Matt Willmott

Land management adviser, Natural England

Binoculars are never far from Matt Willmott. It’s a big clue to this land management adviser’s specialism. Working for Natural England, Matt is acknowledged by experts to be an outstanding ornithologist and farmland bird specialist.

That was evident during the judges’ visit to Toft Farm Lakes near Rugby, where Matt picked out the songs and shapes of numerous birds as he walked us around the 350-acre arable farm owned by Stuart Russell.

Matt advises on 25,000ha of farmland, which is linked to 65 Higher Level Stewardship agreements and 48 countryside stewardship arrangements. His HLS clients are growing at about 10 a quarter. The total amount of money going towards conservation in his patch is £678,000 a year and he has delivered 1,000ha of farmland bird habitat in his south-east Warwickshire patch in the past five years.

Matt was involved in the development of the ELS/HLS Farmland Bird package, compiling evidence to support a “pick list” of in-field farming options that give maximum benefit for bird habitats.

“It all pointed to a need for a minimum of 4-7% for every 100ha of arable farmland in ELS to contain suitable in-field management to deliver enough key habitats to help reverse the decline of farmland birds,” he says.

Three options provide the critical resource that farmland birds need to survive – over-winter seed food, spring and summer invertebrate food and places to nest in-field. His specialist area is wet grassland management and that is where his advice at Toft Farm has been invaluable: “Without Matt we wouldn’t have entered in to HLS and taken on the wetland scheme. We would simply have built the fishing lakes,” says Mr Russell.

The fishing lakes were a diversification project for Toft Farms, but the environmental value that Matt has bought to the venture has given this farm a completely new lease of life. “This farm won the Silver Lapwing award in 2005 – we could never have done that without Matt,” says Mr Russell.

It’s the complexity of form-filling that Matt acknowledges can put some people off: “I tend to do this for them because I know it is such a major hurdle.” But he is far from office-bound. Four days of his working week are out on farms. “I like to drop in and spend a couple of hours with my clients. It’s so rewarding to see the impact their environmental management is having on farmland birds and I like to share that with them. Its not about the number of farmers signing up to HLS, it’s all about their engagement in the objectives and delivery that are so crucial,” he says.

Matt’s affable and modest nature is clearly a key part of his success, but it is his in-depth understanding of the issues around farmland birds and conservation that impresses everyone who meets him. He sits on Campaign for Farmed Environment and local Biodiversity Action Groups, runs training events for agronomists with Syngenta and has recently helped produce a DEFRA-funded Farming for Wildlife DVD. Regular BBC Countryfile viewers will have seen it being discussed on the Sunday evening programme.

Clients: 55 ELS/HLS agreements; 48 Countryside Stewardship farms covering 18,000ha in the West Midlands

Specialism: farmland birds

“Matt is making a big impact on farmland bird habitat in the West Midlands. He goes that extra mile, visiting his clients regularly to provide support and encouragement and inspire them with is knowledge and enthusiasm for farmland birds.” Roger Mercer (independent judge)

What the judges liked

• Big impact on raising farmland bird populations

• Engaging and encouraging farmers to adopt long-term environmental measures

• Goes beyond the call of duty to support his farming clients


2011 Farmers Weekly Awards