Farmers, it is often noted, are early risers. But as well as getting up at the crack of dawn to plough their fields, it seems they also start the new year early - before everyone else has even finished the leftover Christmas pud in fact.


Yesterday I returned from the three day Oxford Farming Conference which took place under a thick blanket of snow and saw the biggest movers and shakers in the UK agriculture industry gathering together to discuss the challenges ahead.


Farmland makes up most of the area of the UK and is far and away the largest habitat for birds and other wildlife – so the conference was a important place for us to be and to get our message across.


In fact the title of this year’s event showed that the industry is taking its responsibility to wildlife seriously – Rising to the Challenge: Feed the World, Protect the Environment. We couldn’t have put it better ourselves – the challenge the industry faces is putting more food on our tables, but not letting the environment suffer as a result.


Environment minister Hilary Benn said as much in his speech at the conference and with the launch of the Government’s new food strategy document he laid out the need for farmers to tackle the food security issue in a sustainable way. As he pointed out in his speech it was 60 years ago that post war prime minister Clement Atlee produced a similar strategy to ensure the nation produced enough food to feed the rapidly swelling post war population.


This was a great success and the agricultural industry stepped up to the plate to do its bit and feed the country. However the consequences for wildlife of the resulting intensification of farming have cast a long shadow. Farmland bird numbers have halved. The grey partridge – once the fourth most common bird in Britain – is now rarely seen in our countryside.


Things are changing though, thanks in large part to the many farmers who do their bit by putting wildlife friendly measures in place on their land. We have identified ten of these farming heroes for a report which we unveiled at the conference, and also at the event we handed over our award to the winner of last year’s Nature of Farming Award, Michael Calvert, who has worked wonders for nature on his farm in Northern Ireland (pictured right with RSPB chief executive Graham Wynne and shadow agriculture secretary Jim Paice).


Here’s to hoping that these farmers lead the way and help us rise to the challenge so that we can ensure both our own survival and that of the wildlife we share our countryside with.