Matt Baker on farming wildlife

Countryfile Presenter Matt Baker talks about 'farming wildlife'

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Matt Baker

On a recent film trip to the Waddesdon Estate in Buckinghamshire, I heard a term I feel could be the future for farming in Britain: ‘intensively farming wildlife’.

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I’ve grown up on a farm where wildlife has been a large part of the farming environment. As it’s a grazing hill farm with woodland, there’s a lot more scope for encouraging wildlife – our land isn’t suitable for growing crops and is difficult to access with farm machinery.

Wildlife at work

From a farmer’s perspective, I understand the need to get the most from the land you have, and that giving up land doesn’t seem good business acumen. However, Marek Nowakowski from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has some inspirational ideas. He argues that if farmers give up just 3% of their land, it enhances productivity in the fields (as the pollinators will add to the workforce) and means we won’t have any problems with wildlife numbers of any species in Britain.

The key is to provide the ideal wildlife habitat within that 3%, planting grasses and flowers tailored to the farm’s location and resources, to give opportunity, food and shelter to various species so the circle of life can begin. In farming terms, it’s akin to managing and maintaining wildlife as though it is a crop.

Helping hand

British farmers already promote wildlife and are encouraged to do so with government funding. Since 2005 in England, their work through existing agri-environment schemes has:

• managed 41% of hedgerows, providing shelter for wildlife.
• restored or newly planted 30,000 kilometres of hedgerows.
• helped pollinators by sowing wildflowers in field margins.
• increased breeding populations of scarce farmland birds.

Nearly 52,000 farmers and land managers have signed up for the schemes, covering over 6.4 million hectares, or 70% of farmland in England.

The question remains – what could be achieved if such areas were intensely managed to produce wildlife as a crop? A new environmental land management scheme is due to begin in 2016, and £3.1 billion will be available to England alone, aimed at increasing biodiversity, helping wildlife and improving water quality. But how much of it will go to the habitats that have been lost? From a farming viewpoint, I’m keen to push Marek’s theories and sow the habitats back in, as I’ve seen the results for myself.

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It would be a very positive step if, within this new initiative, funding could be geared towards farmers putting their skills into a ‘wildlife crop’, yet not losing out from a business perspective. I honestly believe that we don’t realise what our countryside should or could look like. With the sighting of a rare butterfly or a skylark, it’s easy to think all is well, but how many butterflies or birds should really be there?