Hope Farm shines light on future of farming

By Anna Feeney

Saturday 7 November 2020

In Cambridgeshire there is a farm that looks much the same as any other.

Fields of crops sway in the breeze, and on harvest days you can see tractors making their diligent way up and down the fields. Yet Hope Farm is home to some of the most exciting experiments in farming across the UK, and a new report shows how those experiments could unlock farms’ potential to reverse the decline of nature.

An experiment in farming

Unsustainable farming is currently one of the greatest threats to nature. But with three-quarters of the UK being covered by farms, this also provides a huge opportunity - if they all made small changes, whole swathes of the landscape could become havens for wildlife.

20 years ago, the RSPB bought Hope Farm to try and understand just what those changes need to be. We also wanted to understand how nature restoration could also help farmers, by addressing challenges such as soil degradation, flooding, and infestation of blackgrass (a pest that can take over entire fields).  

For the past 20 years the Hope Farm team have worked closely with farmers, scientists, and policy experts, digging up nature-friendly farming theories and offering the land as an experimental zone. They’ve trialled ways to create farmland habitats such as wildflower margins and ponds, they’ve mixed and matched crop rotations and cultivations, and in 2019 they totally removed insecticides from their fields.

What was the result?

A new annual report shows how, 20 years after buying the Farm, there have been some huge successes:

·       the number of farm birds that winter at Hope Farm has gone up 1,287%,

·       butterfly numbers have quadrupled, compared with a 10% national decline since 1990,

·       and bumblebee numbers are nineteen times higher than on a nearby control farm.

·       All while maintaining a steady profit!

Let’s look at what this means for a few specific species. The red-listed linnet, for example, was nowhere to be seen on the Farm 20 years ago – and last year there were 907. The bright, bold yellowhammer is also on the red list and jumped from three to 716. The red-listed starling? 18 to 87. All in all, eight red-listed species have steadily climbed over the past two decades, as well as two amber-listed species.

These huge jumps are mirrored in the birds that choose to breed on the Farm. Lapwings, for example, weren’t seen anywhere in 2000, but every year since 2006 they’ve come back to have their chicks. Reed bunting now cover twice as many territories, and starling coverage has quadrupled.

What next for Hope Farm?

This is a pivotal time for farming across the UK. Brexit negotiations are shaping whole new sections of agricultural legislation, coronavirus has shaken up both supply chains and consumption habits, and climate change and the biodiversity crisis are making farming a more unpredictable enterprise with every passing year.

But Hope Farm shows that investing in nature is an essential part of the solution. A thriving, diverse landscape protects farmers against environmental shocks and helps create richer, more profitable soils.

Visit the RSPB website Hope Farm page to read the Annual Report learn more: https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-and-sustainability/farming/hope-farm/.

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