One farmers work to encourage
biodiversity on his Oxon unit has
won him a top national award.
Tim Relf finds out why
SHEEP grazing in a field by the road are one of the landmarks David Passmore uses when hes giving directions to Mays Farm. Theyre an unusual sight in an area where arable cropping is king and livestock has become "almost extinct".
Indeed, take one route out of London and, according to David, his sheep are the first you see.
"Sheep are a rare breed in the Chilterns," he says. But livestock are an integral part of his farming system – a system that recently netted him first place in the NFU Biodiversity Awards.
Flora and fauna are conserved and encouraged on this 200ha (500-acre) farm at Ewelme, where sheep and a beef suckler herd are run alongside arable crops.
Varied crop rotation, careful soil management and the undersowing of arable crops with grass/clover leys reduces the need for chemicals and fertilisers and provides habitats for rare and endangered birds and plants.
David says a lot of conservation is "tinkering at the edges. But here, it is core."
Birds such as skylark, corn bunting, grey partridge and plants such as corn spurrey, prickly poppy – even a species of woodland orchid – are evidence of his work. But he insists the unit is productive. "The aim is not to make a nature reserve; it has to be a profitable farm. The farm is here for farming – its my living."
David says it is a "mix and match of the old and the new", combining traditional elements such as a strong reliance on crop rotation with the best of modern practice. "If a new chemical fungicide came available, wed use it."
* Low cost cereals
The system produces low cost, high-yielding cereals and clean grass reducing the need for worming. The "virtually zero" blackgrass means a "huge" financial saving. "We havent wormed a cow for nearly 40 years."
Undersowing of arable crops with grass/clover leys means that cropped areas are left undisturbed after harvest, providing valuable feeding grounds for insect and seed-eating birds. "If youre a bird and you find a sawfly, its like a human finding a rump steak. Its like Christmas!"
The reaction from the public to the results at Mays Farm has been positive, but on a national basis this is a vital battle for the years ahead. "Farming has got a lot of work to do improving its image with non-farming people."
It is partly a battle of perceptions, says David. "I could show you miles of new hedges within a few miles of here; I dont know of one thats been removed. But stop someone in the High Street and ask them if farmers plant or remove hedges and theyll say they remove them.
"Weve got to tell people about the many positive things happening. People will be more receptive to buying British food and government support for farming if theyre hearing positive stories."
But David stresses there is a cost to maintaining the countryside and fostering biodiversity which may make it impossible if your objective is simply minimising costs. "Thats why subsidies are so essential on farms like this."
Wheat is expected to compete on a world market with that grown in, for example, the Ukraine. "Itll probably have been grown in a field twice the size of this farm by a farmer who probably doesnt know the meaning of the word conservation."
* Grey partridge
Meanwhile, Davids successes with the grey partridge – a bird which nationwide has seen huge population declines – is perhaps what he feels most proud of.
He follows the Game Conservancy Trust guidelines on preserving it – just one of his many efforts which so impressed the judges.
His prize for winning the competition is £6000 which he can spend on conservation measures approved by competition sponsor English Nature.
It was, incidentally, the first competition David had ever gone in for. "I had my arm twisted to enter."
But the real pleasure – more so than netting this top accolade – is seeing at first-hand, day-in day-out, the results of his efforts. He loves the sound of birds, feels "proud and protective" of his corn buntings and has seen 15 red kites circling at one time above the tractor as he ploughed.
"But the most pleasure I get is from seeing the grey partridge. If youre here on an autumn evening and a covey breaks, thats fabulous to see."