I LOVE this time of year! Is it the long days? The celebrations? The countryside bustling with life? All these things!
But most of all it's because it’s the time of year I get to make farmers pose self-consciously for photos in patches of pretty flowers! Awk-ward!
Meet my latest victim, West Norfolk farmer Dale, hiding his embarrassment well behind a big smile and his cute dog, Bonnie.
Self-conscious and embarrassed he might be, but he is also very proud, and rightfully so. The nectar mix around him is two years old and looking luscious and fantastic. It is part of his Entry Level Stewardship Scheme and he has managed to grow it on peaty soils, beating the infamous fen weed population.
He has achieved this by following a favoured establishment recipe:
First choose your land - Dale chose a bank of his lightest soil. It has lower nutrient levels, making it less productive for growing crops but giving flowers a competitive advantage.
Next, stir the soil vigorously, and remove the first flush of emerging weeds with a light peppering of herbicide to create a ‘stale seedbed’.
Sprinkle generously with an approved seed mix in autumn, when the soil is warm and moist – Dale chose one that contained only the seeds of nectar-rich flowers, as grass seeds could have rapidly outcompeted the flowers on these soils.
As the patch is relatively small, he spread the seeds by hand. The same effect could be achieved over a larger area by mechanical broadcasting. In any case they need to be near the surface so mash them in lightly rather than burying them.
Chill over winter and bring to a slow simmer in spring.
Now, chop your fresh leaves. In Year One, cut a few times to stop weeds from taking over and to encourage perennials. Dale’s mix was overtaken by huge amounts of annual weeds like Fat Hen in its first spring, but a single cut before it set seed has resulted in it disappearing from the strip altogether.
Once the mixture has risen, cut half in June to extend the flowering season and all again in September. If possible, remove the cuttings. Unfortunately Dale has no way of doing this, but chopping them up as fine as possible to prevent mulch forming seems to be working well at the moment.
Finally enjoy the fruits of your labour. Dale is serving his mix accompanied by two corn bunting territories, a small covey of grey partridge, and a liberal helping of bees, butterflies and hoverflies.
Dale is one of a growing number of farmers stepping for Nature as part of a productive farm business. Nothing to be embarrassed about there.
Think of an advert for milk. Any one that springs to mind.
Thought of one? Great. Does it have cows in it?
I have fond memories of milk adverts that featured not cows, but cheeky red and white straws. They made me giggle as they sneakily pinched milk. Wikipedia helped remind me they were Humphreys ("watch out!", that's showing my age.....!). The ads didn't show where milk came from, but I still knew - everyone knew.
But it seems that things have changed. According to a recent study by LEAF 41% of young adults don't know that milk comes from cows. 7% linked milk with wheat. A third don't know eggs come from hens.
These findings add to evidence that our society is becoming increasingly disconnected from our natural environment. A lack of connection leads to a lack of care and understanding, which easily leads to loss. We need a healthy natural environment for the long term wellbeing of our society - and a healthy natural environment includes, and relies on, a healthy sustainable farming industry. So we need people to know where their food comes from - and we need them to value great UK farmers.
The RSPB works hard to show the importance of farming; e.g. great farmers are regularly featured in Birds, our magazine for members, and our press releases. We recognise and celebrate them as part of the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award. Education is one of the factors we take into account when judging this award, and we open up the final stage of the competition to a public vote in order to spread the message wider. (Watch this space to find out the latest news on the 2012 competition, and how to cast your vote when the finalists are announced in July.)
Many farmers help combat this lack of knowledge by inviting people on to their farms for educational visits throughout the year, and take part in Open Farm Sunday. Some have taken a step further and converted old barns or outbuildings into education centres. It's time consuming and can be costly, but they do it because they recognise how important it is. A huge pat on the back to every one of you.
The EU LIFE+ Programme funds RSPB work which supports wildlife-friendly farming that furthers sustainable development in the European Union.
“Is modern farming harming the countryside?” That was the topic up for debate at last week’s Cereals event. Our Conservation Director, Martin Harper, took to the stage alongside Peter Kendall (NFU President); Graeme Matravers (Chair, Soil Association Farmer and Grower Board) and Richard Butler (Chair, the Voluntary Initiative). In front of a packed audience, Peter Kendall opened the potentially provocative debate by stating that there is no doubt that some aspects of modern farming are harming the countryside. He also said that we need to farm intensively for wildlife as well as for food.
Peter’s words took me, and no doubt others in the room, by surprise. But I also think it could be a real step forward.
Agreeing that there are difficulties that need to be addressed helps us to work together to figure out how to tackle them.
The devil of course is in the detail. If farmers have the responsibility of producing more food, whilst also protecting and enhancing the health of our wildlife, all within the challenges of running a business that competes in a global market, that all adds up to a very complex problem!
We believe that farmers should be better rewarded for protecting the countryside. We need well-designed and robust policies to allow them to do that whilst remaining competitive, viable businesses. As such, public money used to support UK farmers should pay for the public benefits they can provide. Over the two days of the event, we carried out a straw poll of visitors to our stand which asked ‘Should funding for environmental measures in the CAP increase, decrease or stay the same. There was a clear win for 'increase' on both days:
This is a critical year for the CAP and we believe it should work harder for farmers who are doing or want to do good stuff for wildlife. Find out more and get involved here.