By Hayley Sherwin, Volunteer & Farmer Alliance Project Officer, Northern Ireland
It is that time of year once more. It is time for the Nature of Farming Awards and here in Northern Ireland we have selected our winner.
Nature is in trouble right across our countryside, but there are many farmers across Northern Ireland who are doing great work to create space for nature on their farms. The entries to the competition were of a very high standard this year and after visiting the farms as part of the judging process, we have awarded a selection of farmers for their efforts and commitment to conserving wildlife.
Last year, the Northern Ireland winner, Jack Kelly, was awarded a very close second place in the national competition. Well done to Jack! This year we hope the Northern Ireland winner will make it to the top!
Who is the Northern Ireland winner of 2013 I hear you ask? Drum roll please....
Tim McClelland from Tandragee, County Armagh! His farm in Tandragee is an amazing example of how a big, commercially successful farm can support a diverse range of wildlife. Tim sows wild bird cover and retains the cereal stubbles after the harvest to provide seed-eating birds with food during the winter. His rough grass margins around his fields provide habitat for insects (which in turn feeds young chicks). Tim has also recently planted nearly 500 metres of new hedgerow which will create nesting habitat for farmland birds and provide commuting routes for farmland wildlife. As a result of his efforts, Tim sees seed-eating species like the yellowhammer, tree sparrow and the linnet, and the judges were also treated to the sight of a pair of lapwing nesting on his farm (not a common occurrence!).
Northern Ireland Nature of Farming Winner 2013, Tim McClelland is presented with his award by RSPB NI Director, Dr. James Robinson and DARD Permanent Secretary, Noel Lavery
Beyond all the work he does on his own farm, Tim is a real ambassador for wildlife-friendly farmers. As an Arable and Environmental Focus Farmer Tim hosts farm visits and has held Open Farm Events to highlight the work of arable farmers across the country.
The work that Tim and all the farmers like him (and there are lots) do is so important as nature is being squeezed from every corner of Northern Ireland. Increased urbanisation, over-development, poor planning and intensive agriculture are all reasons for this, and we’re working on all of them, but it’s farmers like Tim who make a real difference on the ground. They’re the real wildlife heroes.
This year four farmers were also awarded Highly Commended for their efforts, innovative ideas and commitment to helping wildlife. These were Maurice McHenry from Ballintoy, County Antrim; Patrick Reihill from Innisrooske, County Fermanagh; Maurice Law from Maguiresbridge, County Fermanagh and Cecil Nelson from Clough, County Down. All of these farmers are helping to ensure that farmland wildlife has a safe future.
Tim was presented with his award by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) Permanent Secretary, Noel Lavery, at the Balmoral Show at the new Maze location. The sun was shining, the crowds were out and the show was a huge success. Tim will now go on to be considered for the title of the UK’s most wildlife friendly farmer. We obviously think he should win (not that we are biased or anything!)
Nature of Farming Award Winner and Highly Commended farmers were presented with their awards at the Balmoral Show. (L-R 1st row): Maurice McHenry, RSPB NI Director Dr. James Robinson, Butterfly Conservation’s Peter Courtney, NI Winner Tim McClelland, DARD Permanent Secretary, RSPB’s Hayley Sherwin (2nd row) and Cecil Nelson’s children, Matthew and Rebecca.
Today sees the launch of one of the most comprehensive assessments of the health of the UK’s natural environment. Sadly, much of the ‘State of Nature’ report, written by new partnership of 25 research and conservation organisations, including the RSPB, doesn't make for happy reading – but there is hope so keep on reading!
But before we get there, I’m afraid we have to face the facts: much of the UK’s flora and fauna is not doing well and that’s across all habitat types, from farmland and woodland through to coastal and marine areas. And this is just the latest snapshot of a historical pattern of decline in the UK.
In a nutshell, and looking at only farmland, 60% of species are declining, 34% of them severely and many of these changes are linked to shifts in farmland management.
But - as the report also highlights, we can turn things around for at least some of these species:
“Agri-environment schemes have helped to increase the population of rare species and local populations of more widespread species, and there is evidence that even simple measures, such as those available in the English Entry Level Scheme, benefit birds”.
Every year the RSPB celebrates the work of farmers who take steps for wildlife, often through agri-environment schemes which are entirely taxpayer funded. These ‘Nature of Farming Award’ winners demonstrate just how space for nature can be reintegrated into conventional and often highly productive farming systems. Take a look at some of our recent NOFA winners here – they’re an inspirational bunch.
But the report does go on to say:
“However, we have not seen the much-hoped for recoveries of farmland wildlife – probably because not enough farmers have taken up the most effective agri-environment options, and available funding is limited.”
So there is still a lot for us to do. We need to squeeze more value out of agri-environment schemes so nature stands a chance of recovery and at the same time, decision makers need to ensure these schemes get the funding they need – including by transferring as much money as possible from the CAP’s ‘direct payment’ pot into rural development funding – which pays for agri-environment schemes.
We, and you know, that farmers are able to deliver fantastic things for the environment, often through some relatively minor adjustments to their farm management. But as today’s State of Nature report shows, we still need to do much more.
The good news is that there is scope to do more – for many species in decline, the challenge is not finding out what they need to recover, it’s securing the political will to ensure the options they need are in place at the necessary scale. So let’s work together to make that happen!
Guest blog by David Hirst, Natural England
A farming duo is giving wildlife in Essex a vital helping hand by creating their own version of ‘Noah’s Ark’ on their farm. Thanks to their conservation work, lapwings, lizards, snakes, bumblebees, corn buntings and turtle doves are now to be found alongside the more traditional farm animals on Moverons Farm near Brightlingsea.
Lesley Orrock and Payne Gunfield signed up to join Natural England’s Environmental Stewardship scheme - which pays farmers to use environmentally friendly farming methods on their land - and the couple are now reaping the benefits with a rich harvest of wildlife.
Since helping Lesley and Payne enter the stewardship scheme, Natural England wildlife adviser Sarah Brockless has noticed a big difference in the amount of wildlife around the farm. Lapwing now successfully nest on uncropped areas in fields; wild flower corridors have been established along the edges of fields to provide pollen and nectar for rare Carder bumblebees and other crop pollinators; and the network of farm hedgerows has been re-established through new planting and coppicing. A family of adders has moved into the farm’s specially-designed ‘reptile refuge’, known as a hibernacula, which has been constructed from recycled concrete rubble.
Last winter, Lesley and Payne were rewarded with the sight of a flock of more than 160 corn buntings and yellowhammers feeding on the farm. A specially formulated seed mixture crop is provided every winter to help the birds survive the ‘hungry gap’ between January and spring, when natural seeds can be scarce in the countryside. In addition, Lesley and Payne put out a mixture of oil seed rape, wheat, millet and canary seed across the farm throughout the winter months.
Lesley says: "We are privileged to live and work in such a fantastic place. We love the wonderful variety of wildlife we have on the farm but we wanted to do more to help secure the future of the wildlife we have and to increase the biodiversity whilst still maintaining a commercially viable business. With the combined help of David Sunnucks who farms the land and Sarah Brockless at Natural England, who helped us set up the Environmental Stewardship agreement, we feel we are well on the way towards achieving our aim."
Nationally declining farmland bird species that nest on the farm, such as turtle doves and yellow wagtails, will also benefit from the creation of new wildlife habitats providing sites for feeding and breeding. Turtle doves, which are now rare summer visitors to the UK, nest within the area known as ‘Noah’s Ark’, a large scrub area on the farm. The doves feed on the abundance of flower seeds that grow wild on the farm and also in crops, such as clover, that have been specially sown on the land.
The kind of wildlife habitat creation work underway at Morevons Farm is essential for securing a future for turtle doves in England. A steep decline in the birds’ population has led to the setting up of Operation Turtle Dove (www.operationturtledove.org), a three-year collaborative project between the RSPB, Conservation Grade and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, supported by Natural England.
Natural England’s Sarah Brockless added: “The knowledge, enthusiasm and hard work of Lesley and Payne have lead to outstanding progress during the establishment of the scheme. There is a true balance between a viable farm business, good practical farming and great nature conservation on Moverons Farm. It is through the hard work of farmers like Lesley and Payne and their participating in environmental stewardship schemes that we can make a real difference to our land, conserve wildlife and protect natural resources.”
By re-planting and coppicing the farm’s old elm hedgerows, a series of wildlife corridors will be created across the farm and rotational cutting will provide a source of berries for the birds and field mice to feed on during the autumn and winter months. A patch of Hogs Fennel has also recently been created on the farm to attract the Fisher’s Estuarine moth, one of Britain’s rarest and most highly threatened species of insect.
The next chapter in the farm’s success story will see the gradual re-introduction of traditional sheep grazing which will greatly enhance the importance of the farm’s sea wall for wildlife. Unlike cutting, which creates a uniform habitat, extensive grazing will create a variety of habitats for wildlife.
As well as rare bumblebee species, the farm’s sea wall supports populations of grasshoppers and crickets, such as the short-winged conehead and great green bush-cricket, which are now almost entirely restricted to the Essex coast sea walls and scrub areas such as Noah’s Ark. Sharp-eyed walkers may also notice common lizards and slow worms on warm days. Interesting plants to look out for are shrubby seablite, golden samphire and the nationally scarce dittander.
The farmland is visible from the well-walked sea wall footpath coming out of Brightlingsea.