Controlled Life and Wildlife

Friday 6th June 2014

Most of our countryside is closely managed and controlled to deliver a range of objectives, this is hard work and sometimes intensive.  Potentially conflicting objectives of producing food, maintaining income and protecting wildlife are balanced with a varying range of success.  The maintenance of endangered wildlife depends on these efforts by farmers and others, but sometimes it is fantastic to witness life thriving in an uncontrolled and unexpected manner.

Yesterday (5 June 2014) I was at the annual Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) Silver Lapwing Awards at the Raveningham Estate in South East Norfolk.

The winner of the award was Ashley Cooper of HP Cooper Farms Ltd, Gestingthorpe, Essex.  Ashley is keen on practical conservation on his 280 Ha farm, producing high quality crops alongside the protection and enhancement of habitats and species.  School children visit the farm to see food being grown, learn how the countryside being maintained, and to peruse a museum showing Roman artefacts found in the fields.

FWAG is an organisation of wildlife expert farm advisors who help farmers to maximise the wildlife on their land.  It ran into financial trouble in 2011 and went into receivership.  Since then many for the former employees have continued operating under separate regional FWAG banners or with new company names.  Now the organisation is coming back together, although there is still no head office and incomplete coverage around the country.

In accepting the award Ashley gave a passionate speech in which he said “I would like to say how overwhelmingly thrilled I am that FWAG is still continuing.  The FWAG advisers over the years have helped give my farm its heart, its soul and its beauty”.Heather Jenkins Waitrose, Ashley Cooper Winner of the Silver Lapwing Award, Sir Nicholas Bacon and Duncan Sinclair Waitrose (c) Matt Shardlow

Attendees were taken on a tour of the Raveningham Estate by Farm Manager Jake Fiennes and owner Sir Nicholas Bacon.  We saw large fields full of colourful, seed-producing bird cover and carefully managed pollinator field margins – full of Yellow rattle, Bird’s-foot trefoil, vetches, clover and Ox-eye daises.

The level of control exerted on the pollinator habitat was amazing; Jake said “we don’t like thistles, docks, nettles and ragwort so we don’t have them” – and they didn’t, not one, anywhere, along kilometres of broad pollinator margins.  The margins were cut in August and hay left to shed wildflower seed before being removed.  The Estate took great pleasure in the Bee and Southern marsh orchids that were springing up in some of the pollinator margins – they definitely did like these and they were thriving.

Sir Nicolas explained that they did not like invasive alien species so there were no Muntjac deer or Grey squirrels on the 2300 Ha estate – they trap and kill 450 grey squirrels a year.  The game keeping is also intensive – they don’t like foxes, crows and stoats – so none of those.  The maintenance of large areas of cover for game birds and the control of the predators enables the Estate to run an increasingly rare rural enterprise – a wild partridge and pheasant shoot.  Many will understandably cringe or be angered at the volume of blood spilt, but from the perspective of the bugs it is probably a good thing that the estate is not over-run by thousands of imported and released hungry game birds every spring.Sir Nicolas Bacon, Raveningham Estates (c) Matt Shardlow

Raveningham Estate has a clear vision of what they want the land to deliver – rich biodiversity, high crop yields and an authentic shoot.  Building on the knowledge and advice of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, FWAG and others, and the accumulated experience of centuries of managing the land they appear to be delivering their vision with breath-taking precision.

There is no doubt that intensive chemical agriculture has, and is, causing massive damage to wildlife, but given the right information and help there are many farmers who, at least outside and around the crops, are able to deliver space in which wildlife can thrive.

Driving back along the A11 there is an astounding sight along the road near the Barton Mills roundabout.  The earthmoving associated with the dualling of the A11 has exposed the seed bank in the soil and there is a bountiful exuberance of annual flowers.  Strips of red Field poppies, taller deep purple-flowered Opium poppies, towering Hemlock – like small skeletal oak trees, grey, thrusting Cotton thistle, vast amounts of the local speciality the yellow crucifer Flixweed and who knows how many other smaller plants under this flowery canopy.  It is certainly a great resource for the pollinators of the Mildenhall area.

The A11 road building is creating a thriving abundance of life by accident, not design.  There are no objectives and no-one has yet taken any decisions about what they do, or do not, like.  As a result there are alien plants blooming alongside scarce native plants.  Heart-lifting though this botanical exuberance is, it is a temporary bounty, no doubt the earth will be moved again and probably reseeded to create a nice grassy verge, many of the plants will retreat back into the seed bank in hope of more disturbance in the next few decades, and the bees and hoverflies will have to find their sustenance elsewhere.