Farming News - Farmers advised on improving permanent pasture

Farmers advised on improving permanent pasture

19 Mar 2019
Frontdesk / Livestock

As the dry conditions of 2018 led to a forage shortage across the country, Charlotte Gore, of Fisher German, looks at how farmers could improve their existing pasture.

Charlotte Gore

As production costs rise and gross margins tighten, well-managed grassland is increasingly important for achieving better results for livestock farmers.

However, improving permanent pasture requires early prior consideration, and in many cases will require permission from Natural England which can take one to three months to obtain.

The EIA (Agriculture) Regulations protect ‘uncultivated’ or ‘semi-natural’ land from agricultural activities that increase productivity. This includes ploughing, increasing fertiliser use or soil improvers, sowing seed to increase productivity, draining the land or spraying off existing vegetation.

Even if there are no immediate proposals of any works that fall into these descriptions, it is worth emphasising the benefit of retaining clear and accurate field records of all fertiliser, spray and cultivations applied to land for any future purposes.

Provided it isn’t semi-natural and has no heritage or special landscape features, land of 2 ha or below can be improved without further permission.

‘Uncultivated’ land is defined as land that has not been cultivated in the last 15 years by either physical means, such as ploughing, or chemical means, for instance applying fertiliser.

‘Semi-natural’ land includes priority habitats, heritage or archaeological features, or protected landscape and usually hasn’t been intensively farmed, such as unimproved grassland or lowland heath.

To carry out improvements on land that falls into these categories, a screening decision must be applied for, which will confirm whether the activity can proceed, or if full permission needs to be sought in the form of an Environmental Impact Assessment.

The process of submitting an application for a screening decision can be complex and time-consuming. It involves completion and submission of a form, with full details of the proposed activities, historic management of the land parcels involved and any existing stewardship schemes.

The form is available online and must be sent to Natural England with detailed maps as well as an Environmental Screening Report.

This report should include a landscape, heritage and biodiversity desktop assessment with field surveys to verify or otherwise the results, and details of the likely effect of the proposal on soil, water, land, historic features and biodiversity.

The local biological records centre and county archaeologist will also need to be consulted to provide statements of their opinion on the proposed works to any local or regional areas of interest. 

For larger proposals, it is worth considering any actions that might mitigate any negative effects of the works, such as timings or duration and retaining buffer strips of unimproved land.

Although the above might seem excessive, the penalties for improving grassland without permission are likely to require the land to be restored to its previous condition and can result in prosecution, fines of up to £5,000 and cross compliance penalties.

We would recommend seeking advice early in the process of improving permanent pasture.