Countdown - 5, a countryside full of Hope?

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Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

Countdown - 5, a countryside full of Hope?

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Hope Farm is doing well.  In fact it is one of the aspects of our work on which I look back with considerable personal satisfaction.  Acting as a senior figure in a fairly large organisation one has a variety of roles - one of which is to make the big calls.  The RSPB going into arable farming in the hope that we could do it and produce a lot more wildlife was a big call.  Not mine alone of course but getting the idea together and getting the proposition through our Council, and then making sure that it worked, was my responsibility.  Luckily I've always had great staff around me who deliver the goods!

And it needed to work.  A large amount of money was involved - the actual price is a confidential matter between us and the vendor but we are talking about over £1.5m 11 years ago.  And that purchase was generously supported by RSPB members who thought it was a great idea - we worried about that at the time too.  would our membership 'get' the idea of spending money on land that would never be a nature reserve?  They did - they always support us provided we explain things well - thank you all.

Hope Farm has delivered increased wheat yields, is a perfectly respectable productive farm and yet has seen spectacular increases in bird numbers - and those of other wildlife too.  All this has been achieved through sensible use of existing agri-environment schemes - some of which contain options which were developed at Hope Farm.

As a demonstration project it has been a great success - it really has.  The achievements on the ground - quadrupling of skylark numbers, the return of the lapwing and grey partridge - all have surpassed our initial hopes.  And thousands of farmers have seen what has happened and gone away a little better informed about the RSPB and a little better informed about how to protect wildlife.  But not enough of those farmers are giving their farms the Hope farm treatment - if they were then we'd see increases in farmland bird numbers.

Sometimes it is suggested that if only we had a network of Hope Farms than we could get the message across so much better - that's a network of £1.5m projects.  It is tempting as an end point but less tempting as a way to spend our money.  The case is made as to how effective the agri-environment measures can be - and without, in this case, the need for expensive predator control - and decision-makers are convinced and farmers should be convinced by the practicality of the necessary measures.  We need something a little more to nudge things forward.

And how about Hope Farms in the hills or Hope Dairy farms?  Again, nice ideas - but quite pricey and quite difficult undertakings.  And if no one copies you even when you have proved the concept then ...?

Hope Farm has been fortunate to have three excellent managers over the years: Roger Buisson, Darren Moorcroft and Chris Bailey.  As Chris is moving on soon we will be looking for another to take the work forward - might it be you?  And taking it forward involves trying to keep those wheat yields up, keep those bird  numbers up, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the land and reduce water pollution flowing off the land.

Hope Farm has figured quite often in this blog (see here, here, here, here and here for example).

Hope Farm appears eight times in the index to this excellent book where farming and farmers appear over 30 times.


  • miles - thanks - good comment

    Nyati - I don't think there is a similar farm that has done as well.  Do you have one in mind?  No-one said that Hope farm started with lots of advantages when it did start - it looked like a hard task compared with 'farms in England that have demonstrated similar results'.  Do 'farms in England that have demonstrated similar results' have similar results for skylarks? or indeed for grey partridges?  Not that I know.  Do you.

    essex peasant - have you bought a copy then?  I think not.  

    Sooty - that's really not fair, and you probably know it.  No we don't have a mortgage on the farm - but nor did, as far as I know, the previous owners.  And is it profitable - not as profitable as giving the money to me to bet on the races but now probably more profitable than the Stock Market.  If this were a nature reserve we wouldn't be growing wheat on it - we could dramatically increase farmland bird numbers if we gave up the difficult task of trying to achieve modern profitable farming.  Give us a break please.  

  • Sounds like a smart investment to me, must be worth twice the purchase price now.

    Good to see the farm monitors all the species on it, not just 19.

    Disappointed that the RSPB chose to use contractors to do the farming, it would have been much better  letting a young couple rent the farm at a fair rent, the environmental stuff could have been written into the lease.

    Interesting to note Hilary Benn writing the foreword in Mark's book and that Mark is keen to mention he is a member of the labour party.

    Essex Peasant

  • Well done to you at RSPB ref Hope Farm it has been very successful in increasing bird numbers and showing other farmers things possible to improve numbers on their farms but it takes time to get the message across.

    The difference between H F and other farms is it is so much easier to do these things if there is less pressure because the farm is bought for you with no expense of mortgage.It is in fact in my opinion and no one has proved otherwise not very profitable for RSPB even allowing the past years have been the most profitable corn years for probably at least a century.

    It is really just another reserve and should be called Hope Farm Reserve.

    Know the RSPB will not agree but as my first remarks show I am quite happy to praise the part Hope Farm Reserve has played.    

  • One of our dear neighbours gave his land agent £13 million to spend on land all in the cause of shooting. We are already having 8000 Red legged partridges released on Black Grouse habitat. I suppose the only benefit will be a few birds for the rare Hen Harriers and Eagle Owls to feed on!

  • You have been very successful, particularly with skylarks.  I think there are farms in Engalnd that have demonstrated similar results?  

    In addition Hope Farm has some significant habitat advantages eg not many crows or magpies unless they bring their trees with them?  

  • Hi Mark,

    I agree Hope Farm has been one of the most successful ways for RSPB to show how arable farming can be done to benefit birds and other wildlife. While I also agree that a Dairy Hope farm would be of less value, I think that a Beef/Lamb "Hope Farm" would prove hugely valuable.

    We at the Grasslands Trust are trying to buy a lowland livestock farm in Herefordshire, called Bury Farm (it used to be called Bury of Hope farm!) - we have launched an appeal to raise funds to support the purchase  - I hope you'll be happy for me to plug this and include this weblink

    We have applied to the Lottery for a big chunk of the funding - and will hear whether we have been successful in our bid for HLF funds in just under a month - fingers crossed.

    If we are able to buy this amazing farm, we will certainly use it to investigate how livestock farming and wildlife can co-exist and even make more of a profit from producing wildlife-friendly meat - I very much hope RSPB will help us in this endeavour, knowing how much you are taking an interest in grassland conservation now. Bury Farm is of course very different from Hope farm  - because of the way it has been farmed, it still has grasslands full of wildlife, whereas Hope farm was and still is a conventional arable farm.

    To me this shows up the huge difference between arable farming for birds, and livestock farming for grassland wildlife (including birds). If you've aleady lost the wildlife from a livestock farm it's much more difficult to get it back. With farmland birds - if you provide the right conditions, they will return.