An interview with Jake Fiennes, director of conservation at the Holkham Estate

Jake Fiennes

10 Minute Read

Jake Fiennes is the director of conservation at the Holkham Estate, which covers 25,000 acres in north Norfolk. The estate includes a nature reserve, which is visited by almost a million people a year, and a farming business that grows potatoes, sugar beet and barley. James Swyer met with him to find out more.

You’ve been a passionate supporter of the Big Farmland Bird Count. Monitoring is clearly important to you – why do you feel it’s important to take part?

There is a lack of knowledge within land occupiers. The knowledge they had in the past we’ve lost. Don’t feel afraid that you can’t identify what’s on your farm because you don’t have the knowledge or the expertise because there are a million people out there who’ll help you or do it for you. Once you get to recognise what’s on your farm, you are proud of that and take ownership of it. You want to know how you can go further to enhance it.

If you compare it to knowing the disease and the pest thresholds within your crop and you get given solutions from your agronomist on how you can either reduce your inputs or look at the right applications, you just need to apply the same approach to the natural world. Citizen science is so much more powerful than we think it is.

Even the Sec of State has mentioned the importance of citizen science. Defra recognises it. It’s a wonderful opportunity to look at your farm in a whole different way. Get the family involved, make an occasion of it – treat it like Christmas! I love it because, having done it at Holkham for three years, I can utilise the data to understand where I’m delivering and where I’m not. I also get to see the changes that I make and what improvement that makes.

Yes, it’s a nice occasion to sit out on your farm, but we don’t take enough time in our days to sit and look at stuff and enjoy it. That’s the reason to do it. Taking part in initiatives starts giving you ideas of how you can make a difference. We all know the importance of everyone trying to make a difference. We’ve seen biodiversity loss at an epic scale in the last 50 years and we can change this, we can reverse these trends, but unless we look at what we’re trying to reverse it’s very difficult to understand it.

Feeding the world is a growing challenge – depending on what you read it’s estimated that there’s a need for a 30-70% increase in food production over the next 3 decades – with farmers also expected to deliver for our environment. Can they ever win?

I think there is an opportunity to be the saving grace for society. Farmers need to change their outlook and how they approach land management. They need to be the leaders in this. People are very passionate about the environment and the natural world and who’s looking after 70% of the landscape – British farmers. The Oscar is there to pick up, you just need to carry out the performance to get it. British farmers have the potential to be celebrated as opposed to chastised about what they do.

Carbon capture is going to be really important in the discussion about natural capital, but ask the man or woman on the street and they’ll say we need to plant more trees, but won’t know that hedges or salt marshes can be just as effective. How do we best educate the nation about the wonderful work land managers are doing?

It is complex. Trees play a part, but there are so many other ways to have the same outcomes with a different land use. There is a huge movement in sustainable agriculture, that will play a part in this. We’ve lost 90% of our hay meadows. I’m not suggesting we put them all back in the same place, but we can put them somewhere else that is more economic and efficient for our farm businesses. When the general public is travelling through the British countryside, it would be great if they saw a difference. That it looks different. If you drive through some parts of the country it’s bright yellow in April, full of flowering rape and farmers got chastised for that.

We need to embrace this rather than fight against it. Farmers can play a major part in the solution to climate change. I think some of the new initiatives from the government have the potential to create this change, but we’ll see when we get the detail.

I was taken aback to read a comment in a bird-watching magazine last week which said that said we shouldn’t ask farmers to be conservationists and instead keep land for farming and land for nature – what do you say to that?

Fifty years ago, when farmers produced food, the farm environment produced food in conjunction with nature. If we marginalise nature to corners and nature reserves, it doesn’t work. We can have hotspots, but these hotspots are effectively sinks. They are high risk, specifically with climate change. Fragile, small populations at high risk of impacts through climate change.

The only way for this to work is across the landscape. And if the landscape is managed through agriculture on 70%, agriculture is the solution. I’ve spent 30 years in land management combining food production with high quality, high yield biodiversity. We need to stop marginalising nature, even to the corners of fields, because nature needs to be part of the solution.

If we look at the introduction of catch crops and cover crops, they’ll be the gamechanger, they will sequester carbon, they can have huge biodiversity benefits and maybe we won’t have to put supplementary feeding and wild bird covers everywhere. The whole farm needs to feed birds, not part of it.

Through farmer clusters, we’ve championed the importance of collaboration and knowledge-sharing – bringing together different farming styles and generations, something that’s been a key passion of yours too, be it at Raveningham, Knepp or otherwise. How do we encourage more farmers to work together?

Historically, farming was a very isolated pastime. You worked at quite a local level. In the last 20-30 years, the ride of the contract farmer means the farmer is completely disengaged with food production because someone else is doing it. We need to change the way we think and share information and learn from others.

Our forefathers were deeply connected with the natural world and, with the average age of the British farmer being 67, we’ve disengaged somewhat. If I look at the next generation of farm occupiers, they’re really up for it. They are really buying into it. Historically, the farmer would have fallows, but because the support scheme told us to produce food year-on-year for every inch of our farm, it’s what we did.

Those fallows were a biodiversity hotspot on every farm in every county in every country. We’ve lost that landscape approach. The next generation will demonstrate that farmers and land occupiers have a real ability to reverse trends. We’ll see a different landscape.

The GWCT fought hard for the inclusion payments of soil health within future agri-schemes, which at times was quite a challenge. What would you say to policymakers who remain unconvinced about the need to reward good soil management?

Good soil management should be rewarded. It’s an asset the treasury think is already there, so what are they paying for? They’re paying for added value. If you can increase the microbes within the soil through more sustainable agriculture, that thereby produces healthier crops, less reliance on artificial inputs. Soil is where our food comes from, it’s a complete no-brainer. We will only reap the rewards of incentivising farmers to be greater custodians of soil, but it doesn’t happen in the term of one government. It takes time.

People might look at the larger estates and think it’s not something they can replicate, but much of can be achieved for wildlife through doing the small things right – sward lengths, scrapes, ponds etc. What are some of the lessons farms of all sizes could learn?

Every farmer has the ability to do something. I’ve got a farm here at Holkham that we’re trying to demonstrate what we can do on 10 hectares, that’s nearly the size of James Rebanks’ farm. He recognises the long-term viability of his farm and the importance of nature within it. Every single farmer can do something, you don’t even need to take land out of production – just change the way you cut your hedge.

What motivates you?

I love seeing changes and making a difference. I love those magic hours of dusk and dawn. I used to go out at first light on Christmas morning and see nature move around with cars, pedestrians and cyclists interrupting it. I’m a very lucky individual to oversee the temporary custodianship of a beautiful landscape at scale.

Where there is change there is opportunity. We have this most amazing opportunity ahead of us to make a real difference to our environment and climate change for our children’s children. I do it for my grandchildren I haven’t met yet.

What place does game management have in the future of the British landscape?

Gamekeepers have a place in the future management of the countryside, without a doubt. In my time in land management, I’ve seen the changes in game management and it’s slightly lost its way. We need to really reevaluate. Gamekeepers need to evolve and become those who instigate conversation. They need to understand the importance of data and embrace things like the Big Farmland Bird Count and know how to identify things like butterflies as they’re indicators of the health of your shoot.

I do think gamekeepers are getting better and better. One of our keepers at Holkham informs the farm staff of breeding waders on the arable land, it’s making a difference and all of that backroom data is key. It’s not just about bag returns, gamekeepers need to see the associated benefits to other species.  

There’s also a misunderstanding of what gamekeepers do because the public has issues with the taking of a life, however hypocritical that might be. Despite that, deer control is going to be really important for gamekeepers going forward. We have the highest deer numbers ever and we know the impact on woodland birds.

In the past few years, there have been lots of challenges to traditional land management practices – burning and predation control for example – often in the courts from those without practical experience. Does this concern you?

We will always distort the natural world by the nature of humanity. The public perception of species management and what we try to achieve is because of the imbalance within our environment. We need to have a balanced view and remember that predation is a natural process and the hierarchy within taxa is so important. We can make small interventions that lead to big impacts.

Most organisations recognise that, but we must show it’s the right species at the right time and for the right reason. Applying for a gull licence was an interesting process, I had to really think about why I was doing this and study the data on predation by gulls on ground-nesting birds. We must seek to understand that balance.

The natural world becomes accustomed to a particular style of management. Sometimes when that management happens over a significant period, it creates its own ecosystem. If you change that dramatically, nature can’t catch up. Look at grey partridge. 1964 was the last big grey partridge year because we went from growing spring cereals to winter cereals overnight.

If you apply that same approach to the uplands, where there have been decades of management of a particular management style. We remove that and all the species that are used to it are suddenly exposed. You’ll see declines of some species that embrace that.

We see changes in attitudes all the time. Whether you approve or disapprove of the Hen Harrier Scheme, we’ve seen more hen harriers produced in the British uplands than for a significant amount of time.

What would your advice be for someone going into farming today?

As we enter into the transition period, farmers will start seeing their direct support diminish. We’re yet to get an announcement on how you’ll decouple your land, but it will give an opportunity to new entrants with a completely different view on how land is managed. I’m not suggesting they’re all going to rewild, but they might have a more sustainable and restorative approach to agriculture with more reliance on nature-based solutions.

Why should people support the GWCT?

Because it’s science-based and looking at a slightly different perspective. Also, it’s honest. From Dick Potts through to everything Teresa has done, it’s highlighting that there’s a community out there that has a slightly different approach. Whether you approve or not, it delivers results. The Trust is starting to grapple with making sure others understand its message when the science is telling us we haven’t quite got it right.

It’s not just about gamebirds, it’s about the benefits of a particular style of management that can help a wide range of other species and the Trust was recognising the plight of some of our biodiversity over 80 years ago. You have these other big organisations and it’s great to have a significantly smaller organisation that has a large voice and is listened to. It’s actually coming up with some practical solutions and the other organisations that sit around the table recognise that.

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