Wildlife Trust welcomes farmers’ response to new approaches to speeding up efforts to tackle nature and climate crisis
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By Lisa Channing, Farming & Wildlife Projects Officer
In a county with a profitable farming sector and few obvious candidate areas for large-scale rewilding in its purest sense, the increasingly polarised debate on the future of farming can act as a barrier to progress – potentially putting off farmers keen to do their bit to welcome wildlife onto their land.
Whilst there’s no escaping that modern intensive agriculture has been a major driver of nature’s decline, we can’t pin all the blame on farmers. We have to decide what sort of future we want for our farmed landscape, and we all have role to play in restoring nature within it. I come from a farming family and one of the things that attracted me to my role with Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust was the opportunity to work with farmers locally to find ways to bring nature back.
Not all areas of the country are suitable for large-scale ‘re-wilding’ - where the land is given over almost exclusively to nature. In counties like Nottinghamshire, we must find innovative farmer-facing solutions to help tackle the nature and climate crises; solutions that still enable farmers to run profitable businesses whilst continuing to meet the nation’s need for home-grown food.
That’s why the early success of a pilot project aimed at transforming arable land adjacent to designated wildlife areas into grassland has been so rewarding – it demonstrates that farmers and wildlife organisations can work constructively to bring nature back.
Here at the Trust we are determined to create as much quality wildlife habitat as possible and to put nature into recovery. In a largely agricultural landscape we are keen to build on our track record of working with local landowners to find pragmatic solutions which enable farmers to welcome wildlife on to their land.
The pilot project, funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, is aimed at converting arable land near existing areas of wildlife value, either designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or Local Wildlife Sites (LWS). The intention is to help buffer these areas from the impacts of climate change and to reduce problems caused by habitat fragmentation.
By targeting land adjacent to designated wildlife areas we can boost habitat connectivity, create more habitat for pollinators and farmland birds, reduce carbon emissions and directly sequestering carbon all whilst farmers maintain the ability to generate income from grazing.
We have worked with Woodside Farm at Wellow and New Holbeck Farm at Halam, to convert seven hectares of arable land into herb-rich leys, through a process known as arable reversion. The switch reduces the amount of carbon released from the soil each year during ploughing and sowing of crops and allows the soil to absorb carbon from the atmosphere over time.
As well as providing habitat for bees and other pollinators the new grassland can benefit farmland birds such as grey partridge and yellowhammer - currently species of conservation concern. By linking the new habitat to adjacent SSSIs and LWS we expand the mosaic of high-quality interconnected habitats within the Nature Recovery Network and provide opportunities for species to migrate.
To stand a chance of putting nature into recovery over the next decade 30% of our landscape needs to be welcoming for wildlife. In a county like Nottinghamshire, where less than 8% of land is managed primarily for nature conservation, we must find ways to encourage nature-friendly farming whilst supporting successful farm businesses.
Having previously identified the challenge of convincing arable famers to take productive land out of use as a major barrier to increasing the area of nature friendly habitat in a county with so much high value farmland we are delighted that the pilot has been so well received. We now hope to work with the famers who’ve taken part to demonstrate the benefits to other local farmers.
Profitable cultivation of crops results in year-on-year disturbance of soils causing stored carbon to be released. When nitrogen-based fertilisers and pesticides are used, yet more carbon is released. There is also a risk that chemicals will leach into nearby watercourses. Reverting arable fields to herb-rich leys delivers significant benefit by reducing carbon emissions and boosting carbon storage. The carbon reductions are further enhanced as reversion to herb-rich leys reduces and often eliminates the need for pesticides and fertilisers. Through the pilot we’ve been able to offer a package of support and advice to farmers to help them convert the land, including wildlife surveys and provision of seed and fencing. We’ve also brought together support from complementary schemes to deliver almost 2km of new hedgerows, features such as beetle banks, the installation of bird and bat boxes, supplementary feeding opportunities for birds and maximising opportunities for carbon sequestration and species recovery through the creation of a network of high-value habitats.
This scheme has provided a foot in the door where others may not have been attractive or practicable for these particular farm businesses. Many farmers are understandably nervous of permanently taking land out of production to create new habitat such as woodlands or wetlands, but by creating habitat that is beneficial for wildlife whilst also being available for grazing by cattle, sheep or ponies, we’ve demonstrated that real results to tackle the nature and climate crisis can be achieved very quickly.
We’ve been able to build on our experience of working with local farmers and the pilot complements a range of farm-focussed initiatives we are currently delivering in partnership with Severn Trent. It’s really exciting to be part of a team that is working with dozens of farmers to promote nature-based solutions to challenges such as improving soil health, reducing pesticides and fertiliser pollution plus the need to reconnect fragmented habitats.
The reaction from the farmers has been really positive. We know Richard Baugh at Woodside Farm had been trying to find a scheme to suit but had struggled to find one. He was keen to improve their soils after struggling with crops over two wet years and felt that this scheme would help refresh the field. They are also delighted that we’ve been able to support them to fence the field to protect the adjacent SSSI from impact by livestock and they’ve noticed positive results already. Follow up surveys have yet to be completed on this site, but it is definitely growing and we do have evidence that the supplementary bird feeding has been very popular on the site at Wellow. The herbal ley is just a good really option for the farmer.
Managed correctly the herbal ley will help the soil and boost wildlife by increasing the number of beneficial insects – meaning that Richard and the team will be able to start to eradicate insecticides from the farm.
We very much hope that our partnerships with participating landowners will grow and in the months ahead, we’ll be carrying out surveys of invertebrates and breeding birds to compare with our earlier records. We’re also planning to promote the results to other farmers once the leys are better established. We also hope to push for the approach to be included in the Government’s Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) initiatives from 2024 onwards to help provide a viable income stream for farmers whilst creating nature-based solutions to help support nature’s recovery and help to limit the impact of the climate crisis.
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