2012 is a truly auspicious year in Britain, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and a certain sporting event that cannot be named for legal reasons. But it is also an auspicious year in the sleepy Cambridgeshire hamlet of Knapwell, home to Hope Farm, the RSPB’s 180 hectare arable farm.
Changing farming practices and polarisation of cropping regimes has been great for us all as consumers. Rarely are supermarket shelves empty, prices are affordable for most and the variety of choice is staggering.
But the cost has been high for wildlife. There are one million fewer skylarks in England now, compared to the early 1970s. For every 100 grey partridges in 1970 there are now fewer than 10.
We would not want to turn the clock back, UK farmers are competing in a world market. But we firmly believe that it isn’t a choice between modern farming or wildlife, it can be both. It should be both.
In 2000, we put our money where our mouth is, and bought Hope Farm. We took it on as a going concern, and we set ourselves the challenge of maintaining profitability, increasing wheat yields and increasing key farmland bird numbers. We teamed up with local contractors, who carried out the cropping operations and husbandry and most of the conservation habitat management for us.
By 2011, key bird numbers had increased by over 200% on average, a truly amazing result. But it is even more amazing when you consider wheat yields had increased from 8 tonnes/hectare in 2000 to 11.5 tonnes/hectare in 2009, and profitability had been maintained throughout.
Poul Christensen, Chair of Natural England said during a recent visit “Hope Farm shows what can be done with support from Entry Level Stewardship. Farmland birds are returning and the local environment is in great shape - water courses are full of life and the field margins are buzzing.”
The needs of agricultural production and environmental challenges remain inextricably linked, but Hope Farm – and other wildlife-friendly farms across the country – are living proof it’s possible to boost one while addressing the other.
We are celebrating these achievements in a new publication ‘Hope Farm: Farming for food, profit and wildlife’, which you can download here (PDF, 1.6Mb)
We are setting ourselves new challenges of monitoring diffuse pollution and reducing our carbon footprint. We’ll be learning along the way – watch this space to find out how we get on.
As a certain major sports event opened on Friday, with a spectacular ceremony featuring a pastoral idyll that helped shape our green and pleasant land, my thoughts turned to some of the amazing farm wildlife that share our landscape. A great case could be made for many contenders, but here is my winners list:
Also a hearty round of applause to Farm Team GB (by which I mean all those fabulous wildlife friendly farmers out there), who give this winning list of wildlife a sporting chance of survival. You can give them all a metaphorical medal by voting in this year’s RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award – and you might just win a luxury break for two people.
Kingfisher: John Bridges (rspb-images.com) Brown hare: Paul Dunn - Glamorgan Heritage Coast Project
Just in time for the summer weather - solar panels were installed at Hope Farm this week. This is part of a programme across many of the RSPB's offices and reserves (and our one commercial farm!) to help combat climate change. Read more about it here.
In action at Hope Farm this week
By Jenna Hegarty, Senior Agriculture Policy Officer
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform negotiations are in full swing and much of the attention has been on controversial ‘greening’ proposals for Direct Payments (Pillar I). So we felt it was high time to shine the spotlight on Rural Development (Pillar II). Along with BirdLife Europe and our German partner, NABU, we held a conference in Brussels in June to focus on the vital role of Pillar II in promoting wildlife-friendly farming and improving the CAP’s environmental performance - reinforcing the message that wildlife-friendly farmers took to their MEPs in March.
Conference panel discussion © Jenna Hegarty, RSPB
Influential speakers, including MEPs from the Agriculture and Environment Committees, European Commission, European Court of Auditors, European Environment Agency and DEFRA, highlighted the scale of the environmental, economic and social challenges facing us all and the importance of agriculture and CAP in addressing these. Speakers working on rural development schemes on the ground demonstrated the positive impact that well-designed and funded schemes can have for the environment and rural communities.
Everyone recognised the need to improve the overall environmental performance of the CAP. Whilst ‘greening’ of Pillar I is necessary, for us it is clear that a strong, well-targeted and well-funded Pillar II is crucial to make this CAP reform the real green reform we all need in order to meet our environmental targets and protect the natural resources that underpin food production and long-term food security.
In economically uncertain times, with ongoing EU budget discussions threatening further cuts to CAP funding, now - more than ever - is the time to demonstrate value for money for public investment in EU agriculture by supporting the Rural Development schemes that reward you for the amazing things you do for wildlife and the environment. Without this, the future of sustainable farming in Europe looks increasingly fragile and public support for continued investment in the CAP could be lost.
BirdLife launched a declaration to coincide with the conference, calling for more Pillar II funding and ring-fenced funding for targeted measures such as agri-environment that support more sustainable land management and viable farming communities. If you would like to sign the declaration and help ensure that this CAP reform provides Rural Development Policy with the support it urgently needs, please contact Elodie.Cantaloube@birdlife.org. We will continue working hard to ensure that the reformed CAP delivers for farmers, the public and the environment.
I have to confess I get as excited about the first combine harvester coming into action each summer as I do about the first swallows & swifts arriving back from Africa each spring.
While the arrival of the first swallow symbolises the start of summer, and a feat of nature, that this little bird can cross the Sahara desert, the first combine of the year symbolises the start of autumn and a feat of human innovation: modern technological farming.
I can’t help getting excited when I first hear the distinctive hum of a harvester working in a local field on a warm summer’s evening, sending up a cloud of golden dust into the sunset. It sounds the signal that harvest has started, that gratifying period of reaping what we have sown, lamenting lazy summer evenings and fields of gold.
Barley Harvest by Emily Field July 2012
The scale of the machine close up, the efficiency with which it turns a field of barley, with its crispy ripe ears of grain now curled head down into the crop, into neat rows of golden straw and a lorry load of grain ready to take off to the malting factories is totally thrilling. Two men can now do the job of dozens, in a fraction of the time.
Modern farming has achieved better food production than we could ever have imagined a century ago. Things have changed a lot since the Victorians started inventing and creating the first machines to do the work of the horses.
Done right, modern farming can yield fantastic crops, and thanks to Environmental Stewardship Schemes, a clever farmer can yield both food and wildlife efficiently. Using the farmland bird package www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/farming/advice/conservation/package/index.aspx and modern tools, we can grow intensive crops to feed hungry birds in the winter, on 2hectares of land, to compensate for the 100s of hectares that once were full of spilt seed, on the inefficient farms of the past.
Using plants bred to provide more nectar, we can grow intensive plots to support populations of pollinating insects and British honeybees.
And by supporting farmers with public funds, we can even re-create homes for skylarks and lapwings which fill the local countryside with their atmospheric songs and calls for all to enjoy as we relax in the countryside after our hectic modern working lives.
But Caution! This year’s weather hasn’t been easy for our wildlife or our farmers- and even in the modern age- we play roulette with the weather.
I can hear some people crying out for those birds still nesting now, and for our special late season ground nesting birds such as corn bunting, indeed a combine harvester is like an angry tsunami, which its chicks cannot escape. What can a modern farmer do to help? Some farmers can grow spring sown crops which are harvested slightly later, but for the others, our clever RSPB Scientists and wildlife friendly farmers are testing special corn bunting nesting plots.
That’s why I have every faith that modern innovation will be able to save all our iconic species, thanks to the enthusiasm of our fantastic farmers for looking after our countryside.
What do you think of my take on modern farming? Perhaps you disagree?