28 July 1995

How to blend good farming & green policy

The "Plant a tree in 73" campaign made a great impression on Shropshire farmer Richard Cotham who traces his success in the Cyanamid Agriculture UK arable farm wildlife and landscape competition back to the day when he came home from school with two seedlings, a viable silver birch and a fading confer. Ann Rogers explains

"I WILL make this brief," began Richard Cotham outlining farm policy at Sutton Mill Farm, Claverley, Shropshire. "That robin wants to get on with brooding its chicks," he explained indicating the nest box on the barn wall as the robin skimmed backwards and forwards across the heads of the farms open day visitors.

Sponsors, friends, business contacts, former contestants and members of the press had gathered to see how Richard dovetails "responsible farm wildlife and landscape conservation with good farming practice" on the 150ha (370 acre) farm he runs with his parents, John and Janet, and his wife Jane.

This is the requirement of the Cyanamid Agriculture UK arable farm wildlife and landscape competition, run in co-operation with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and Crops magazine.

Richard was the 1994 winner of the competition which is not a retrospective one for work already carried out, but a £3000 award to enable the winner to carry out the proposals made on the written entry.

These must cover the whole farm and suggest improvements that will support wildlife and improve the landscape. "The winning farmer must also be farming well," explained Sir Eric Carter, former national chairman of FWAG, who headed the judging panel. "Not farming for the wildlife but farming with it alongside their farming system."

The Cothams produce sugarbeet, barley, pigs and sheep. "We try to make things simple, efficient and very flexible, and to blend in conservation features," says Richard.

Straw incorporation is one of the methods used to put organic matter into the light, free draining sandy loam and the newly-established beetle banks prevent erosion by intercepting heavy rainfall run-off, as well as supporting wildlife. Covered with white clover or coarse grass, the banks harbour insects (including predatory ones which eat aphids), small mammals that take advantage of the cover and eat the insects, and owls that need the small mammals.

Posts have been sited along the beetle banks to provide perches for owls and other raptors. The farms raptor population includes sparrowhawks, kestrels and buzzards. "Weve got the top of the food chain so we must have got the bottom right," comments Richard.

New hedges provide shelter for sheep and winter barley, as well as flora and fauna and complete wildlife corridors between the farms woodlands and its neighbours. The mix of species in the hedges will provide almost a years supply of nectar, fruit, berries and nuts.

New tree plantings have been as diverse as possible and the immediate benefit of this was that 75% survived the hard frosts that came in the first winter. The mix includes Lime, Wild Cherry, Field Maple, Rowan, Oak, Walnut, Whitebeam, Wych Elm, Ash and Silver birch.

The last two species are old friends of Richards. Theres an Ash on the farm known as Grandfathers tree which he cultivated from a seedling his grandfather gave him, while a Silver Birch growing close to the newly converted mill in which he and Jane live, is a descendant of one he brought home from primary school during the "Plant a Tree in 73" campaign.

"I knew the conifer was a die-er," says Richard of the second tree he was given during the campaign which nurtured his interest in trees.

A row of Sycamores on the approach to the farm is a reminder of his pre-Harper Adams work experience. He grew them from seeds brought back from the farm on which he worked.

Winning the Cyanamid award enabled him to pack 10 years of planned conservation work into one, he says acknowledging Janes support: Carrying out the work of tree and shrub planting, coppicing and hedgelaying, and pond excavation and improvement left him with no free time.

The local community has also been involved. The 1st Wall Heath Scouts helped with the provision of nesting boxes for birds and bats, and the 5th Penn Guides are carrying out a wild flower planting project.

Wildlife also benefits from the fact that three shoots meet on the farm, says Richard, with the subsequent control of game predators such as magpies and foxes. Game cover crops of quinoa and millet are an additional source of feed for wild species too.

Sensitive set-aside management provides shelter for ground-nesting birds. The Green plover population has increased, says Richard who also notes a burgeoning population of skylarks.

Visitors following the farm trail, laid out for the occasion and routed to avoid nesting birds, could not miss the jubilant song of the larks and were reminded by Richard not to linger on the bridge – the kingfishers were feeding young.

A bird box set high on a tree. The local scouts helped Richard carry out the nesting box programme.

The Cotham family, parents John and Janet, son Richard and daughter-in-law Jane in the colourful garden around the farmhouse that Janet tends.

Richard Cotham stands on a beetle bank and leans on one of the high fencing posts erected at intervals as perches for owls.