Small farms shine at conservation awards event
- Credit: Archant
Small farmers showed their dedication to wildlife at a hotly-contested farm conservation awards event last month.
The Suffolk FWAG event, sponsored by Ashton KCJ, this year restricted contenders for its coveted Suffolk FWAG Lapwing conservation trophy to farms of less than 100 hectares, where the opportunities for combining good farming with wildlife conservation are perceived as more limited.
But the businesses competing at the farm conservation organisation’s awards, held at Trinity Park, Ipswich on November 26, showed just how much can be achieved in a comparatively small area.
The winners were father and son Henry and Graham Denny, who farm about 80 hectares (200 acres) at Brewery Farm, Little Stonham, near Stowmarket. The farm has had to evolve over the years to remain viable in the face of changing economic circumstances, switching from dairy to beef before becoming a virtually all-arable holding.
The primary crop is wheat grown for seed, and only orange wheat blossom midge (OWBM) resistant varieties of wheat are grown in order to minimise the need for insecticide sprays, with break crops interspersed.
The farm is in Entry Level Stewardship (ELS)/Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), and was in the old Countryside Stewardship scheme before that, so it includes several well-established habitats, including grass margins. Some are floristically enhanced as Graham collects and scatters his own wildflower seed. This has meant that among other things, this year has seen bee orchids and pyramidal orchids flourishing in the field margins.
Alongside a number of wild bird seed plots, including one sown with a bespoke turtle dove mixture, are commercial game covers, the shoot being an important part of the farming business. Predator control has had a positive knock-on effect on numbers of non-game species, Suffolk FWAG said. There is a steep grassland bank with medieval terracing which is cut for hay and grazed by a neighbour’s sheep.
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The farm also includes ponds and scrapes which have been created, as well as new hedges and small woodlands which have been planted over the years.There is an old osier bed which is managed as habitat for scrub-loving birds, and the farm is home to nest boxes, including, unusually, boxes for a good population of swifts on the farmhouse. Graham takes oilseed rape dressings from a neighbour and scatters these over the winter period to help birds through the winter ‘hungry gap’, when most other food sources are exhausted.
The Dennys’ enthusiasm for wildlife shines through in another unusual way. For several years now they have worked closely with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), netting and ringing birds.
This year it has broken all previous records, with nearly 4,000 birds being ringed, and most species figures are up on 2014. The farm’s overall total now stands at over 20,000, covering 67 different species, including 13 red-listed and 20 amber-listed species. 115 nestlings were ringed this year, with a grand total of over 1,300 since 2006.
“Although some species continue to give cause for concern, the Dennys’ work in the middle of an intensively arable area is of immense value in assessing the well-being or otherwise of the wild bird populations in the area,” said Suffolk FWAG adviser Steve Podd.
Judge Ben Underwood, regional director of Country Land and Business Association (CLA) East, said: “The eventual winners showed innovative ways of enhancing the floristic diversity of their field margins and boosted over wintering bird populations by supplementary feeding. The impact on the wildlife on the farm is monitored closely with regular bird ringing and the results speak for themselves.”
Fellow judge Robert Rush, who farms at Bright’s Farm, Lavenham, said all three entrants demonstrated a passion for the countryside and were quietly going about the practical business of conservation.
“The eventual winners have encouraged an astonishing intensity of wildlife on a carefully preserved historically rich area of farmland, the monitoring of bird numbers by ringing over the last 10 years was particularly informative and impressive,” he said.
Runners-up in the competition were father and son Philip and Roger Draycott of Ashfield Green Farm, Wickhambrook, and Richard Burch of Brook Farm, Grundisburgh..
Ben Blower of North Cove Hall, North Cove scooped the Tim Sloane trophy, judged by independent ecologist Jonny Stone and Brenda Williamson of Suffolk FWAG. The theme for the competition this year was management of fen.
Ben maintains fen and marsh grazing along the Waveney, which is managed under an ELS/HLS) agreement.
“All three farms had done sterling work in halting the natural reversion of fen to woodland, thus retaining habitat for fen plants and other associated wildlife. Some of the fens on Ben’s farm can now be grazed by his herd of Highland cattle when ground conditions allow,” explained Steve Podd.
Judge Brenda Williamson said the standard of all the entries was very high, which made the judging difficult.
“All had a good variety of wetland habitats close together and all had come up with different solutions to overcome the challenges of managing these particular habitats,” she said.
“We were particularly impressed how the winner had made such considerable and varied efforts to restore his wet grassland, and were very impressed with the results he was obtaining – with a wide variety of flowers that only grow in that particular habitat.”