatly encourage the spread of orf and irritation of udders increases the mastitis risk. The level of thistles was sufficient to preclude haymaking on a number of fields. As a result, there was no break from grazing, which encouraged an endoparacites build-up. The fields, which could be cut for hay, had to be cut each year instead of resting them with grazing, and yields fell rapidly.
 
Because topping of grazing was delayed by at least a month, the nutritional value of grazing plummeted during June especially. By the time it was topped, it was so mature that it had produced seed and was reluctant to grow any aftermath.
 
The height of the un-topped sward made observation of livestock very difficult. Not only did the time taken to check animals go up greatly, but many problems were simply not observed. By mid-June, fields were dominated by thistles and nettles up to five feet high. Sheep ailments, which would normally be treated quickly, escaped notice and, in the worst cases, carcasses were simply found when the field was eventually topped.  Not much chance of complying with the government's on-farm burial ban!
 
 The ground level microclimate was more shaded, warm and wet than normal sheep grazing. This was conducive to the survival of worm larvae and foot rot infection. The jungle also favoured fly strike, which was also encouraged by dirty sheep back ends, due to the increased worm burden.
 
 It seems very standard advice in veterinary books to either fence livestock out of wet area or else improve drainage to deny habitat to the snails, which arc vectors of liver fluke. In tier 2 of the ESA, a ditch was bunded in order to raise the water level in a number of fields for the benefit of wading birds. There was a clear increase in the incidence of liver fluke. There is a growing difficulty with resistance to anthelmintic treatments for round worms, requiring the rotation of products used, and this increases the difficulty of using flukicides as well.
 
 Wetland habitats are particularly important in conservation but hostile to normal farm livestock. There was a general difficulty with the artificial bunching of the farm's workload   under   ESA   rules. Operations normally spread during May and June, such as harvesting and topping grass, all came due simultaneously in July. Other operations, such as muck spreading on the aftermaths, all contributed to the exaggerated July workload. Such pressure put added pressure on routine stock tasks at this time of year.
 
At a time when general financial pressure on agriculture can impact on animal welfare, the increased costs of combining conservation with farming stretches resources to the limit. Labour costs greatly increased, halving stock rates obviously doubles the cost per animal of fencing/ and the effort of topping overgrown fields takes many tractor hours and a great deal of diesel oil.
 
The land in the ESA was not able to stand on its own. Because of the poor quality of herbage, an unusual amount of conventionally grown cereals were produced for animal feed on the rest of the farm. It was also necessary to plant extra grass leys on land out of the ESA which, with the use of artificial fertiliser, could provide grazing both early and late in the year when the ESA grass failed to grow. For some periods, stock were excluded from the ESA and obviously had to have some- where else to go. The conservation benefits of the ESA are offset by the effects on the rest of the farm.
 
 The British landscape is an unnatural artefact. It is a palimpsest of agricultural history created as a by-product of farming. The obvious way to ensure continuity of its management is selectively through agricultural activity. Sheep have created much of the landscape people love and the optimum level of grazing is the only way to preserve the landscape but other objectives should never override the welfare of livestock, which are sentient beings, not just cheap lawnmowers. The management of sheep must remain the domain of shepherds, not academics, bureaucrats or the pantheon of non-farming experts taking an interest in the countryside.
 
Paul Haskins is a member of NSA and can be contacted at Camden Farm, Radcot Road, Faringdon. Oxfordshire. SN7 8DY