Farmers across the nation care for the countryside, but our three finalists go the extra mile when it comes to integrating wildlife and habitat with their agricultural operations and being passionate advocates for this important work. Isabel Davies reports
Great Wollaston Farm, Shrewsbury, Shropshire
After reading engineering at Cambridge University, Rob Kynaston was offered a job with a firm that built the bridge over the Tyne. It’s ironic he turned that down, when he now finds himself building bridges of another kind – between fellow farmers, environmentalists, regulators and the public.
Over the past 20 years, Rob has become a leading proponent of farming in a sustainable way. Great Wollaston Farm, near Shrewsbury, Shropshire, is a dairy and arable LEAF demonstration farm that has welcomed numerous schoolchildren, students, farmers and policymakers through its gates.
Rob hosts more than 20 farm walks a year in a bid to explain to people how it is possible to farm profitably while also managing the land for wildlife. But that’s just the start of his outreach activities.
He works with his local FACE contact to talk to trainee teachers about farm visits and how to work them into the national curriculum. He has been a regional co-ordinator for Open Farm Sunday, a speaker at LEAF conferences and is the West Midland’s co-ordinator for the Farming Advisory Service. This role involves organising farm walks and workshops to give farmers cross-compliance advice and allow him to share his knowledge on resource protection and agri-environment schemes on a consultancy basis.
The advice Rob delivers is based on more than 15 years’ experience of farming in a sustainable way using integrated farm management techniques.
- Dairy and arable business milking 76 cows
- 40ha of spring and autumn crops
- Run by Rob and one full-time worker
Talking to farmers on a regular basis, he knows that a bank of experience is priceless. “A lot of the people who come to listen to me like the fact that I farm myself. They like the fact that I’ve had a cross-compliance check on my cattle and know that I have also jumped through hoops.”
He looks at his own farm, which lies on the border with Wales, holistically. The dairy herd, which yields an average of 6,000 litres, is managed in a very low input way and the whole farm policy is about growing as much feed for them on site. He grows spring-sown mixes of peas and barley, which he wholecrops as an arable silage, to produce a feed that is high in protein and starch. He is experimenting with growing lupins as an alternative protein source. It is a low-cost system that is delivering profits, even though he has cut cow numbers in the past 12 months to about 70 head from a high of 110.
By including high rates of clover in grass leys, Rob has reduced the amount of fertiliser he uses by more than 50%. The farm is also entered into Higher Level Stewardship, which means that most fields have a 6m margin around them – a haven for field voles and shrews, as well as perfect habitat for a wide range of invertebrates. Arable crops are established using min-till techniques where possible and overwintered stubbles are used to provide seed for birds during the winter months. Skylarks, lapwings, barn owls, yellowhammers and tree sparrows can all be found on the farm.
The eight ponds have been fenced off to stop cattle getting to them and edge trees are managed to get a balance of light and shade. Woodlands are actively managed both to produce firewood and enhance wildlife habitats. To help reduce his electricity bills, he has recently installed 20kW solar panels on one of his farm buildings.
Rob admits that some of what he does may seem strange to others, but that’s part of why he is so keen to talk about it. “I farm in an integrated, sustainable way, even if that means doing things that some people think are bizarre,” he says.
“But I’ve thought out what I do carefully and it works. I want to convince people of this fact.”
Glynllifon College, Caernarfon, Gwynedd
Eurwyn Edwards goes the distance and beyond – whether that’s in terms of his commitment to farming in an environmentally friendly way, or his determination to do what’s right for his students.
For the past 32 years Eurwyn has worked at Glynllifon College in Gwynedd, which offers land-based courses to more than 350 students and is part of the Group Llandrillo-Menai.
The complexities of his task are mind-boggling. As development director, he manages the 300ha farm and woodland site to make sure that he hits his profit targets set for the business a whole. Yet the other part of his job is as an educationalist, which means he has to juggle the needs of the farm with the needs of his students – and all the paperwork that comes with both.
Incredibly he still finds time for some long-distance running – regularly running up and down the 3,560ft-high mount Snowdon.
In order to give students the widest possible experience, the farm is varied. It has a 150-cow dairy unit, a pedigree Welsh Black herd and bull beef unit, 550 breeding ewes, a pig unit producing 700 pigs a year and 140ha of forestry that produced more than 7,500t of timber last year.
Against this backdrop of activity Eurwyn has been the driving force behind a move to turn the college farm and campus into one of the greenest in the UK.
Over the past decade he has implemented a detailed programme of environmental work that has transformed the way the farm looks, provided a valuable income stream in the form of environmental payments and is also helping to change the attitudes of the next generation of farmers in Wales.
Eurwyn took the decision to enter the farm into Tir Gofal 12 years ago and has not looked back. The farm is now in Glastir and the 140ha of woodland has been managed under the Better Woodland for Wales programme since 2009.
More than 6km of hedgerow have been established, 200 oak and elms planted within fields, riverside corridors created by fencing-off fields next to watercourses and wild bird covers established to help improve habitats.
- 160ha of grassland and 140ha of woodland
- Farm and woodland managed under Glastir
- 150 cows dairy unit supplying milk to Marks & Spencer
Changes have been implemented in farming practices – for example using a trailing shoe slurry spreader, instead of a splash plate, in order to improve nutrient take-up and reduce nitrogen loss. The application of inorganic fertilisers has been reduced by more than a third in the past five years.
His philosophy, for both the farm and his students, is to help them achieve their potential.
One of the key reasons he has been so keen to enter schemes like Glastir is to show how they can work alongside commercial farm enterprises. He has also managed to stagger the work programme so that each year students are able to get hands-on experience at skills such as hedge-planting.
“We are showing that what are we doing here is working. Students are then leaving and taking this knowledge with them. The impact would be great on a number of family farms,” says Eurwyn.
His passion and enthusiasm for the environmental side of farming is certainly inspiring, as is his desire to take the farm forwards. The college’s dairy is one of only a handful in Wales supplying milk to Marks & Spencer on a contract which has sustainability and high welfare at its core.
In 2012 the college built a roundhouse for its beef cattle and uses woodchip from its timber enterprise as bedding, as well as to power the biomass boiler used the heat the main teaching block on site.
No stone has been left unturned when it comes to accessing funding for environmental work. Nor are there any shortcuts taken in implementing the schemes.
“If you can’t show students good management then why are they here?” says Eurwyn. “I think we’ve created something pretty unique in the college environment, which not only will be of benefit for the students of today, but all those of the past 15 years and the generation to come.”
Whelan Farms, Warlingham, Surrey
It is said that when one door closes, another opens – and that has certainly been the case at Whelan Farms on the Surrey/Kent border within sight of the City of London.
In 2005, Robert Kilby, who has been farm manager there on a contract farming arrangement with Sentry for more than 21 years, took the difficult decision alongside landowner John Whelan to disperse the 200-head dairy herd.
“As we built up to saying the dairy herd was going, we were asking ourselves, how are we going to diversify and make the best of the farm?” he says. “At that time English Nature (now Natural England) approached us to see if we would enter a Higher Level Stewardship agreement and I could see that the farm just lent itself to HLS.”
Seven years on and there have been some pretty dramatic changes on the 704ha farm, which includes 340ha of combinable crops, 220ha of extensive chalkland and 124ha of semi-ancient woodland.
As part of the HLS agreement, close to 60ha of arable ground has been reverted back to chalk grassland, which is now teeming with grass and herb species that have naturally regenerated despite years of the land being included in a conventional arable rotation.
An additional 116ha of grassland is in restoration, receiving either low or no inputs. Margins – both grass and flower-rich – have been established around the arable area to provide habitats alongside crops and form corridors to enable wildlife to move through the farm.
Environmental payments are now an important revenue stream on the farm, bringing in more money than the sheep flock. But the scheme has brought other benefits, too. Putting more marginal fields into arable reversion and using less productive areas for margins or bird cover has improved average crop yields by 10% and gross margin performance. Moving to a min-till or direct drilling system has cut fuel and wearing metal costs, too.
In 2012 the farm became a Guild of Conservation Grade Producer, which means Robert gets a £28/t premium over the wheat futures base price for his oats, which should add £30,000 to the bottom line. He had hoped to be able to achieve a premium for milling wheat, but poor weather has prevented this from happening in 2013.
- 340ha of wheat, red wheat, peas, oats and OSR
- Flock of 700 breeding mules on chalk downland
- Entered into the Higher Level Stewardship in 2006
“Adopting this approach has certainly helped the profitability of the farm,” he says. “It is not just about hugging trees and fluffy bunnies – it has improved the business.”
In terms of species on the farm, the results have been impressive too. As the grassland has developed, so has the number of invertebrates and reptiles that are monitored by local researchers. In turn, there have been significant increases in bird species such as skylarks, grey partridges, woodpeckers and lapwings. Barn and short-eared owls have also been spotted on the farm.
An area of the farm that Robert particularly loves is a 20ha block close to his house that was cleared of scrub in the 1990s in order to allow the natural flowers, herbs and grasses to redevelop, after being designated as an SSSI.
He describes it as a continually changing landscape – in the spring it’s a sea of primroses and cowslips, which develops into ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle, herbs and then orchids.
To spread the word about what has been achieved – and to enable others to enjoy the results – Robert welcomes local residents, farmers and professionals to the farm, holding open days for different audiences on an annual basis. He has built a good relationship with the village donating 1ha of ground to the local horticultural society to be used as allotments, giving up land to build affordable houses as well as renting out building space to a small number of local businesses. This summer Robert is planning to invite local schoolchildren along to get a better understanding of farming, nature and the environment. There are not, he says, many places so close to London like Whelan Farms. “It is an oasis within the M25.”
The three finalists represented a very diverse vision within the definition of ‘countryside farmer’, all of a very high standard within their own fields – and a pleasure to spend time with.”
Find out more about the 2013 Farmers Weekly Awards