When you hear the words wildlife-friendly farmer, you could be forgiven for picturing weedy crops, mediocre yields and a scruffy farm. But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Buckinghamshire farmer Ian Waller.
Ian is a first-generation farmer, having been first a contractor, then a share farmer and, for the past eight years, a tenant. He now farms 480ha (1200 acres) of arable land near Great Missenden as well as another 320ha (800 acres) on behalf of other farmers.
Starting off as a contractor wasn’t bad training, he reckons. “When you’re a general contractor,” he says, “you have to learn pretty quickly about logistics and timeliness, not to mention communication.”
He operates a six-year rotation involving milling wheat (grown for Warburtons), oilseed rape and beans. Typical yields are healthy at 3-3.75t/acre for first wheats and 3.5t for second wheats. He farms the whole area with one member of staff and some big machinery, so they’re kept pretty busy.
Doesn’t sound like the sort of person who would get enthusiastic about birds, beetles and wildflowers? You might think that initially but as Ian explains the philosophy behind his farming you realise how wrong you are.
Environment certainly doesn’t take a back seat to efficient farming here but neither does it dominate it. Some 55ha (135 acres) of the farm is in the Higher Level Scheme, for a start.
“Virtually every field has an environmental feature,” he says. These include 38km of 2m margins planted with seed mixtures to encourage insects and birds. And 35km of hedges are cut on a three-year cycle with a multi-blade saw (instead of the usual flail head) to give maximum benefit to birds.
Loads of bird boxes have been put up and Ian has been gratified by the return of barn owls plus more kestrels to the farm. Lapwings have come back, too.
His efforts to maintain the range of wild plants are unstinting. All this hard work has been rewarded with an extraordinary range of wild plants and animals, including crested newts, nationally-scarce butterflies like the marbled white and five species of mining bees.
Despite growing good crops, Ian is careful to keep fuel, fertiliser and crop protection product to a minimum. No ploughing is done (other than of the small area of organic land), so everything is min-till or direct-drilled. In fact he has noticed a definite improvement in soils over the past 12 years.
The machinery policy is to keep fuel and electricity to a minimum as well. Machines are maintained well and tyre pressures regularly adjusted according to the job being done. He knows exactly how many litres of diesel per hectare he uses.
Moreover, GPS kit on the tractor and a Yara N-Sensor mean minimal overlaps and fully-utilised fertiliser. Likewise a baffle plate on the pneumatic fertiliser spreader ensures none finds its way on to the 2m margins, let alone near a hedge or watercourse.
Ian is not inclined to keep the farm’s huge range of wildlife to himself either. Some 6000 people in the last two-and-a-half years have come to visit Hampden Bottom Farm, including schools and organisations like the Environment Agency. He spends an astonishing 40 days a year on these visits plus other conservation and voluntary work, as well as being a LEAF member, chairman of the local agricultural training group and vice chairman of the of the Chiltern Hills Agricultural Association.
How does he find the time to do all this? “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s my passion and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in the past eight years.”