BBC Springwatch highlights how the hard work of the Martin Down Farmer Cluster and the GWCT is making a difference for wildlife, soil and water


The latest season of Springwatch on BBC One praised farmers in the Martin Down Farmer Cluster, and the wider supercluster they are part of, for their hard work in restoring biodiversity and supporting wildlife across their land at a landscape scale.

Presenting live from the Martin Down National Nature Reserve, Iolo Williams told viewers in episode 4, broadcast on 3 June about the work of the 15 farmers in the cluster, which covers 5,500 ha south-west of Salisbury, saying: “The cuckoo has been cuckooing here all day. You get about half of the UK’s butterfly species here - this is one of the best places in the country for butterflies.

“There are more skylarks here than I’ve heard anywhere else ever. They’re singing all around me. It’s a fantastic place.

“Unfortunately, a lot of our farmland birds are in steep decline, which includes the yellowhammer and the corn bunting.

“But the farmers here were not going to take that lying down and... they’ve all come together. In 2017 they got the experts [GWCT] in to carry out a baseline survey – they recorded all the plants and all the birds that were here, all the mammals and all the invertebrates.

“They undertook all the work, took advantage of all the grants, they planted hedge rows, they scraped out ponds, they left wide verges to every field to encourage wild flowers, they put up nest boxes and the results have been mind blowing!

“Corn buntings have increased by 125%, grey partridge numbers have increased. Barn owls are producing more young than they did before. They’ve even seen an increase in the number of hedgehogs here.

“So all of you farmers, thank you very much! I salute you!”

Addressing his fellow presenter Chris Packham, Iolo said: “Chris, isn’t it brilliant to hear about farmers coming together and undertaking positive action for wildlife while farming the land, making a living, but making a big, big difference.”

In reply, Chris Packham said: “Fantastic, it sends a really clear message out to all those other farmers that we have the capacity to do that – farm wildlife, farm food, feed people, and have a sustainable landscape. Top work!”

Farmer Clusters – a GWCT invention

The concept of Farmer Clusters was developed by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) in 2013 and are designed to help farms join together over a larger area, enabling them to work collaboratively to find solutions, share ideas, and deliver greater benefits for wildlife and nature that can be implemented on a landscape-wide scale.

The model has now been adopted countrywide with more than 100 Farmer Clusters present in England, working with and supporting more than 5,000 farmers in their conservation efforts.

Megan Lock, GWCT Advisor, says: “I am so proud to be the national lead for Farmer Clusters at GWCT and the Facilitator for the Martin Down and Allenford Farmer Clusters, which form 2/3 of the Martin Down Farmer Supercluster.

“Led and funded by farmers, clusters provide landscape-scale conservation and species recovery alongside productive agriculture, which is the key in addressing the problems we face.

“Springwatch gave us such high praise, encouragement and endorsement.

“The GWCT has been involved with the concept of Farmer Clusters from the very beginning, helping to establish the ground-breaking farmer-led Marlborough Down Nature Improvement Area in 2012, and then the first pilots of ‘farmer clusters’ in partnership with Natural England in 2014.

“Along with a range of other rural organisations and independent advisors, we provide support and advice to help new and existing groups.”

The Allenford cluster covers 7,500 ha and 13 farmers, and the Martin Down cluster 5,500 ha and 15 farmers. Together with the Chalke Valley Farmer Cluster they form the Martin Down Farmer Supercluster, which spans across 236 km2.

Farmer Clusters achievements and benefits

A Farmer Cluster is designed to start life at a bottom-up, farmer level, under the guidance of a lead farmer. They devise their own conservation plans, helped by their own chosen conservation advisors, whom they already know and trust.

By working with farmers and land managers the GWCT has been able to build relationships with them and become a trusted point of contact for advice and help.

Measures that farmers have successfully implemented include:

  • Helping waders by restoring and managing important habitats.
  • Halting declines in farmland birds such as yellowhammer, grey partridge, corn bunting and skylark.
  • Creating wetland areas and ponds.
  • Planting hedges and creating beetle banks and wildflower verges for pollinators as well as other wildlife habitats.
  • Installing bird boxes and providing supplementary feeding to help a long list of species.
  • Completing baseline surveys and species monitoring to understand longer term trends and the effect of conservation work.

The fantastic work being completed by farmers and their advisors across farmer clusters is one of the best and most effective ways we can achieve ‘bigger, better, and more connected’ conservation. Around 72% of the UK is farmland, and since their development farmer clusters have proven themselves to be an excellent tool for delivering joined up nature recovery across our landscapes.

The birth place of the Environmental Farmers Group (EFG)

Farmer Clusters were the starting point for the farmer-led Environmental Farmers Group (EFG), which helps its members get a fair financial return for delivering landscape-scale environmental goods and services.

The EFG is a natural evolution of the farmer cluster principle. Co-founded by the GWCT and members of the Martin Down Super Cluster in 2022, it formed a proper legal entity, designed to help its members access emerging natural capital markets with the three aims of restoring biodiversity loss, improving river health and moving to net carbon zero farming by 2040. GWCT acts as its scientific advisor and a subsidiary of the Trust, Natural Capital Advisory, provides its executive function.

Since 2022, EFG has gone from strength to strength, expanding across the UK. It now comprises over 450 farmers covering over 220,000 ha with cells in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Isle of Wight, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Northern Lincolnshire. EFG completed its first trade last year (worth £1m) and has a pipeline of over 20 trading opportunities valued at £12.5m.

GWCT Chief Executive and EFG board member Teresa Dent said: “I was delighted to help initiate the EFG, working with farmers in the Hampshire Avon catchment, when first, it became clear they were up for delivering even better environmental outcomes and second, that it was going to be difficult for them as individuals to access and get a fair return from Natural Capital markets and future Green Finance. While we welcome the increasing number of options available in the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme, new forms of funding are going to be important to underpin long-term, inter-generational environmental improvements.”

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Martin Down Farm Cluster

at 6:03 on 12/06/2024 by Frank Langrish

It is good news to that Farmers get a pat on the back for the work that has obviously achieved an improvement in all species. Farming in an area where ever increasing amounts of land is being taken out of any production "Rewilding" all I see is an increase in predators. We are the last ones catching Crows and Magpies and this years the numbers have just exploded that we have caught. Ground nesting birds have no chance with the massive numbers of Badgers and because they hoover up all the Mice and Voles there are no Barn Owls and no Hedgehogs. The unpalatable reality has to be told.

Predator control

at 12:02 on 11/06/2024 by Paul White

I could not agree with David Heywood more, none of the brilliant work being carried out by the EFG’s would be possible without predator control. The BBC should be applauded for giving credit to the EFG’s, but should also acknowledge and tell its viewers that control of predators is vital whether Mr Packham likes it or not!

Martin Down Farmer Cluster

at 11:11 on 11/06/2024 by David Heywood

It was great to hear the Springwatch programme praising the Farmers and list the good work they are doing, but they failed to acknowledge the fact they have been using Larsen traps to control Magpies. Are the BBC still afraid they might upset viewers, surely they have a responsibility for the sake of threatened prey species to help educate the public that pest/predator control is a vital tool in the armoury.

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