The link between nature-friendly farming and a bowl of cereal
PUBLISHED: 11:51 28 September 2016 | UPDATED: 12:04 28 September 2016
Wendy Tobitt from the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) explains the link between nature-friendly farming and a brimming bowl of cereal
Arable farmers across Berkshire and Buckinghamshire have been busy harvesting through the last few weeks, capturing the precious grains of wheat, barley, rye and oats that will find their ways to our breakfast tables in gorgeous toasted bread and bowls of cereal.
On two farms, Manor Farm near Aylesbury and Vines Farm near Reading, the farmers are not only paying special attention to their harvests, but also the wider environment that benefits from the ways in which they look after the countryside.
Manor Farm and Vines Farm are among 42 progressive arable farms across the UK championing sustainable farming – as part of Jordans Farm Partnership.
This is a unique new collaboration involving The Wildlife Trusts, Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF) and Jordans, which aims to promote sustainable farming practices and address rural development issues through The Prince’s Countryside Fund.
Manor Farm in Hoggeston, near Aylesbury, is a family-run mixed farm. George Morris is the third generation of his family at Manor Farm, which he runs with his wife Elaine, daughter Caroline and son Alex.
The farm not only grows oats for Jordans, there’s also a pedigree flock of 100 Wiltshire Horn ewes with lambs that Caroline looks after, a herd of Hereford cattle with a Limousin bull called Mooney, and Gloucester Old Spot pigs that have been crossed with Oxford Sandy & Blacks to produce prime porkers.
Looking after the natural environment using sustainable farming practices is integral with the way George and his family look after their land. They’ve sown wildflower margins around the arable fields to attract butterflies and other insects, which in turn feed bats and birds. ‘Bumblebird’ plants are sown annually to provide shelter and food for insects, birds and small mammals in the winter and early spring, and pollen and nectar during the summer.
Several kilometres of hedgerows have been planted in the last three years to give additional shelter and food sources for wildlife.
Brown hares and farmland birds such as skylarks, yellowhammers, tree sparrows and lesser whitethroats are species that have been in decline in the past due to the intensification of farming in the latter half of the 20th century.
Inviting people to visit and see how local food is produced on the farm and giving schoolchildren opportunities to learn where their food comes from is just as important as growing the crops and looking after livestock. For the last 10 years the Morris family have thrown open the farm gates five times a year to host Farmhouse Breakfast weekends.
Elaine explains: “Around 200 people drop in over the weekend to go out on tractor and trailer rides around the farm, followed by a full English breakfast in the old farmhouse dairy. Sausages, bacon and eggs are all from our own pigs and flock of hens. We thought it would be good fun to do, and now it’s a really popular local event.”
The farm also arranges school visits for children from London, Oxford and local schools in North Marston and Cheddington who come for a day out on the farm learning about where their food comes from and why it’s important to have field margins and hedgerows for wildlife.
“Children love to go on the tractor and trailer rides, and there’s always a chance to sample the home-produced sausages afterwards!” says Elaine. “We run farm visits for any group of seven or more people; we’ve even had a group of paramedics.”
The farms taking part in the Jordans Farm Partnership have pledged to carry out a variety of measures to look after and protect water and soil, building on the Jordans’ commitment to support wildlife on at least 10% of the land where its cereals are grown. Both Manor Farm and Vines Farm are aiming for LEAF Marque certification, and will be supported to meet a new bespoke farm wildlife standard across at least 10% of their land, half of which will be managed specifically for pollinators and wild birds.
The Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust’s Farm Advisor, Giles Strother, has visited both farms to assess the current work to benefit wildlife and develop new farm environment plans.
“Working with George and his family at Manor Farm is a real pleasure because they’re already doing great work for wildlife,” says Giles.
“Having a mixed farm with beef cattle and sheep, and a few pigs and chickens in the yard for good measure, attracts lots of wildlife. There are plenty of tree sparrows around the barns, and the hedges are full of singing yellowhammers and lesser whitethroats, with skylarks constantly trilling way up in the sky above the fields of crops.
“The wildflower margins they’ve sown around the field edges are brimming with insects, and will be useful in controlling pests, such as aphids in the crops, as well as providing lots of food for nesting birds.”
For Giles one of the highlights of this farm is a wonderfully inaccessible strip of scrub and trees, including native black poplars, along the course of a brook. “It’s ringing with song thrushes and the more modest soft calls of bullfinches,” he said.
“The farm plan we are working on with George will ensure that every opportunity is taken to keep and even improve upon this extra habitat; 10% of the farm is specifically managed with wildlife in mind.”
Giles has also visited Vines Farm at Cane End near Reading where he walked the fields with Roddy Young who manages 405 hectares in the Chilterns.
“This is a wonderful combination of ancient woodland, fields and pasture, with great oaks and ash trees right up to the edges of fields. It’s very attractive for wildlife, especially birds such as the red kite, kestrel, buzzard and barn owl; they favour woodland habitats for roosting, and fields and rough grassland for hunting small mammals. There are two barn owl boxes, one of which has had a family of barn owls this summer,” explains Giles.
Roddy has managed Vines Farm for 46 years and during that time seen many different crops, including a vineyard producing award-winning wine.
These days people walking the footpaths and bridleways across Vines Farm are more likely to see the magnificent herd of 70 pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle grazing on the pasture.
Wide margins around the arable fields are sown with plants that encourage pollinators such as marbled white and small tortoiseshell butterflies in the summer, and provide seed and over-wintering places for insects, which give winter food for birds. This is also where brown hares find sanctuary in the springtime to bring up their young.
Conventional crops at Vines Farm include oats and barley for Jordans Cereals. In the spring oil seed rape brings vibrant yellow colour to the landscape, which in summer is followed by pink and white flowered poppies and the pretty light blue flowers of linseed. Vines Farm also grows naked oats for bird food. These are highly nutritious oats without the fibrous husk (hence naked) and have lots more energy for wild birds than conventional oats.
The Jordans Farm Partnership was launched to address key issues facing rural communities today, including the decline in farmland birds such as tree sparrow and yellowhammer, and insects including bees and butterflies.
The Morris family in Hoggeston and Roddy Young in Cane End are working hard to produce more food to feed a growing population, while balancing the need to look after the whole environment. Giles Strother is looking forward to working with George and Roddy on the development of their farm environment plans. “Farmers are the custodians of 75% of our countryside and The Wildlife Trusts have a long history of working with farmers to help find ways to maximise the wildlife habitats on their land.
“Working with land managers is an important element of BBOWT’s new Strategic Plan 2016-2021: Be part of nature’s recovery. Working with land managers like Roddy and George will help to improve the wildlife richness of the countryside, and demonstrate to other farmers the benefits they will gain from managing the whole ecosystem of soils and water.”
Wildflower margins, ponds, hedges and nest boxes make a big difference to pollinating insects, wild birds and small mammals as they navigate their way through the landscape.
George Morris and Roddy Young are not only bringing the harvest home, they’re helping wildlife adapt to the pressures of a changing climate and setting the standard for nature-friendly farming.
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