Severn Trent Water reports an encouraging take-up by farmers and landowners of an incentive scheme designed to further reduce the amount of metaldehyde slug control chemical ending up in watercourses.
But, with just a year to run before the withdrawal of metaldehyde, STW acted recently to re-vitalise its offer by spotlighting one particular success story – at Lincomb Farms, a 300ha arable operation near Stourport, Worcestershire, part of which borders the eastern bank of the River Severn.
The Severn Trent Environment Protection Scheme (STEPS) is the grant programme within which farmers can apply for some of the money earmarked to assist in the wind-down of metaldehyde use. According to STW’s catchment management scientist, Dr Jodie Rettino, 2018 was a record year for her team, with more than 4,000 farms involved.
“So far, funds have been made available to help finance a range of actions on farm – cover crops, pesticide wash-down areas – some with biobeds – and filters, for example,” she reports. “We will match-fund projects up to a ceiling of £5,000 per application, but for larger-scale proposals, we will consider spreading the funding over two years.
“Metaldehyde is extremely difficult and costly to remove from water, so it’s important for us – while it’s still being used – to collaborate with farmers in helping to prevent it becoming an issue at source,” she states.
The scheme can also make money available to farmers for projects such as the fencing of watercourses, hard surfacing of areas around livestock drinking troughs and in gateways, lower nitrogen input for grassland, roofs for existing slurry stores and the provision of rainwater harvesting facilities. In the event of a farmer coming up with an innovative idea that’s not listed in the handbook, however, STW says consideration will be given to the proposal.
Susey Bamber is a local agriculture adviser with Severn Trent, covering the area around the Severn’s course through Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, helping farmers with decisions on matters such as the location and specification of sprayer wash-down areas. “We have also been promoting the ‘pesticide amnesty’ to encourage the disposal – anonymously, if so required – of unwanted chemicals at no cost to the farmer,” she explains.
“In addition, we’ve been running slug pellet calibration clinics with the aim of controlling more precisely the area of spread during application, which can also attract NRoSO points. We have also organised pesticide application training, which is fully funded, but, of course, up to a limit allocated for each catchment area.
“We fully appreciate that no two farms are the same, so we have tried to involve other interested parties – wildlife trusts, the NFU, environmental bodies, for example – to be able to offer farmers as wide a spectrum of advice as possible,” says Susey.
Closing date for the last batch of financial incentives under Severn Trent’s ‘Farm-to-Tap’ scheme is 15th September 2019, with the final withdrawal of metaldehyde, which is set for 30th June next year.
A working partnership
Lincomb Farms’ Andrew Symonds says his first project with STW took place in 2016 and involved the installation of an RTK radio receiver unit in the farm’s Fendt 724 tractor. “We were already using an Egnos free-to-air radio signal, but I wanted to upgrade to give us 1cm accuracy for drilling cereals,” he explains.
“We were also looking to improve the precision of our spraying and fertiliser spreading, so we set up an RTK base station, sharing the cost with a neighbouring farmer,” Andrew continues. “I was able to obtain a grant of £5,000 under the ‘Farmer Innovation’ option of the STEPS scheme, which covered the cost of the investment.
“This had the effect of minimising overlaps, saving us around 10t of fertiliser a year and 10,000 litres – three sprayer fill-ups – of water/pesticide mix.” Overlaps can account for as much as 5 per cent of field area, even with good manual operation, he adds, so on an annual total spray area of 2,000ha, that can be up to 100ha of unnecessary spray use. “Obviously, this saves me money, but also reduces diffuse pollution into watercourses which is why Severn Trent offer this grant as an option.”
The following year, Andrew made use of the margin option in STEPS, which paid £750/ha – up to a total of £5,000 – for establishing 6m margins along watercourses. “This coincided with the ending of our 10-year ELS agreement,” he recalls, “so Severn Trent agreed that we could use the margins we had already created under ELS, on the basis that we were no longer claiming under that scheme.”
For 2018/19, Andrew took advantage of being able to roll both years into a combined payment, totalling £10,000, towards installing a biofilter and laying a concrete bunded floor and roofing over the farm sprayer filling area. “I’d been planning to do this anyway, and the grant was the extra incentive I needed to make it happen,” he states.
The location of the existing spray-fill area between two farm buildings meant that it was a relatively straightforward job to roof over. Andrew’s original intention had been to just do this and to install a biofilter under the same roof. “Initially, we discussed the project with our ST farm adviser, Susey, who recommended a visit by an ST consultant who, in turn, produced a full site report and installation recommendation, at their own expense,” he says.
The proposed biofilter kit, on ST’s suggestion, would come from D&H Group, of King’s Lynn, which sent its own specialist to advise on the most appropriate product. “We then built this system from the kit we purchased,” Andrew recounts, “while the two underground water tanks were installed by the company responsible for the roof and bunded concrete floor.”
Operationally, when the sprayer is filled now, any pesticide spillage – together with any sprayer wash-down liquid – runs into a bunded drain, which feeds into an underground plastic tank, which also collects any silt. The liquid then flows to an adjacent tank from where it’s automatically pumped to the top of a stack of four plastic boxes.
The top three boxes are filled with an organic straw/soil/compost mix, through which the liquid ‘irrigates’ through perforated water pipes running horizontally across the top of each box. It eventually percolates down to the bottom box as pesticide-free water, which can then be drained out onto grass.
“Having built the roof and installed the biofilter,” Andrews continues, “it seemed sensible to then add an end wall, with slatted board for ventilation while the tractor is running during sprayer fill. To complete the installation, and for added security, we added a roller shutter door.”
In conclusion, Andrew feels that what could, perhaps, have been a daunting prospect was made very straightforward, with easy-to-complete forms and help from his Severn Trent adviser.
“The STEPS options have provided me with a great incentive to further improve and enhance our agri-environmental stewardship on the farm, while also reducing our input costs and boosting our production efficiency.”