With the successor to the previous agri-environment schemes in England nearing it's final stages of development, Farming Minister George Eustice made a trip to visit the RSPB's Hope Farm earlier this month to see how we've been giving nature a home on the farm.
Image: George Eustice (centre) at Hope Farm (Amy Bell, DEFRA)
Hope Farm is run as a commercial enterprise which faces similar challenges to other arable farms around the UK, and like 70% of others we entered the farm into ELS to support some of the environmental land management we carry out on the farm, skylark plots, flower-rich margins and wild bird cover. Over the last 14 years we have been successful in achieving a significant increase in the number and variety of birds on the farm. Against the backdrop of a sharp decline in farmland birds nationally, our results have been ‘quite remarkable’ according to Mr Eustice. We’ve used our own ecological expertise to make sure that our ELS agreement is providing the big 3 for birds - safe nesting habitat, food in winter to help them survive the colder weather and lots of food (often insects and invertebrates) in summer to grow healthy chicks. If one of the three is missing, or if the scale or location is inappropriate, the circle breaks and potential for the farm to deliver for wildlife is compromised.
What we've done is not remarkable - or at least it shouldn't be. Similar results could be achieved by any number of farmers across the UK - but the current scheme is fundamentally flawed in its inability to guide farmers to making the best choices for their farm and the environment. There are a lot of farmers who are in ELS and doing their best, but it is unfair to expect every farmer to have sufficient ecological knowledge to build the best scheme for their farm and its wildlife, or to expect them to deliver sometimes challenging options with little or no support or advice. Our farmland advisors have been working hard across the UK to support farmers in that task, but they can’t reach every farmer. As a result, we have seen the mass uptake of the simplest options which in isolation do not deliver the benefits for wildlife that we all want to see - the Big 3 'circle' is broken.
Our experiences with Hope Farm demonstrate that a good quality ELS really can work - but it relies on the right options being put in the right place and at the right scale to see the dramatic improvements for farmland birds that we so desperately need.
The Higher Level scheme in England, however, has had much better results due to its more targeted approach and greater level of ongoing support and advice for farmers who are in the scheme to help them get the best results. But this comes at a cost, and there is less money available for agri-environment as a result of the latest CAP review. So the question now is surely one of quality, rather than quantity – although this will mean that fewer farmers will be able to participate in the new environmental land management scheme (NELMS) being developed, we believe that a more targeted future for agri-environment will enable farmers to really see the difference that their management can make. NELMS is a great opportunity to learn the lessons from ELS and HLS and develop a scheme that works for all involved - the farmers who commit themselves to making a positive difference, the wildlife that has the potential to thrive on their land, and the public who support British agriculture through their shopping habits, their taxes and their enjoyment of the countryside
Time is not on the side of farmland birds if we continue to deliver agri-environment in a broad and shallow way, so it is encouraging to hear Mr Eustice’s commitment to provide “support for things that really benefit farmland birds.” We are hopeful that when the new scheme is finally available, it will have been designed to set farmers up for success in achieving positive results, and that in years to come we will see the benefits across the wider countryside as our farmland wildlife starts to recover.
Read the full story in Farmers Guardian here
I first heard from Mr Blackburn back last November. His current agri-environment agreement was due to end soon, and he’d been invited by Natural England to apply for Higher Level Stewardship. Could I help? The farm was within the Upper Thames river valleys project area, so a few days later I met him on his farm.
It was a tenanted, 114 acre site of all grass. There was an onsite livery that supported some horses, but most of the farm was pasture or hay meadow running down to the nearby river, and crossed by a few small brooks and ditches. Many of the riverside fields in particular were very small. The field boundaries tended to be large, somewhat sprawling thorn hedges, and there were plenty of thickets where willow tree branches had fallen over and regrown again.
However, it had a couple of features that made it an unusual farm to work with. Firstly, it’s almost surrounded by the city of Oxford, virtually embedded in the mesh of housing and green space that somewhere gives way to open countryside. It soon became clear that one of the main challenges here was ‘farming in a fish bowl’; the holding was criss-crossed with footpaths and cycle ways in almost constant use. Every move made was inevitably scrutinised by passers by – and overlooked by some of the most knowledgeable academics in the world.
Much of the farm was also designated, covered by New Marston Meadows SSSI. This SSSI is designated for its floodplain meadows – a scarce habitat characterised by plants such as common meadow-rue, pepper saxifrage and devil’s bit-scabious. The way the meadows are farmed is critical to keeping them in good condition. However, the way they’re farmed is likewise largely dictated by the vagaries of the British weather, and especially the level of the adjacent river Cherwell.
Don’t forget your wellies!One of the steps in applying for HLS is to complete a Farm Environment (FEP). This is an audit of the main environmental features of the farm, their condition, and the appropriate management for them. The idea is that the FEP should then inform and steer the choice of options in the HLS application.
The immediate problem I had with doing this for Park Farm was the timing. For months over the winter, and into early spring, much of the farm was completely flooded. Fields where I was supposed to be assessing grassland type were under around a foot of water – with goosander swimming over them! And even when the floodwaters did eventually recede, there wouldn’t be a sniff of a flowering meadow indicator species until well after the deadline.
With a little help from my friends...Fortunately, the SSSI and nearby urban areas meant help was at hand. A local naturalist named Judy Webb was a regular on the farm. She’s an expert at identification, and passionate about the SSSI. She kindly agreed to send me her records for the site. When I received them, I was flabbergasted to see nearly 1,500 individual records of plants, moss, fungi, butterflies and bugs. It needed a bit of time to sort through them – not least because most were recorded by their scientific name only.
Mr Blackburn also mentioned that the Upper Thames Butterfly Conservation group did surveys on one or two of his hedges most years. I suspected I knew what they had been looking for, and sure enough, they kindly sent me details of the brown hairstreak eggs they have been counting there for years.
To the deadline, and beyond...With the FEP complete, I worked with Mr Blackburn to identify which HLS options would most suit the farm. We needed to secure favourable management of the SSSI hay meadows and deal with a few areas that were becoming wetter than was ideal. We also needed to balance the need of the brown hairstreak butterfly for young blackthorn suckers with the need of the narrow flower meadows not to be overly encroached by scrub from the hedges.
With the help of our knowledgeable Natural England advisor, we’d developed and agreed options and prescriptions that were tailored to the farm. The agreement was signed and went live at the beginning of the month. The income from HLS will help Mr Blackburn continue to keep the floodplain meadows blooming for the next ten years, as well as improve conditions across the whole of the farm for a wider suite of wildlife.
And I definitely intend to visit him again next summer to see the flower fields in their full glory – hopefully keeping my feet dry!
The last two years have been very challenging at Hope Farm with lower numbers of breeding birds than our high point in 2011, and disappointing crop yields. The summer of 2012 will long be etched in many of our memories with the incessant rain after a prolonged drought, which had a considerable impact on the crops, and almost certainly led to reduced breeding success for our birds.
It was a salutary lesson that, even on a farm where we deliver the Big 3: safe nesting habitat, abundant insect rich habitat and plentiful seed rich areas, the weather can have such a big impact on our wildlife. The poor breeding success in 2012 could have well have had a knock on effect leading to reduced numbers of adult birds during the 2013 breeding season, and our breeding bird index dipped to an uncomfortably low level although still well above the level we found in 2000 when we first bought Hope Farm.
How much worse would it have been for our farm wildlife if we hadn’t put in place all the quality habitat and full range of resources through our agri-environment scheme and voluntary measures?
Thankfully, the weather during the summer of 2013 was kinder to us and breeding success was much better than in 2012. This gave us some confidence that the number of breeding birds in 2014 would increase again. Despite having this confidence it was still a nervous period when the breeding bird survey began. Would the skylarks bounce back? Would the kestrel and lapwings return?
I am very pleased to tell you that any lingering doubts were soon allayed, skylarks were back in abundance, kestrels were seen on most of the surveys and lapwings exceeded all expectations.
Having been at Hope Farm since 2006 it is very easy to become blasé about the number of skylarks and other birds here, but it really is amazing to think we have virtually quadrupled our breeding skylark population from 10 territories in 2000 to 38 territories this year, and a high of 44 territories in 2009. The only thing we do to help our skylarks is provide safer nesting habitat by providing ‘skylark plots’, small bare areas within each wheat field, which research has shown increases productivity by around 50%. Sadly very few of my fellow farmers have these plots on their farms.
It was also a delight to see lapwings displaying over the farm again, after an absence last year. An arable farm is a challenging place for lapwings to nest at. They prefer large areas of bare, or sparsely vegetated ground. The predominance of autumn sown crops on arable farms isn’t to the liking of lapwings, they much prefer spring sown crops, or fallow.
We had two fields of fallow this year. This was an agronomic decision to allow us to tackle a very high blackgrass burden in these fields, as well as improve the field drainage. The lapwings found these fields to their liking, along with a field where the oilseed rape crop had failed. We found four nests, which is the most during RSPB ownership, of which three successfully hatched. Sadly only one chick definitely fledged, but even that was a considerable boost to our morale.
Overall, our breeding bird index rose again to the third-highest recorded since 2000. On average this means that the 17 species we intensively monitor have increased their populations by 190% since 2000. This is especially gratifying when the trend of the same group of species across England and East Anglia is still going down.
And it hasn't just been limited to birds, our butterflies had a great year as well. Gone are the dark days of that summer of 2012 when seeing more than 10 butterflies in total on a farm walk was a challenge. The last two years have been a real pleasure with clouds of butterflies, especially in late summer over some of our flower-rich margins. While the farm's butterfly index has fluctuated much more than the breeding bird index the trend is similar and our early estimate is that overall our butterfly numbers are up 178% since 2000. 23 species were recorded this year which I think is a remarkable achievement on a conventional arable farm. For me pride of place goes to the clouded yellows which appeared in good numbers for the second year in a row. A particularly memorable moment came when our Conservation Director identified one as it flew by Defra Deputy Director Nick Joicey, who was on a visit here.
How have we managed to do this? By ensuring we deliver sufficient areas of high quality habitat and resources, mainly through our agri-environment scheme. Of course there are many farmers out there delivering equally good, or even better, habitat and resources but unfortunately they are a minority and the majority of ELS agreements fail to deliver the Big 3, and hence do not reach their potential or increase breeding bird numbers.
The new agri-environment scheme which will be starting in 2015 will considerably raise the bar in terms of what has to be delivered, although it will be available to many fewer farmers than the current scheme. Time will tell whether fewer delivering better will help farm wildlife across England better than more doing less, but RSPB farm advisors will certainly be ready to help farmers make the most for wildlife on their farms within our key focus areas.
Of course being a farm our crops are also very important to us. Watching harvest and the grainstore fill up is as rewarding to me as listening to yellowhammers singing or seeing coveys of partridges. While our oilseed rape and peas didn’t produce particularly good yields this year, our wheat did much better than in recent years. There is still a little way to go to recover to highs of 11.7 tonnes/ha in 2008 but as we have moved to growing bread standard wheat rather than feed wheat it may be unrealistic to use that as a benchmark.
The lorries are now going in and out of the farmyard taking the wheat to the mill and our latest batch of Hope Farm rapeseed oil has been pressed and bottled, so hopefully before too long you may be sampling a little bit of Hope Farm produce in a loaf of bread, packet of biscuits or through the oil on your salad.