FWAG from the early days

Westhorpe farmer and former Suffolk FWAG chairman David Barker looks back at a popular farming institution which has re-emerged in Suffolk this year under a new umbrella

Last November saw the demise of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) as a national organisation, a traumatic time for all concerned; however for some of us it was not a major surprise because there had been financial difficulties a number of times in the past. The loss of Central Government support and the introduction of Regional Managers in particular had been a cost that too far.

Suffolk FWAG’s origins go back to the spring of 1967 when John Trist represented the county at a national forum; the well documented Silsoe Conference in July 1969 became the foundation of an advice body which over a period of time helped shape the countryside in a positive way.

At the time, the word conservation was not part of a farmer’s vocabulary because post war policies had led the industry to maximise production at almost any cost.

The origins of Suffolk FWAG go back to 1972 when Tony Hillman of the NFU arranged a meeting that included farmers John Holmes, Willie Kerr and John Slater.

Willie Kerr provided a cup for the best farm combining good farming with conservation. The highlight of the year was often the annual tours of the winning farms.

Gordon Clark late of the Ministry of Agriculture became chairman in 1977 and, helped by Dr Ray Hull, John Digby and Gwen Dyke provided an advice service. Many will remember Gwen Dyke for the way she made history come alive on the farm walks.

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John Wilson of Ixworth Thorpe became chairman in 1980 to be followed by John Holmes and with Gordon Clark the organisation progressed to such an extent that in 1985 Juliet Hawkins (nee Keith) became the county’s first full time advisor.

At the time the group had 85 members paying �15 per annum Bayer through Carol Ferguson was a major supporter. The Kerr cup competition thanks to Bernard Tickner was first supported by Greene King. Later, Stephen Fletcher ensured Strutt and Parker took the role and more recently, Ashton KCJ.

This was a time when conservation-minded farmers were often regarded as odd by an industry hell-bent on production; it was ironic that later as farming received a bad press these farmers were the ones rolled out by the industry to answer the critics.

Suffolk FWAG received terrific support from the Nature Conservancy Council via John Shackles and Dick Sisman of the Countryside Commission.

Suffolk FWAG’s Council was made up of a wide range of farmers and organisations and created a forum to discuss environmental issues.

The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) gave immense support with a free office and Peter Grimble, Jack Shields and Colin Hitchman were amongst those who gave outstanding support as FWAG secretaries.

Juliet made a huge impact and the FWAG advisory service was well respected. Andrew Fane became chairman and in 1985 a wildlife area thanks to Miles Landscapes and The Suffolk Wildlife Trust was established at the Suffolk Showground, Andrew Fane shrewdly ring-fenced the finances when the national organisation was in financial trouble.

Wildlife became a key component of farming policy after the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. Derek Moore became a great supporter as the Suffolk Wildlife Trust grew into a significant force, and offered an office should Suffolk need to go it alone.

In 1986 John Horsman of Cratfield became the first Suffolk winner of the National Silver Lapwing Award.

FWAG became the catalyst for farmers and environmentalists to work closely together to enhance the countryside.

By the time I became chairman in 1989 the workload was such that Alison Lea became FWAG’s second full time adviser. Tango Bolton followed Juliet and Whole Farm Plans became nationally known and later Landwise reports used modern technology to record environmental features.

The organisation had some superb office support. Maggie Lawrence was the first membership secretary, Sue Fullman, Brenda Rafe and more recently Caroline Blew expanded the role.

1992 was a milestone year as the EU introduced setaside as a compulsory part of farming support. The great problem was the rules insisted on cutting the setaside by the end of May just when birds were nesting! Dubbed the `Killing Fields`, Suffolk FWAG set about changing agricultural policy. John Cousins came up with the term `Green Veins in the Countryside`. A sub-committee including office holders, advisers, Derek Moore, Peter Holburn and Richard Rafe promoted headland setaside as an alternative. A press day at Brook Farm, Flowton, expanded the concept and although some farmers thought we were mad, the press was enthusiastic. So much so, BBC2 produced a 30 minute documentary `Green Veins in the Countryside`.

Suffolk FWAG promoted the policy at Westminster and Brussels; I remember John Gummer’s comment that farmers and environmentalists make a powerful force.

Today, green veins run the length and breadth of Britain as Stewardship Schemes covering some 70% of the farmed area. John Cousins took over as chairman as Suffolk FWAG achieved 350 farmer and 50 trade members. Adam Gretton joined the group and in future years, Chris Hainsworth and Phil Watson,

The late Jonny Paul followed John Cousins as chairman. He was a terrific person who progressed the organisation. Suffolk FWAG has had some excellent leaders. Roy Goodwin had a difficult time as chairman as staff were recruited to join Natural England as it expanded its operation. A new team of advisers carried the work forward. Tim Schofield, Dora Nicholls and Diane Ling have provided a huge amount of advice over recent years.

A true champion of Suffolk FWAG was John Slater of Stoke by Nayland who served for over 25 years. He had presented ITV’s Farming Diary and was well respected across the farming community.

In 2008, FWAG introduced the Tim Sloane award to recognise the remarkable contribution Tim had made to the area.

Robert Rous, Philip Hope-Cobbold and John Pawsey all gave service as chairman to an organisation that has and will continue to provide high quality advice to farms and estates in the county.

The present chairman, Glenn Buckingham, has had the unenviable task of restructuring Suffolk FWAG in very difficult circumstances; the team has stayed together and with the security and support provided by Atlas Fram the organisation has, in my view, a secure and exciting future.

In many ways, the Presentation Evening last November was the end of an era, with John Holmes being a very worthy final winner of the Ashton KCJ sponsored Kerr Cup.

Suffolk FWAG will operate in the future with the ability to ring-fence its own funds as a not-for-profit company from a sound base provided by the Atlas Fram Group.