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Hope for our farming future

Georgie Bray, farm manager at RSPB Hope Farm, details how simple but effective changes there have created a wildlife boom, and the huge benefits for nature we could see if sustainable farming policy works well for our nation's farmers.

January 2021

Hope Farm has been owned by the RSPB for 20 years as an arable farm of 180 hectares in South Cambridgeshire. Although it might seem strange for a conservation organisation to run a working arable farm, that is exactly why it is so important for us to work here.

The premise behind Hope Farm is to demonstrate how wildlife can work alongside an arable farming system. At the time, this was important to try and see practically how farms can contribute to reversing biodiversity decline. The farm is more important now than ever, as the data over the last 20 years shows that wildlife can thrive on farmland, with the right policies put in practice.

When we purchased the farm, it was very ordinary, with a few hedgerows and a 3 year oilseed rape and winter wheat cropping rotation. In winter, there would be the odd yellowhammer, and a few other species, but it was pretty quiet on the wildlife front. We have since put aside marginal areas of land from cropping to conservation, increasing our conservation areas by 15% whilst maintaining profits. In more recent years, the approach to cropping as well as field edge management has changed dramatically too. True Integrated Pest Management is being put into place across the farm, and is constantly explored to see how we can develop our in-field practices.

So, we’ve increased the abundance of wildflowers, refuge areas and seed resources by 15%. In field management has changed to reduce cultivations, increase organic matter, and now grow seven crops in the rotation. Pesticide applications have been reduced, and insecticides have not been applied across the farm since Autumn 2018. RSPB income has remained stable from the farm. But what difference does this make to the wildlife?

The answer is a huge difference. Breeding farmland birds have increased by 180%. Winter farmland birds have increased by an average of 1500% in the last five years, butterflies have sky-rocketed to over 400% and counting and we have 19X more bumblebees than a local control farm.

The key to what we do at Hope Farm, is that none of the conservation management is particularly revolutionary. The data to support its effectiveness is the unique selling point to show that this approach works. But, thankfully, the actual management on the ground is the kind of stuff that is accessible for nearly everybody to do. Skill sets required to manage wildflower margins, hedgerows, seed mixes and water courses are slightly different, and people learning these skills will need supporting. But with the right guidance and support, none of these approaches will be tricky to work out on a landscape scale.

The difference habitat management has made at Hope Farm and other similarly managed farms is incredible, but so far, many wildlife-friendly farms work as islands rather than truly connected habitats. Imagine the difference that could be made if wildlife-friendly farming operated on a connected, landscape scale?

We are currently at a turning point with agricultural policy, with opportunities to change the way we farm for good. At the same time, agriculture is getting trickier year on year due to changes in the climate – long dry spells accompanied by months of rain are not ideal for growing crops. Resistance is increasing with pests and disease, and an increasing knowledge base is demonstrating that many effective chemicals for control are not safe for the environment. Thankfully there are some solutions to many of the problems that farmers are facing, and many of the solutions go back to nature for the answers.

Although we need to increase this knowledge base significantly, more research is demonstrating just how good nature-based solutions can be for stabilising crop yields. True Integrated Pest Management, that incorporates cultural controls, habitat management to support beneficial insects, and good soil management can do a lot to stabilise farm businesses long-term. There is a huge need for refining and supporting true integrated pest management practices, on a large scale, for this approach to be most effective.

We should learn from the past. Policies to drive sustainable farm management have evolved a lot since the 1980’s. 20 years ago, many more farmers were in the old Entry Level Stewardship Scheme, but wildlife was still declining. A good job had been made of involving lots of farmers in the scheme, but there was far too much leeway for farms to incorporate such basic management that it wasn’t making much difference to either the farms pest management strategy, or the provision of conservation habitats.

There are now options for management practices available to farmers through Mid-tier Countryside Stewardship that are really good for biodiversity recovery and help provide benefits like those at Hope Farm.But the paperwork and inspections can make this less appealing. We need to learn from this, and make sure that policies are attractive and supportive to ensure a large uptake, while being effective so we are making good use of public money.

Georgie Bray is farm manager at RSPB Hope Farm

Follow: @georgiewildbray

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.