Since RSPB acquired Hope Farm in 1999 there have been three farm managers: Roger Buisson, Darren Moorcroft and Chris Bailey. With Chris having migrated north to join our RSPB Scotland team as Head of Advisory, I have become the fourth farm manager.
This, however, is not my first stint working at the farm. Between 2006 and 2009 I was Senior Research Assistant, overseeing monitoring of the range of taxa which we consider important indicators of how successful our work here has been, and small-scale trial projects. This makes taking over as farm manager very much easier, as I know the farm very well and importantly know our farming contractors equally as well.
My main role here is to oversee the running of the farm and to ensure that work towards delivering the current farm 5-year strategy progresses well.
As well as maintaining our core objectives of maintaining, or even increasing, the profitability of the farm while concurrently delivering high-quality habitat and food resources for birds, we now have the considerable challenge of reducing our carbon footprint and diffuse pollution over the next few years. The broadening of our strategy fits well with the objectives of the RSPB in protecting our natural environment as a whole.
An immediate question from many of you will be am I a farmer? Until now, the simple answer is no, but I do have a very good understanding of both arable and livestock farming having lived on a beef farm in Orkney for several years and working on many farms during RSPB farmland bird-related projects.
Clearly, when coming into any new job there is a huge amount to learn, and thankfully between many of my colleagues and our farming contractors I have a very knowledgeable team to fall back on.
There is also a huge amount of experience and knowledge across the farming community. I hope that I will be able to learn from your insights and experiences, either in person or via this blog, so that I can continue to deliver a profitable farm, with excellent yields and conserve the fantastic array of biodiversity that we enjoy here.
The farm is a great place to see how it is possible to successfully combine conventional farming and conservation. We are always very willing to host visits by visiting groups of farmers, or those linked with the farming industry. If you are interested in visiting, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to seeing many of you over the next few years and to reporting back on future successes here at Hope Farm.
Over the summer months, the RSPB has met with many MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) to discuss topics as varied as seabird by-catch from fishing fleets to biodiversity in the UK’s overseas territories.
For two MEPs in July, the focus of our meetings was to demonstrate how farming and wildlife can go hand in hand and how critically important continued public investment in wildlife-friendly farming is.
In early July, the RSPB’s Hope Farm played host to Richard Ashworth, a Conservative MEP representing the South East of England. Richard sits on the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee and comes from a farming background so was more than familiar with the day to day challenges of running a commercial arable enterprise. What came as something of a surprise was how well Hope Farm has combined a profitable and high yielding business with the turnaround in farmland birds’ fortunes, all through the sensitive deployment of ELS agri-environment options which are available to all farmers in England.
In late July, we took Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat MEP representing the North West of England, to Claremont Farm in Bebington. Run by the enterprising and energetic Andrew Pimbley, Claremont Farm combines conventional farming operations with targeted conservation work through England’s Higher Level Stewardship scheme, all while successfully getting members of the public onto the farm, whether through its ‘pick your own’ plots, its educational ‘welly walks’ or its successful Wirral Food Festival (which runs over the August Bank holiday weekend).
Hope Farm and Claremont Farm are both great examples of what agri-environment can deliver - not just for wildlife but for farm businesses too. Agri-environment schemes have to make economic sense in order to be attractive to farmers and in many cases their options can be located on less productive land – such as next to hedgerows or awkward corners – meaning they can provide a good economic return to the farmer which would often not be possible through production. As Claremont Farm is also demonstrating, entry into an agri-environment scheme can be used as another tool to encourage people onto the farm and demonstrate what it is doing for the wider environment.
However, the current round of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform may make it harder to properly fund agri-environment schemes in the future. The European Commission’s proposals, expected in October, are likely to suggest that Member States no longer have to spend a minimum amount on agri-environment schemes and will expect the CAP’s ‘Pillar 2’, where agri-environment schemes sit, to fund more measures (such as competiveness and innovation schemes) with less money.
This is where the European Parliament and MEPs such as Richard Ashworth and Chris Davies come in. Once the Commission launches it proposals, agreement will be thrashed out between the European Parliament and the EU’s Member States. It will be vitally important that MEPs make the case for well funded agri-environment schemes as part of the next CAP and that Member States are able to generate extra funding for them if required (through, for example the shift of money from the CAP’s direct payment Pillar into Pillar 2). For Richard Ashworth, who sits on the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee, and for Chris Davies sitting on the Environment Committee, the message must be that agri-environment schemes make sense for the environment, for farming business and for the taxpayers who ultimately fund this important work. They must be protected!
When was the last time you had a cirl bunting on your farm?
My guess is unless you live in Devon or parts of Cornwall you’ve probably never heard of them.
These relatives of yellowhammers, until the turn of the 19th century, had a stronghold throughout southern England and into parts of Wales and the Midlands. But by 1989 there were just 118 pairs, mostly in Devon. RSPB along with Natural England started to work with farmers in south Devon to try to save the cirl bunting.
Cirl buntings are birds of mixed farmland and the loss of sources of winter food and nest sites were the major reasons for the dramatic decline.
The birds need to forage in weedy stubble fields in winter, in spring they nest in hedges or scrub and feed their chicks on insects, particularly grasshoppers and are often associated with semi-improved grassland. And because they don’t tend to move very far from where they grew up, all of these habitats need to be close together.
They hung on in south Devon because small, traditionally mixed farms persisted with spring-sown crops such as barley and maintained the required habitat diversity.
(RSPB reserve Labrador Bay, managed for cirl buntings; Photo by Andy Hay)
More than twenty years later, the 2009 national survey showed that there were 862 pairs in south Devon and Cornwall. This increase has only been possible because of close work with farmers and the availability of agri-environment schemes. Indeed research showed that cirl buntings increased by 83% on farms in Countryside Stewardship compared to only a 2% increase elsewhere!
Here we have the annual newsletter of the cirl bunting project
Find out how the project is going now, how Entry Level Stewardship can be used to help, what the local farmers think, and another local species being helped by South West farmers.
I love it when things work out well. We put a stack of effort into working with farmers to find new ways to help wildlife. Not every idea will turn out to be as practical or effective as we want it to be (that is the point of testing ideas out after all), but I’m pleased to say that we have a new winner in our midst!
We have been studying common ryegrass, which is grown across the UK for grazing and silage. We have found that leaving small patches to go to seed around fields provides an abundant source of food for small birds such as yellowhammers and reed buntings. This simple measure will help seed eaters survive the ‘‘hungry gap" in late winter and early spring.
We will be encouraging the Government to add this option in to environmental stewardship schemes. If successful, it will be great news for dairy farmers who often find their opportunities to take up agri-environment schemes pretty limited.
We couldn’t do this kind of research without help from farmers across the country taking part in the trials. One of the farmers who contributed to this trial is Robert Kynaston. Robert will be talking about the trial on Farming Today next week (5.45am weekdays, BBC Radio 4).
Robert is also a worthy finalist in this year’s RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award. You can hear more about the Award from some of this year's competitors on our July podcast. Don’t forget to read about the four fabulous finalists and vote for your favourite – you could win a free luxury weekend for two!
Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
This week sees the end of my brief term acting as Hope Farm Manager. I have been overseeing operations since Chris Bailey left in June. It has been great to have more direct involvement in the running of the farm, but the really interesting stuff is just underway. The oilseed rape was harvested on 29 July, and the wheat was harvested on 3 August. As Chris said in his last blog, we are expecting yields to be low, given that it has been the driest spring here in over 100 years. Derek Gruar, the resident research biologist, is about to start evaluating the 2011 bird populations from his weekly counts throughout the breeding season. We will be able to report these and our 2011 crop yields in the next blog.
Ian Dillon started as the new farm manager on 1August. Ian is not completely new to the farm. He was the research biologist overseeing research and monitoring on the farm between 2006 and 2009, so he has trudged around these fields many times. Now, his focus will be more on the management of the crops and the environmental features, and he can leave all of the wildlife monitoring to Derek!
We are keen to invite more farmer groups to Hope Farm to look at what we have done to combine productive arable farming and boost wildlife populations. Our tours are fully interactive: we are as keen to find out what arable farmers could do on their own land as showing them what we have done on ours. This is the best way to identify and address the barriers to uptake of the most beneficial wildlife measures that currently exist. If you are a member of a farmer club, why not find out if they would be interested in a group visit? To arrange a visit, please e-mail email@example.com.