Last modified: 23 September 2013
Image: Nigel Blake
A farmer who has nurtured wildlife on his land for over twenty years has been crowned the most nature-friendly farmer in the UK.
Nicholas Watts, of Vine House Farm in Lincolnshire, has been crowned the winner of the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award by impressing judges and inspiring voters with his dedication to improving the numbers of declining species, such as tree sparrows, on his land, which is now buzzing with other birds and insects. Nicholas firmly believes that farming and wildlife go hand in hand and proves this with his extremely successful and profitable farm business.
Now in its sixth year, the Nature of Farming Award celebrates farmers who do wonderful things for nature, finding the one who’s done the most on their land to help our threatened countryside wildlife. The competition is run by the RSPB, supported by Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife, and sponsored by The Telegraph.
Vine House Farm is a traditional arable farm passed down from one generation to the next, and situated in the Lincolnshire Fenlands. A wide variety of crops are grown including potatoes and sugar beet, with some of the land also farmed organically. All the land is farmed in a way that is sympathetic to the wildlife that shares its environment.
Winner, Nicholas Watts, said: “In 1992, after recording the breeding birds on my farm for 10 years, I realised there had been a big drop in numbers. This worried me so I set about trying to reverse that decline and I have succeeded with several species.
“Since the mid 1990s the national numbers of some farmland birds, such as the yellow wagtail, have continued to decline. I’m delighted to have shown that it’s possible to buck this trend, but I feel that farmers need to be given as much support as possible to put wildlife back on the land.
“We all want good quality food to eat, but most also want colour and birdsong in our farmed countryside too. Now, more than ever, we need the Government to support farmers like me and the many others who are doing good things for wildlife but who can’t continue without the financial support to do it.”
Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation and one of four Nature of Farming Award judges, commented: “Nicholas impressed us with the way he constantly comes up with original ideas for creating habitat, not frightened to try something new but equally not afraid to admit when things need to change. Nicholas has a profitable farm business that gives nature a home. His many years of experience provide others with knowledge and motivation to follow in his footsteps, so his impact is far beyond his own farm gate.
“We are delighted to showcase the excellent work that farmers like Nicholas are achieving for our threatened farmland wildlife. Later this year Owen Paterson MP – the Environment Secretary - will be making a final decision about how much of England’s farming budget can be given over to wildlife-friendly farming. When looking at the value for money provided by farmers like Nicholas, how can he afford not to back wildlife-friendly farming to the maximum?
“The European Union spends half its annual budget on farming, through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Ultimately, reform of the CAP should help rather than hinder wildlife-friendly farmers, and it should provide us all with better quality of life in improved environments and more wildlife-rich landscapes.”
On his farm, which is 2000 acres, Nicholas grows a wide range of crops including wheat, potatoes, oilseed rape, sugar beet, millet, canary seed and sunflowers which he grows for wild bird seed. He also farms 300 acres of his land organically, primarily with wildlife in mind.
Nicholas bases his conservation practices on the findings of research from his own farm, as well as organisations such as the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the British Trust for Ornithology and the RSPB. Wildlife-friendly measures he has undertaken include planting 4km of hedges; creating 12 ponds amounting to around 15 acres of water; having wide grass margins for barn owls to hunt over; sowing 15 acres of wildflower meadows for insects and 35 acres of cultivated margins for weeds; and building four brick towers for barn owls.
The UK’s most wildlife-friendly farmer is also active away from his farm, having persuaded the drainage board to mow their ditches less often and giving regular talks across the country on farming and wildlife.
This year, for the first time, the Nature of Farming Award judges selected eight finalists rather than four – each one representing a different region in England (north, east, midlands, south east and south west) and one for each of the other UK countries.
The public have been voting in their thousands since the end of July to pick a winner. The RSPB’s annual award, sponsored by The Telegraph, supported by Plantlife and Butterfly Conservation and funded by the EU LIFE+ programme, aims to celebrate farmers who do wonderful things for wildlife.
For more information visit www.rspb.org.uk/farmvote