Work­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists

Sto­ries of farm­ers suc­cess­fully restor­ing wildlife on their land make a pow­er­ful case for Gov­ern­ment fund­ing in ex­change for pub­lic ben­e­fits post Brexit

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY joe dim­bleby

Joe Dim­bleby re­ports on the farm­ers who are restor­ing wildlife

Ire­cently trav­elled across the UK to in­ter­view farm­ers and game­keep­ers for a new col­lec­tion of case stud­ies pub­lished by the Game & Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust (GWCT). These “work­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists” are en­gaged in a range of dif­fer­ent busi­nesses, from Mark Chat­tey farm­ing beef on 284 acres in Devon to Tom Orde-powlett man­ag­ing con­ser­va­tion projects on the fam­ily’s 12,500-acre es­tate in Wens­ley­dale, but all share com­mon ground in their pas­sion for na­ture. The GWCT cham­pi­ons such in­di­vid­u­als be­cause the fu­ture of Bri­tish wildlife de­pends on them and others tak­ing their lead.

The RSPB rightly states that, “Na­ture re­serves and pro­tected ar­eas are a good start. But on their own, they are not enough to deal with these chal­lenges.” The is­sue is one of scale. When you con­sider that farm­land cov­ers around 17.2m hectares, or 70% of the UK, whereas RSPB and Wildlife Trusts na­ture re­serves com­bined cover less than 250,000 hectares, the vi­tal im­por­tance of pri­vate stew­ard­ship be­comes clear.

en­rich­ing the land­scape

In­di­vid­u­als can achieve ex­tra­or­di­nary things in rel­a­tively small spa­ces. A shin­ing ex­am­ple is Count Kon­rad Goess-saurau, whose 2,000-acre Tem­ple Farm es­tate on the Wilt­shire Downs was de­void of na­ture when he ar­rived. He said, “When I first came it was des­o­late and so windy I didn’t get out of the car. There was noth­ing you’d ex­pect from an English es­tate, not so much as a mouse.” Now, af­ter plant­ing more than a mil­lion trees, dig­ging 11 ponds and plant­ing 23 miles of hedgerow he has cre­ated a wildlife haven. The farm­ing is prof­itable and though the con­ser­va­tion mea­sures might mean a slight re­duc­tion in rev­enue, for Goess-saurau the en­riched land­scape more than com­pen­sates.

Tem­ple is an ex­am­ple of where redlisted species are buck­ing the trend. Cur­rent ap­proaches to con­ser­va­tion are fail­ing to re­verse the gen­eral pat­tern of wildlife de­cline as the bleak pic­ture painted in the lat­est State of Na­ture 2016 re­port makes clear. Pub­lic sup­port for wildlife con­ser­va­tion is strong, as demon­strated by the fact that the com­bined an­nual in­come of the 50 con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions that pro­duced the re­port is in ex­cess of £1bn and they can boast more than eight mil­lion mem­bers be­tween them, yet we have lost more than half our wildlife since 1970 and one in 10 Bri­tish species is threatened with extinction. The pub­lic knows all about RSPB na­ture re­serves thanks to the BBC grant­ing them prime­time slots on Spring­watch, but much less about the won­der­ful con­ser­va­tion work that hap­pens on pri­vate land, on in­di­vid­ual farms and es­tates. We aim to change that with these case stud­ies and thank The Field and its read­ers for help­ing to pro­mote them and tip the bal­ance back a lit­tle.

An­other out­stand­ing case is the Duke of Nor­folk’s Pep­per­ing Par­tridge Project in West Sus­sex, where red-listed sky­larks have gone up by 57%, lin­nets by 94%, yel­lowham­mers up 20% and lap­wings up 71%. Read­ers will have read past cov­er­age in The Field of the project win­ning the Purdey Awards for Shoot­ing and Con­ser­va­tion and its wild par­tridge shoot, run by head­keeper Char­lie Mel­lor, un­der­pins this ex­tra­or­di­nary restora­tion. But the project is also one of the best ex­am­ples of pub­lic-funded, agri-en­vi­ron­ment schemes de­liv­er­ing the goods. Es­tate man­ager Peter Knight re­cently en­tered Nat­u­ral Eng­land’s new Higher Tier Stew­ard­ship Scheme af­ter he came to the end of a 10-year HLS agree­ment and man­ages 20 dif­fer­ent op­tions along­side a highly com­plex com­mer­cial ro­ta­tion. It takes hours of plan­ning and a huge com­mit­ment on the part of the Duke, Knight, Mel­lor and the whole team, but they have proved it pos­si­ble to com­bine prof­itable in­ten­sive ce­real pro­duc­tion with suc­cess­ful con­ser­va­tion.

The need for agri-en­vi­ron­ment schemes to work in prac­tice as well as the­ory was a com­mon con­cern among the work­ing

con­ser­va­tion­ists I in­ter­viewed. The farm­ers’ sto­ries all con­tained an in­stance where reg­u­la­tion proved in­flex­i­ble to the detri­ment of the con­ser­va­tion work. One ex­am­ple is Alas­tair Salvesen, who farms 2,500 in Mid­loth­ian. Whit­burgh Farms is a study area for the Par­tridge Project led by the GWCT and Salvesen has built up a wild grey pop­u­la­tion from nil to 400 pairs, with a shootable sur­plus for the first time last sea­son. How­ever, a rule for­bid­ding the use of glyphosate in grass mar­gins risks ham­per­ing his ef­forts at par­tridge restora­tion. He said, “We had to aban­don the five-year agrien­vi­ron­ment scheme where you had to top the this­tles in­stead of spray­ing, be­cause if you cut them in the breed­ing sea­son, you risk killing the par­tridges and af­ter that it is too late, the seed has spread on the wind.” The les­son from such sto­ries is that where our wildlife is con­cerned, sit­ting back and do­ing noth­ing is no longer an op­tion. A risk-averse ap­proach to con­ser­va­tion can it­self be harm­ful and sti­fle in­no­va­tion.

The farm­ers fea­tured in the col­lec­tion are ex­perts at pro­duc­ing bio­di­ver­sity in the field mar­gins and less pro­duc­tive bits of farm­land. Beef farmer James Mul­leneux, who is in a Nat­u­ral Eng­land-funded Higher Level Stew­ard­ship scheme, in­clud­ing an op­tion for arable re­ver­sion to grass­land, said, “In the old days we used to let grass­land grow to a seed-head, so you had dif­fer­ent lev­els of sward. There were net­tles and piles of veg­e­ta­tion ly­ing around. The way we man­age the land­scape has changed hugely. These days it is man­i­cured with ma­chin­ery and I have to make a con­scious ef­fort not to cut ev­ery­thing back in the mar­gins.” How­ever, Mul­leneux was keen to stress that success will not be achieved by try­ing to turn back the clock. It should be a case of ap­ply­ing the lat­est re­search to max­imise space for na­ture along­side more ef­fi­cient farm­ing at the core.

Sev­eral of the work­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists are in land­scape-scale con­ser­va­tion part­ner­ships and all com­mented on the value of work­ing with teams on the farm, neigh­bours, lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and the pub­lic at large. There is in­creas­ing recog­ni­tion that in­di­vid­ual species re­cov­ery de­pends on the health and in­te­gra­tion of large-scale eco-sys­tems.

An­other work­ing con­ser­va­tion­ist, Kate Faulkner, rep­re­sents the fam­ily farm on the Sel­borne Land­scape Part­ner­ship, which was one of the first Farmer Clus­ters, ini­ti­ated by the GWCT and Nat­u­ral Eng­land. For one of its projects, the clus­ter chose to im­prove habi­tat for har­vest mice, in­spired by the fa­mous nat­u­ral­ist Gil­bert White, who lived in nearby Sel­borne and first iden­ti­fied

Sit­ting back and do­ing noth­ing is no longer an op­tion

har­vest mice as a sep­a­rate species. This kind of joined-up ap­proach with com­mu­nity en­gage­ment has the po­ten­tial to cre­ate what are, in ef­fect, huge new na­ture re­serves across the coun­try at rel­a­tively low cost.

As our ever-shrink­ing coun­try­side is in­creas­ingly con­tested, spa­ces will have to work harder by per­form­ing sev­eral dif­fer­ent func­tions si­mul­ta­ne­ously and it’s right that farm­ers and landown­ers should be paid to de­liver a wide range of pub­lic goods. Tom Orde-powlett’s many con­ser­va­tion projects at Bolton Cas­tle es­tate in­clude help­ing to pro­tect breed­ing curlew, which are in dra­matic de­cline else­where. In ad­di­tion to the con­ser­va­tion of some of our rarest bird species, the grouse moor run by Orde-powlett’s fa­ther, Lord Bolton, of­fers pub­lic ac­cess to a wildlife rich habi­tat, pro­vides em­ploy­ment, sup­ports the lo­cal econ­omy and tra­di­tional ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, of­fers graz­ing for sheep farm­ers, traps car­bon through peat restora­tion and helps avert flood­ing, all at rel­a­tively lit­tle cost to the tax­payer. Orde-powlett said, “If we can show we can hold up one mil­lion litres of wa­ter here and de­lay a peak flow down in York for three hours, that’s go­ing to re­duce the ex­tent of flood dam­age and you can start to put a price on that.”

In his in­tro­duc­tion to the case stud­ies col­lec­tion, for­mer De­fra Min­is­ter of State Sir Jim Paice writes: “We must never for­get that farm­ers’ main aim is to pro­duce food and to make a liv­ing from do­ing so. If our farm­ers are to sur­vive out­side the pro­tec­tion of the CAP and against cheaper im­ports then they must be prop­erly re­warded for the en­vi­ron­men­tal mea­sures they pro­vide. It is ex­pen­sive not just in terms of di­rect costs but in fore­go­ing crop in­come and in man­age­ment time. So what­ever schemes the Gov­ern­ment brings for­ward must recog­nise that.”

Cur­rently, signs from Gov­ern­ment are en­cour­ag­ing. De­fra Sec­re­tary of State Michael Gove wrote in his fore­word to the col­lec­tion that, “when we leave the Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy we will be able to fol­low ev­i­dence like this with even greater am­bi­tion – we will be able to in­cen­tivise the kinds of col­lab­o­ra­tion and in­no­va­tion that bring the trans­for­ma­tive, land­scape-scale changes out­lined in our 25 Year En­vi­ron­ment Plan.”


The GWCT’S guid­ing prin­ci­ple of a “work­ing con­ser­va­tion” is that wildlife can thrive along­side other land uses. Early on, the or­gan­i­sa­tion recog­nised that game­keep­ers were the cham­pi­ons of this mul­ti­ple­out­comes ap­proach as farm­ing mod­ernised to meet the post-war de­mand for food. It stud­ied care­fully how they be­gan to use their range of tech­niques, from trap­ping to grow­ing small strips of cover crop, to main­tain their bird num­bers without hin­der­ing farm pro­duc­tion. To­day, these gamekeeping tech­niques are valu­able con­ser­va­tion tools be­cause they make space for wildlife in a work­ing coun­try­side and it is no ac­ci­dent that very of­ten there are shoots on the farms where wildlife de­clines are be­ing re­versed.

These case stud­ies show that given fi­nan­cial sup­port and en­cour­age­ment as well as free­dom from red tape and fear of fines or get­ting things wrong, land man­agers can de­liver both food pro­duc­tion and coun­try­side restora­tion. In ev­ery case spe­cial­ist knowl­edge is a key in­gre­di­ent of success and backed by sci­en­tific re­search, GWCT ad­vis­ers pro­vide prac­ti­cal ad­vice on how to man­age land with a view to im­prov­ing bio­di­ver­sity. Few or­gan­i­sa­tions have the same de­gree of trust from land man­agers de­vel­oped over gen­er­a­tions and with ever greater pressure on the coun­try­side to in­crease food pro­duc­tion, pro­vide space for hous­ing and de­liver a range of pub­lic ben­e­fits, the sur­vival of our wildlife will de­pend on that trust.

Without ex­cep­tion, the work­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists talk about the im­por­tance of “your heart be­ing in it” and the col­lec­tion shows the power of pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als work­ing to­gether to make a dif­fer­ence. For­mer hill farmer David Thomas, who is help­ing to re­store grouse and a range of up­land birds to heather moor­land in Powys, spends 18 hours a day on the hill but to him it’s worth it. He said, “We have man­aged to in­crease curlew broods on the hill, which I am de­lighted by. When the birds call on the moor at the end of Fe­bru­ary, it’s the first sign of spring and I stop to ad­mire the sound.” To join the GWCT – or to or­der a copy of Work­ing Con­ser­va­tion­ists – call 01425 651024 or go to:

Cur­rently, signs from Gov­ern­ment are en­cour­ag­ing

One of the 11 ponds dug and some of the mil­lion trees planted by Count Kon­rad Goess-saurau on his once-des­o­late, 2,000-acre Tem­ple Farm es­tate

A huge com­mit­ment by the Duke of Nor­folk’s team has suc­cess­fully com­bined ce­real pro­duc­tion and con­ser­va­tion

Above: farmer James Mul­leneux. Be­low: Char­lie Mel­lor, head­keeper on the Duke of Nor­folk’s es­tate, in­spects a sweep net. Bot­tom: a har­vest mouse nest on a farm in the Sel­borne Land­scape Part­ner­ship

Projects at Bolton Cas­tle are help­ing to pro­tect the curlew, num­bers of which are in de­cline else­where

The grouse moor run by Tom Orde-powlett’s fa­ther, Lord Bolton, of­fers a rich wildlife habi­tat as well as sup­port to the lo­cal econ­omy and ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties

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