You don’t have to meet Rutland farmer Andrew Brown for very long to realise he is a man with strong convictions.
He lobbied both the Commons and the Lords over the 2005 Single Farm Payment disaster and has been to the Parliamentary Ombudsman to get answers. He has appeared on Radio 4, the 10 O’Clock News and BBC News 24 to put the farmers’ side of things, battling against over-regulation and unfair legislation.
So you might not expect him to be the sort who delights in finding a pair of fat chicks occupying an owl box, or explaining to a group of schoolchildren where a particular wildflower gets its name from.
But you’d be wrong, because Andrew puts just as much into nurturing the wildlife on his farm and getting the farming message to the public as he does into his lobbying and NFU work.
The 252ha (620-acre) farm at Caldecott near Market Harborough he runs with father John is roughly 60% arable and 40% permanent pasture. And most of the latter is flood plain that runs alongside the River Welland. There are also 32ha (80 acres) of Elizabethan ridge-and-furrow-land.
Wheat, beans and rape are the key arable crops, while 200 breeding sheep and 96 head of beef cattle graze the extensively-managed permanent pasture alongside the river. Hay is made rather than silage, with meadows mown in late June or early July to give nesting birds a chance to fledge.
Though they do their own spraying and fertiliser spreading, most other farm operations are carried out by contractor. Tractors are modest in size and minimum tillage is the order of the day, which keeps fuel costs down as well as minimising the farm’s carbon footprint. He’s looking at fitting GPS guidance to boost application accuracy
The whole farm has been in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme since 2000. So 2m and 6m field margins are plentiful and all watercourses have 6m margins along them to minimise the chance of contamination from fertiliser or sprays. Some 300m of hedge was planted last year too.
The improvement in birdlife prompted by these margins is plainly a source of great satisfaction to him. “We now have masses of skylarks, barn owls and little owls – it’s really enhanced the wildlife. It’s also good that we’re getting paid to look after wildlife, though a lot of it we were doing already.”
RSPB surveys on the farm confirm that bird populations have shot up, especially barn owls, grey partridges, skylarks, green sandpipers and red kites. A survey of moths in 2006 revealed that there were more than 400 different species on the farm, including rare ones like the peculiar-sounding Pinion-Spotted Pug.
Groups from schools, Rotary clubs and other organisations come to see the farm on a regular basis and last year he gained the important CEVAS farm education accreditation. He also did a LEAF Speak Out course this February. Not that all this stops him, like other farmers, getting inspected now and then.
“Last spring I hosted a DEFRA/RPA cross-compliance farm walk that 80 farmers attended, and the very next day I was subjected to a cross-compliance inspection,” he laughs.
In 2004 Andrew and his father planted a community woodland of 3500 trees with the help of local schoolchildren and scouts. It’s one of his favourite parts of the farm, he says, and when the local water company threatened to drive a pipeline through it, it took the threat of a public demonstration involving local residents and schoolchildren to make them see the error of their ways.
Andrew is also on the NFU Council (as well as being chairman of the local NFU branch) and takes the job of disseminating information to individual branches very seriously. He has a five-year plan, too, that also involves hosting many more school visits and getting over the farming message to everyone he can. With his boundless determination and energy, there’s no doubt he’ll succeed.