The farmers making space for nature
House & Home deputy editor Laura Battle reports from Wiltshire in western England on the pressures on farmers to adapt to Brexit and environmental concerns, where farmers are actively working together to bring more wildlife to their land.
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis. Directed and edited by Josh de la Mare. Images courtesy of Jemma Batten, David White and Matt Prior. Assistant sound by Xhulio Ismalaj.
I come from a farming family and am fascinated by the ways that agriculture has had to change and adapt. Today's biggest challenges include Brexit and the end EU subsidies, and the responsibility to think far more about wildlife and conservation. To survive as viable businesses, farmers will be under increasing pressure to change their mindset.
The farmers are a pretty independent lot, as you already know, and are somewhat competitive to each other. They always like to go around and see who got the best crops in town. But they never talk about wildlife.
So the question is, can farmers be made to care about more than a successful harvest? Perhaps they can. That's why I've come to the Marlborough Downs to meet farmers and conservationists working together to try to encourage greater numbers of bees, butterflies, and farmland birds to their land, and to bring the public into the picture. But do farmers really care?
Consultant Jemma Batten believed they did when in 2012, she and her team won a government grant for a nature improvement area on the Marlborough Downs in southwest England, involving farms and farmers in an area the size of a large town. It is now fully fledged and independent project, but she admits she came close to giving up in the first year.
Coordinating it, to start with, was just-- it was a nightmare. It was herding ferrets trying to just get people to just get it. But nobody'd heard about farmers working together for conservation. And the other way around, you know, a lof of the kind of the specialists, the environmentalists, the conservation people see farmers as the bad guys. But this project broke those barriers down completely.
Her aim was to make space for wildlife alongside commercial farming. Farmers like Robert Cooper we're encouraged to try out what suited them, from restoring grassland to hosting farm walks. On his own land, Robert has established nectar plots for pollinating insects and bees that connect with others to create wildlife corridors across the project.
Where I'm standing at the moment, we've got a nectar plot of a pollen and bird mix. And here as you can see in my hand is some vetches, and the red clover. So they're for the pollinators. And behind that is a bird mix for the wild birds, particularly in the winter.
These partnership farms have also planted more trees and hedgerows, and created or restored dew ponds. Estate manager Chris Musgrave says that introducing a water source has helped to make what was once an arable prairie for sheep and wheat more diverse, attracting deer and birds, such as corn buntings and barn owls.
He said, well, how do I make some money from this? Yes, you can farm it in terms of growing crops or animals or whatever. We can produce energy. We can also produce the environment as well. And if you can do that alongside, profitable farming with a care for the environment, I put to you that the capital asset of the place will certainly go up if you go and put something like this in.
A key figure linking the farmers and conservationists across the Downs is ornithologist Matt Prior. His mission has been to bring back the tree sparrow, a species that has been decimated by modern farming. His efforts began in 2000, but the involvement of farmers has made a big difference.
Since we've really harnessed the farmers and been working with them through the Marlborough Downs farmer-led group, the population has increased dramatically. Farmers have got a lot more involved and it's really exploded from there.
He says he can now speak honestly to farmers about what they need to do, but initially, many were suspicious.
I would first off turn up at a farm, mostly unannounced, and the farmer would look at me as, why are you here? And I'd say, I want to put nest boxes for sparrows. And that generation of farmers in some cases thought of the sparrows as pests.
There are few hard and fast figures, but all agree the fact that their efforts are on a landscape scale is crucial. The dew ponds and wildlife corridors provide networks across farms, allowing insects, birds, and animals to flourish.
There are lessons that we learn on one farm can then be replicated onto other farms. I can look at a map of the landscape as a whole and say, OK, we've got a lot of bird mix over here, or we've got a good, you know, lot of two sparrows over here. There's a big gap over here. So how can we you know, how can we draw things out?
Jemma and the farmers know it's vital to inform and educate the public. With Brexit looming and farmers soon in direct competition with the NHS for funding, public support counts. And it seems the mindset of many is changing.
We need to have a balance. So you know, arts is what 60 million people in this country want. They want to come out to enjoy the countryside.
I think for me now when we have the farmer-led evenings, to listen to two farmers asking about who's got the most tree sparrows, then I'll kind of think I've succeeded.