THOSE who are passionate about wildlife were left enthused by a series of heartfelt talks as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Farmer Cluster Conference proved to be a real hit.
Farmers, facilitators, advisors and policy makers were part of a sell-out crowd at the Birmingham and Midland Institute on November 1st who learned about the opportunities farmer clusters present and how they could be vital post-Brexit.
Dr Jemma Batten, whose Marlborough Down project set the blueprint for farmer clusters, gave a passionate account of what can be achieved when farmers are empowered to manage the land in the way they know best. “There’s a difference between an incentivised farmer and a motivated farmer” she noted, highlighting the importance of working together at a landscape scale, saying “farmer collaboration is the new norm and we’ve turned the financial model on its head”.
She added: “To have come this far in six years is phenomenal.”
Sam Topham, a director of Abbotsley Farms which looks after 900ha, joined Oakbank’s Sarah Brockless to give a first-hand account of how facilitation funding has helped in achieving high levels of conservation success.
Specifically, work at the farm he runs has grown its grey partridge numbers from eight spring pairs in 2014 to 48 pairs in 2018.
They said: “We’ve been faced with many challenges, including Dutch Elm disease making our land like an arable prairie, which is why connectivity had to be re-established across a wide area.
“And being in a Farmer Cluster has improved woodland structure, given members the skills to lay and coppice hedgerows, and restore a pond which has benefitted a number of threatened species, such as great crested newt and spotted flycatcher.
“Ultimately, these schemes inspire and encourage farmers who were previously unengaged.”
Cathy Horsley, who is a conservation officer at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, shared similar success stories about getting farmers and the wider public caring about wild pollinators.
She stressed the importance of training volunteers and farmers so they can understand what’s on their land.
This was echoed by Natural England’s Beth Brockett, Rose O’Neill and Rob Harvard.
“Small sites need to work together and we should do bold things that work,” Mr Harvard emphasised during his talk on conserving grasslands – profiting from native pasture.
“People tend to focus on where there is wildlife and improving it. We welcome any habitat creation in the area. It’s important to focus on the impetus rather than hotspots.”
Monitoring wildlife on a farmer cluster was also discussed throughout the day.
Jessica Brooks, a farmland biodiversity advisor at GWCT, explained how monitoring, where she facilitates the Martin Down Farmer Cluster, gives evidence that what you’re doing works and helps to engage farmers. Many delegates raised the issue of a proposed ‘payment by results’ system, highlighting how monitoring, as well as understanding what your farm’s baseline looks like, will only become more important.
Martin Wain, from the Butterfly Conservation, added the value to monitoring butterflies on farms, with the data being collected for a national database called Living Record, discussed by Adrian Bicker.
The Farmer Cluster concept was 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. Although the work is often supplemented by existing agri-environment schemes, several Farmer Clusters have set up with no public funding.
When the idea was launched by GWCT’s chief executive Teresa Dent CBE, five clusters were established in the southern region, and now there are over 100 across England.
“It was good to see such an impressive turn-out. All the talks were really good, and as one of the speakers said, the energy and enthusiasm in the audience was impressive,” said Teresa.
The GWCT would like to extend its thanks to Natural England and Agricology for sponsoring the event.
About the Farmer Cluster idea
Unlike existing environmental schemes for farms, which are top-down and involve much red tape, GWCT’s scheme is voluntary and led by the farmers themselves.
They decide what wildlife they would like to encourage and appoint a lead farmer and they choose their own conservation advisor.
In one example, the South Wiltshire Farmland Conservation Project brings together groups of farmers to improve wildlife numbers and habitat on 450 square miles of farmland around Cranborne Chase AONB.
This started as a project to protect vulnerable birds, and widened its remit to include other species of wildlife, as well as protecting soil and water. The scheme will benefit rare butterflies, including the marsh fritillary, as well as 19 species of bumblebee.
Notes to editors
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust – providing research-led conservation for a thriving countryside. The GWCT is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.
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