Farming feature: Wildlife-friendly farms scoop conservation accolades

Sheep farmer Tim Crick of Benacre has triumphed at this year's Suffolk FWAG awards

Sheep farmer Tim Crick of Benacre has triumphed at this year's Suffolk FWAG awards - Credit: Archant

Environmental farming organisation Suffolk FWAG has crowned another momentous year this month with an awards event at Ipswich’s Trinity Park. SARAH CHAMBERS reports.

Andrew (AJ) Paul at Broxtead Estate

Andrew (AJ) Paul at Broxtead Estate - Credit: Archant

Two outstanding farms were recognised for their conservation efforts at an awards ceremony this month.

Suffolk Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) paid tribute to the efforts made by farmers to enhance and improve the environment at an event held at Trinity Park in Ipswich.

Andrew ‘AJ’ Paul at the Broxtead Estate near Woodbridge scooped the Farm Conservation Cup, while sheep farmers Tim and Heidi Crick at Beach Farm, Benacre, took the Tim Sloane Conservation Award. The Farm Conservation Cup runner-up was Chris Knock of Manor Farm, Battisford, near Stowmarket, one of Suffolk’s most ancient farming estates, which was once owned by the Order of St John, the Knights Hospitaller

The awards ceremony took place against a backdrop of an important moment in the organisation’s history. Suffolk FWAG, an independent, farmer-led advice organisation based at Bridge Farm, Wickham Market, with 400 farmer members has triumphed over adversity and is now looking forward to a new era in 2014.

Two years ago, Suffolk’s small, five-strong team of Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) advisers was left in shock after the national body which ran them hit financial problems and collapsed.

But it and its farming supporters were determined that the county group should survive and pulled out all the stops to launch a new organisation.

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It was maintained with the help of farmers’ co-operative the AtlasFram Group, based in Framlingham, which gave it its backing.

Suffolk FWAG has now become independent from AtlasFram, as it enters a new phase of its development, with ownership passing to its two existing farmer directors, Glenn Buckingham and Robert Middleditch, its immediate past and present chairman, with managers Tim Schofield and Caroline Blew joining as new directors.

AtlasFram has ringfenced the revenue earned by Suffolk FWAG so that it is protected for the benefit of the farmer members of Suffolk FWAG.

The new organisation continues to provide practical advice on a wide range of environmental and wildlife matters from classic environmental schemes, resource protection, cross compliance and endangered species and works with a cross section of partners, including Natural England and the Environment Agency.

A new National Association of reformed FWAG groups has agreed to work together, this time with the help of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), with each FWAG group financially independent to avoid a repetition of the past.

The new association is forging links not only with the GWCT but also with Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) with the aim of developing a strong working partnership between the three organisations to deliver advice for farmers and landowners in a better and more joined up way.

Both of these organisations have charitable status and one of the requirements for the new National FWAG Association is that its members have the same status. Suffolk FWAG is working towards achieving charitable status by January 1, 2014, and its six new trustees have been agreed.

So the winners at this year’s awards event were announced on the cusp of this change.

Broxtead Estate, a working 2,800 acre farming estate lying five miles from Woodbridge in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, was purchased by the Paul family in 1914 as a sporting estate for entertaining German maltsters. It was not commercially farmed until the 1960s and has retained a patchwork of traditional woodland, hedgerows, commons and open heathland which are home to rare birds, deer, insects and butterflies, and sheep and ponies which graze the heaths as part of its conservation programme.

Awards judge John Pawsey said the estate was “a worthy winner” of this year’s Suffolk FWAG Farm Conservation Cup.

“It has achieved a fantastic balance between very high productivity crop production and the management of important habitats and the conservation of vulnerable species,” he said.

“The estate has a total area of almost 1100ha only just about half of which is in arable production. The other half is a mosaic of heathlands, grassland and woodland. This includes 258ha of SSSI heathlands.”

It had made full use of options under agri-environment scheme with grass margins, bird seed and pollen and nectar mixtures across the cropped land, as well as skylark plots and hedge and ditch management.

Across the heathlands, restoration programmes are ongoing with scrub removal, heather regeneration and the re-introduction of grazing. The traditional orchard on the estate is also being restored and the estate plays host to a new orchard containing part of the County Collection of the Suffolk Traditional Orchard Group.

Judges praised estate managing partner Andrew ‘AJ’ Paul’s enthusiasm, knowledge, and eagerness to try new things.

“This energy was not just confined the crop production but stretched across all aspects of the estate including, its history, its wildlife and the openness to public engagement on the land,” said Mr Pawsey.

“We were very impressed with the range of crops grown on the estate from carrots, onions and potatoes to various cereals including maize with is destined for the biogas plant RAF Bentwaters and not forgetting the kidney beans. The farming was very much concentrated to the productive areas of the fields with field corners either sensitively managed under Environmental Stewards Schemes or voluntarily left to produce rough areas for wildlife.

“Animals on the farm include Red Polls which supply meat to the Suffolk Food Hall, Norfolk Horn sheep, Hebridean sheep, Exmoor ponies and outdoor pigs.

“Andrew Paul’s knowledge of the wildlife on the estate was quite staggering and even put conservationists knowledge to shame in some areas. As far as farming and conservation is concerned, this family not only talk the talk, but they also walk the walk, which is why they were such deserving winners.

Tim Sloane Conservation Award winners Tim and Heidi Crick, who graze their sheep on more than 1,000ha of grass up and down the Suffolk coast and rent 80ha of wet grazing marsh on the Benacre Estate, were praised for their dogged determination in tough conditions.

“Over the past 21 years they have transformed these grazing marshes getting rid of rank growth, nettles, and willow herb and by pulling ragwort by hand. They make 20,000 small bales of hay every July, loading and unloading them by hand before the sheep are then brought in to graze the aftermath; all this involves really hard manual work,” said FWAG’s Peter Holborn.

“The flora on the marshes is stunning with Southern marsh orchid, hemp agrimony, gypsywort, dropwort, purple loosestrife, ragged robin, and lady’s smock all present. The bird life is thriving too with breeding barn owls, marsh harriers, golden plover, lapwing and 385 swallows’ nests in the farm buildings last year.

“What really impressed the competition judges was what a tough life it is for Tim and Heidi as tenant sheep farmers to make a living and deliver such exceptional conservation outcomes, especially with animals scattered all up and down the Suffolk coast. The judges really admired what they are doing and their ethos.”

The judges singled out for praise the couple’s ideas for managing the hydrology with water levels carefully managed by a system of dykes and 500-600 metres of these are cleaned out each year.

“The site was previously under an Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme which Tim Sloane encouraged and helped the Cricks to enter. Now after two years’ careful thought and preparation, a new Higher Level Stewardship Application has been agreed with Natural England which will help Tim and Heidi to improve the wildlife value of the marshes even more, particularly for wintering wildfowl,” they said.

Mr Buckingham said: “For Suffolk FWAG and the sponsors Ashton KCJ, it was a great evening, the exemplary standard of the entrants made it a hard job for the judges, the farms demonstrated how they integrated the farm business with their environmental and conservation responsibilities and made both successful for the benefit of all.

“The winning entries put considerable effort in and get great benefit in terms of knowledge and enjoyment from this work. It all shows the great value that can be derived where stewardship schemes are used . Comments from the audience were ‘wow is that happening in Suffolk’ and ‘ super evening showing off good all round practice’ I was very pleased with the evening says retiring chairman Glenn Buckingham.”