Guest blog by Richard Winspear, Agriculture Advice Manager

The new SFI offer is open for applications and there are some good payment rates for many nature friendly options. In this blog, I explain the main ways in which the scheme can be used to boost wildlife. Please refer to the SFI handbook for 2023 for precise details of what is required for each option. It is advisable to follow the guidance links in the handbook for how to manage the options. Although this guidance is not obligatory, it will deliver better outcomes for nature. The SFI doesn’t provide a full range of nature friendly options. However, Defra has committed to expanding the offer and enabling farmers to add new options to their agreements.

The SFI 2023 offer can be used to help deliver four of the six key actions that are needed to restore nature on farmland, although some key options are still only available in Countryside Stewardship The SFI is not the right option for managing large areas of semi-natural habitat, SSSI and creating wet features such as ponds, and scrapes. Here Countryside Stewardship remains the go to offer. However, there are options for low-input grassland, which can be claimed for areas of semi-natural grassland. It is very important that any semi-natural grasslands are not cultivated or reseeded using SFI options as this will significantly reduce their existing wildlife value. For example, herbal leys are only eligible on arable, temporary and improved grasslands.

Key Farm Wildlife Action 


SFI Options   

Eligible land 

Field Boundaries and Margins 

A network of good field boundaries and margins is essential to support wildlife on the farm. 

Assess and record hedgerow condition (HRW1, £3 per 100m) 


Manage hedgerows (HRW2, £10 per 100m)  


Maintain or establish hedgerow trees (HRW3, £10 per 100m) 


4m to 12m grass buffer strip on arable and horticultural land (AHL4, £451 per ha) 

Arable, horticulture 

4m to 12m grass buffer strip on improved grassland (IGL3, £235 per ha) 

Temporary and improved grassland 

Flower rich habitats 

Overall, managing 4% of a farm under flower rich habitat will boost pollinators, pest predators and other wildlife.  

Flower-rich grass margins, blocks or in-field strips (IPM2, £673 per ha) 

Arable, horticulture, permanent crops, temporary grassland 

Pollen and nectar flower mix (AHL1, £614 per ha) 

Arable, horticulture, temporary grassland 

Herbal leys (SAM3, £382 per ha) 

Arable, temporary and improved grassland 

Legumes on improved grassland (NUM2, £102 per ha) 

Temporary and improved grassland 

Legume fallow (NUM3, £593 per ha) 

Arable, horticulture, temporary grassland 

Seed Rich habitat 

Many red-listed farmland birds are seed-eaters that require an abundance of seed food to survive through the winter.  

Winter bird food on arable and horticultural land (AHL2, £732 per ha) 


Arable, horticulture, temporary grassland 

Winter bird food on improved grassland (IGL2, £474 per ha) 

Temporary and improved grassland 

In field management 

Integrated Pest Management 

Assess integrated pest management and produce a plan (IPM1, £989 pa) 

Arable, horticulture, permanent crops, temporary and permanent grassland 

Flower-rich grass margins, blocks, or infield strips (IPM2, £673 per ha) 

Arable, horticulture, permanent crops and temporary grassland 

Companion crop on arable and horticultural land (IPM3, £55 per ha) 

Arable, horticulture, temporary grassland 

No use of insecticide on arable crops and permanent crops (IPM4, £45 per ha) 

Arable, horticulture, permanent crops 

Soil Management  

Assess soil, test soil organic matter and produce a plan (SAM1, £95 pa + £5.80 per ha) 

Arable, horticulture, permanent crops, temporary and permanent grassland 

Multi-species winter cover crops (SAM2, £129 per ha) 

Arable, horticulture, temporary grassland 

Herbal leys (SAM3, £382 per ha) 

Arable, temporary and improved grassland 

Nutrient management 

Assess nutrient management and produce a review report (NUM1, £589 pa) 

Arable, horticulture, permanent crops, temporary and permanent grassland 

Legumes on improved grassland (NUM2, £102 per ha) 

Temporary and improved grassland 

Legume fallow (NUM3, £593 per ha) 

Arable, horticulture, temporary grassland 

Low-input grassland 

Manage grassland with very low nutrient inputs (outside SDAs LIG1 or in SDAs LIG2, £151 per ha) 

Temporary and permanent grassland 

Hedgerow management

Hedgerow management can be through incrementally trimming (raising the height and width of cut by about 10cm per year) or by cutting on a 2–3-year rotation. For wildlife, a three-year trimming rotation in combination with incremental trimming is the best option as this will support more pollinators and feed more wildlife through the winter months. Develop a longer-term plan for hedge-laying or coppicing to rejuvenate the hedge. Hedge-laying and coppicing are funded through Countryside Stewardship capital grants scheme and can be added to your mid-tier scheme at any time.

Hedgerow trees

Hedgerow trees are highly valuable to wildlife, but there are species (such as Lapwings, Skylarks and Corn Buntings) which benefit from more open farm landscapes. Most farms will have areas where tall hedgerow trees will add great value to wildlife and more open areas where hedges are probably best managed to maintain the open landscape character.

Image: Andy Hay (

Grass margins or buffer strips

Tussocky grass margins provide vital habitat for small mammals, nesting bumblebees, overwintering beneficial invertebrates and hunting Barn Owls and Kestrels. They also protect watercourses and other field boundary habitats. In addition, grass field corners and blocks can be funded on arable, horticultural and temporary grassland (AHL3, £590 per ha) and improved grassland (IGL1, £333 per ha) to occupy unproductive in-field areas.

Flower-rich habitats

Flower-rich grass margins (IPM2) includes native wildflowers, which support a much greater range of native insects than the legume-based pollen and nectar mixtures (AHL1). However, the latter are good for bumblebees, and do have a role on land with high nutrient levels where maintenance of wildflower habitats can be difficult. Regular cutting of both options is advisable in the first year to aid establishment, so there will be little flower provision in that year. Once established, perennial mixes should be cut once annually after flowering. Legume-based pollen and nectar mixes can benefit from having up to 50% of the plot cut in May or June to encourage a later flowering and prolong the availability of pollen and nectar. In either case wherever possible, it is advisable to remove cuttings to protect the wildflower component. To add diversity to the habitat, you could leave the 2m closest to the field boundary uncut on a longer rotation to provide winter cover for beneficial insects. In areas with rare arable plants or a diverse arable plant flora, especially on chalk or sandy soils, it is best to use the cultivated areas for arable plants option in Countryside Stewardship.

Image: Sam Turley (

There are a number of in-field options that will contribute to the flower-rich areas on the farm. Herbal leys (SAM3) can be used on arable, temporary and improved grasslands and can be grazed or cut. For wildlife benefits, allowing flowering through part of the spring or summer will greatly enhance their value. Legume fallow (NUM3) can be used on arable horticulture and temporary grassland, and this option cannot be grazed or cut. Legumes on improved grassland (NUM2) is only available on temporary and improved grassland to add a flowering component to the grassland if allowed to flower.

Seed-rich habitats

The wild bird seed mixture option needs to be established every year, or two years if there are biennial components such as Kale, Stubble Turnips or Teasel. Annual mixes with a high cereal content are best for buntings such as Yellowhammers. Evidence suggests that 2% of farmed land managed under this option is sufficient to support populations of seed-eating birds.

On improved grasslands, there is an option to allow ryegrass to seed to provide overwinter seed food (IGL2). This option can be used by stopping cutting hay or silage fields or field margins early enough to ensure that the grass goes to seed by the end of the growing season.

Overwintered stubbles and supplementary feeding options are currently only available in Countryside Stewardship.

In-field management

There are payments for soil management, integrated pest management and nutrient management. These will help to protect life in the soil and reduce the risk of soil, pesticides or nutrients getting into watercourses and affecting aquatic life and habitats further downstream. Some of the options also contribute to other key actions as outlined above. The Integrated Pest Management Plan (IPM1) and Nutrient Management Plan (NUM1) require the input of a qualified advisor, unless you are yourself qualified with BASIS or FACTS, respectively. The companion crop option (IPM3) can pay for use of trap crops, intercropping or under-sowing.

The combination of IPM options can enable many crops to be grown without insecticides and there is a further incentive payment to support this (IPM4). If insecticides are required on land you have entered into IPM4 then you will need to inform RPA.

There are also options for managing grassland with very low nutrient inputs both outside of and inside Severely Disadvantaged Areas (LIG1 and LIG2, respectively). These areas should not receive more that 12t of farmyard manure per hectare or equivalents in other forms of fertiliser. This option can be used to support the management of grasslands which receive no fertiliser inputs anyway.

Go for it!

If the majority of English farmers took up the package explained above, then there would be widespread benefits for nature. Currently, Countryside Stewardship would also be needed to fully meet the Farm Wildlife package, for example, to restore semi-natural habitats and create wet features such as farm ponds, and there are a few options missing in SFI such as winter stubbles and supplementary feeding. Farms with a lot of semi-natural grasslands and other specialist habitats are best served by higher tier Countryside Stewardship. However, SFI is a great starting point towards delivering four of the six key actions.

  • The thing that still worries me is the ability to cherry pick the options that have least impact on yield. We've been here time and time again and why should it be different this time ? We know - Hope Farm is one exemplar - that as little as 5% in field options - margins, beatle banks - could stem the decline in many farmland birds but farmers have always opted for the general options or things like hedges. We should be arguing for 5% in field as the compulsory entry point to any of the other options. I fear we're going to see history repeat itself with farmers gaming the system and birds continuing to decline.