The Nature of Farming Award 2010

The Nature of Farming Award celebrates the farmers who work to protect nature. Judge Fergus Collins finds out what makes a wildlife-friendly farmer, plus you can vote in this year’s competition

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SEE THE FINALISTS AND VOTE IN THIS YEAR’S NATURE OF FARMING AWARD

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I visited a piece of paradise back in May. It was a Wiltshire farm, where the owner, Henry Edmunds, does everything he can to encourage wildlife. As a judge for the Nature of Farming Award, I wanted to see a farm that embraced rather than rejected nature. It was incredible. It was as if someone had switched on the wildlife.
It struck me that Henry’s farm is a mix of crops and livestock – a rare blend these days, but one that encourages a natural cycle of grazing and re-fertilising fields using the animals’ manure instead of “cheap nitrogenous fertilisers” as Henry puts it. This creates conditions for a plethora of wildflowers and insects to thrive, the foundations of the farmland food chain.
Henry is an organic farmer, and does not use herbicides and pesticides on his crops and meadows, but crucially, wildlife thrived on his farm before he went organic due to the sensitive management that is so important. He cuts his hedgerows in winter so as not to destroy spring blossom and birds’ nests, or autumnal nuts and berries. The result is that his billowing hedges resound to the songs of whitethroats and yellowhammers.
Spring sowing and careful ploughing creates nesting habitats for lapwings and stone curlews. Henry’s violet-carpeted woodlands are coppiced to create glades for turtle doves and silver-washed fritillary butterflies. He leaves stubble for birds to forage in over the winter. I could go on… As he says: “I prefer to do all this than pour 17 different types of chemicals on my land.”
Henry’s land is lovely, but things changed when I walked from his farm into the surrounding intensively managed arable farmland, where few wildlife habitats had been maintained or created. The butterflies vanished, the birdsong dropped away, and the landscape lost colour and movement. It may have looked green and pleasant, but the diversity of wildlife in such places has been diminished by pesticides, industrial farming machinery and recent changes to sowing cycles.
So why does Henry care so much about wildlife? Firstly, Henry is passionate about nature. He can’t bear to think of the landscape he owns as devoid of wildlife. “Our lives are enriched by having creatures around us, going about their daily business,” he says. It also makes the countryside a far more interesting, beautiful place for visitors. A land devoid of nature offers less mystery, less beauty.
Secondly, farmers can receive payments for creating wildlife-friendly habitats on their farms through the agri-environment schemes. This can make the difference between profit and loss, and Henry has benefited through Natural England’s Environmental Stewardship scheme. Thirdly, Henry has the support of local RSPB experts, who advise him how to make each improvement ideal for wildlife.
Many in the agricultural world argue that it is almost impossible to farm profitably and sustain wildlife, but Henry begs to differ: “It has to be profitable. I don’t have any other form of income; this farm has to support me and my family,” he says. His organic sheep and cows fatten on the herb-rich pastures and command a premium price, both in farm shops and selected supermarkets. He also makes money from the dairy and arable aspects of his farm.
So why aren’t his neighbours farming in the same way? Henry shrugs sadly and finally lays the blame on government policy since the Second World War. In an effort to make Britain self-sufficient and less vulnerable during future wars, farmers were encouraged to produce as much food as possible at all costs. “It’s become engrained. Farmers teach their sons that intensive farming is everything.
“They’ve got this big machinery, they’ve paid a lot of money for it, and they want to make it work over as big an acreage as possible. They’re wedded to this continuous arable system. Somehow, one has to persuade them that it’s fun to grow butterflies as well.”
Here’s where the Nature of Farming Award (run by the RSPB in association with Countryfile Magazine, Plantlife and Butterfly Conservation) hopes to make a difference. By rewarding the work of men and women such as Henry (who was a runner-up in 2008), it proves to others that farming can be both profitable and sustainable for wildlife. Below, you can discover how different types of farm can become more wildlife friendly – and what to look out when you next take a walk. Don’t forget to support the Nature of Farming Award by voting for one of this year’s finalists.


How farms can become friendlier for wildlife…

 
The lowland livestock farm
As cows and sheep graze, they leave different lengths of vegetation, and this allows herbs and flowers to emerge through the grass. Their droppings attract insects, which in turn attract birds such as swallows and warblers.
Key features of a wildlife-friendly livestock farm:
  • Unimproved grassland – grassland that has escaped the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers will have a wider range of vegetation and richer wildlife.
  • Improved grassland – pasture that has been ‘improved’ with fertilisers and pesticides. Avoiding using chemicals on the margins can encourage some wildlife.
  • Grazing patterns – uneven lengths of grass offer different habitats and attract a wider range of species.
  • Field corners and margins – leaving uncut corners or fencing off areas in grazed fields can allow long-lived insects to complete their lifecycles.
  • Hedge management – thick, wide hedgerows provide food, shelter and nesting habitats for a range of birds. Heavy grazing, chemicals and over-cutting can be damaging.
  • Wet areas – streams, drainage channels, ponds and damp pastures offer crucial habitats for rare plants, insects and birds such as lapwings.
  • Scrub and mature trees – patches of scrub, mature trees with nesting holes, and dead wood provide habitat for woodpeckers, nuthatches and other woodland birds.
  • Hay meadows – old hay meadows can
  • be enhanced by the timing of annual cutting and grazing.
The arable farm
This is the main type of farming employed in southern and eastern England. Annual wildflowers benefit from the regularly disturbed soil and field boundaries can support a huge range of insects, birds and mammals – if given the chance.
 
The mixed farm
A farm that contains a mixture of livestock and arable supports the greatest diversity of wildlife, due to
the range of habitats on offer, including hedgerows, ponds, ditches, woodland, pasture and field margins. It’s the best of both worlds, but such farms are now rare as the modern market for foodstuffs tends to force farmers to specialise in one crop or one type of animal. This means that the landscape and its habitats all follow the same annual cycle of ploughing, sowing or grazing and the diversity is lost.
 
The upland farm
Hill and moorland farming usually involves grazing cattle and sheep on semi-wild landscapes. The patchwork of vegetation, often interspersed with bogs, supports rare wildflowers and nesting waders such as golden plovers and curlews.
Key features of wildlife-friendly arable, mixed and upland farms:
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  • Hedges – should not be trimmed between March and August.
  • Ditches – rotational clearance helps maintain aquatic habitats.
  • Spring cereals and winter stubble – stubble offers winter food for birds. Spring crops provide nest sites for skylarks and lapwings.
  • Wild bird cover – specially sown crop of seed-producing plants are great for birds.
  • Field margins – left fallow, this provides wildlife refuges.
  • Beetle banks – a raised grass bank offers homes for insects.
  • Summer fallow plots – habitat for brown hares, rare plants and nesting lapwings.
  • Mixed crop rotation – farms growing a wider range of crops provide more opportunities for wildlife over the year.
  • Grazing of hill/moor – wildlife is richest when there is a patchwork of vegetation heights and types.
  • Vegetation management – burning of heather and bracken can increase the mosaic of vegetation types.

 

 The Nature of Farming Award 2010 finalists

 
The Nature of Farming Awards 2010 received 250 entries. Judges Mark Avery (RSPB), Victoria Chester (Plantlife) Martin Warren (Butterfly Conservation) and Fergus Collins (Countryfile Magazine) selected four finalists from a shortlist of eight. Now we need your votes to discover the winner, who will receive £1,000.
These are the four finalists. To read much more about them, visit www.rspb.org.uk/farmvote.
 
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Ian Boyd

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
In the last decade, Ian’s farm has changed from being production-led to working in harmony with wildlife. This process is supported by stewardship schemes, but is largely down to Ian’s change of approach, starting at the bottom of the food chain with insects. The range of species attracted includes lapwings, corn buntings, small toadflax, greater and lesser horseshoe bats, and great crested newts. This abundance of wildlife sits alongside an increasing educational programme and a well-run commercial farm.
 
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James Bucher

Diss, Norfolk
James demonstrates a good practical knowledge of conservation land management and the biodiversity benefits it can bring. The impressive management of his 500-hectare farm supports farmland bird species such as corn buntings, yellow wagtails, snipe, turtle doves and grey partridges, as well as water voles and otters.
Wildlife friendly arable habitat covers 18 percent of the farm, while plants like flixweed, viper’s bugloss and pearlwort provide food for unique species such as the grey carpet moth.
 
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John and James Davison

Ballymena, County Antrim
The Davison brothers are a shining example of how upland farming can be managed for business and for nature. Their family farm lies in the Antrim Hills, and here they are striving to increase the numbers of threatened breeding birds such as lapwings and curlews, and other species, including red grouse and Irish hares. Their love of nature, their conservation successes and their position in the local community make them perfect for promoting key conservation messages to the wider farming community.
 
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John Harrison, Ruth Russell

Malton, North Yorkshire
John and daughter Ruth are successful arable and beef farmers. With great enthusiasm they have gone beyond their agri-environment schemes to dramatically increase numbers of lapwings, tree sparrows and grey partridges, as well as barn owls and corn buntings. They have helped marbled white butterflies and scarce wild flowers through careful management of chalk grassland and the sowing of nectar-rich flowers. Dozens of schoolchildren visit the farm every year to enjoy the beauty and learn about farming and conservation.
 
TO VOTE: Visit the RSPB website and fill in the voting form at www.rspb.org.uk/farmvote.
You can also telephone 0870 601 0215* to obtain a voting form.
The deadline for voting is 27 August.
PRIZE DRAW: All voters will be entered into a prize draw to win RSPB wildlife goodies and a luxurious one-night stay for two people at Luton Hoo 5-star hotel. As well as dinner in the restaurant and a full English breakfast, you’ll be able to enjoy the hotel’s 18-hole golf course, spa and more than 1,000 acres of parkland created by Capability Brown.
 
Terms and conditions
The promoter of this prize draw is the RSPB. The competition closes at 23.59 on 27 August 2010. Entries received after that time and date will not be considered. The prize draw winner will be selected at random on 10 September 2010. Winners will be notified within two weeks and, along with the results, will be announced at 
www.rspb.org.uk/farmvote where you can also find full terms and conditions.
*Calls to this number from BT landlines and some other fixed networks cost no more than a national rate call, however calls from mobiles may cost more.