How to deliver landscape-scale change through farm cluster groups

Farmer cluster groups are meeting local environmental priorities both on their own farms and beyond their boundaries.

The term “cluster” was adopted, because it describes how members of these groups are typically situated around a landscape feature such as a wood or river.

Joined-up thinking and land management planning, together with the right training and use of data, has allowed clusters to help expand and connect valuable habitats as well as recover important species.

See also: For more on our Transition Farmers

Recognition that nature doesn’t respect farm boundaries was the catalyst for the first formal cluster.

It was established in 2012 after the coalition government in power at the time announced a competition to create 12 nature improvement areas, with funding attached.

Among the selected applications was a group of farmers, covering 10,000ha on the Marlborough Downs, with a plan for improving wildlife and biodiversity.

When that pilot ended in 2015, the group vowed to continue and today is known as Space for Nature.

It set the standard of bottom-up, farmer-led groups, who wanted to share their knowledge and create landscape-scale change. 

Since then, at least another 150 groups have been formed as the concept has taken off.

Initially driven by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, there are now a range of organisations and advisers involved in their development.

Central Chilterns Cluster Group

The Central Chilterns Farmer Cluster was established in autumn 2018, when 10 pioneering farmers formed the group and the first winter farmland bird surveys were conducted.

The cluster was led by Buckinghamshire farmer Ian Waller, who saw the Chilterns landscape as a unique farm setting.

He was keen to bring in some of the smaller farms in the area that were interested in conservation projects but lacked either the expertise or funds to implement them.

By spring 2019, the cluster membership had grown to 16 farmers and National Lottery Heritage Funding for five years had been confirmed.

At this stage, all the members agreed to get a better understanding of wildlife on their farms, collaborate and work together and use the group as a means of adapting to future change.

With the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme on the horizon, the cluster had the additional aim of getting its members comfortable with issues such as carbon sequestration and soil health.

By the summer of 2020, the cluster was actively delivering specific projects on eight farms, through its partnership approach to accessing advice, achieving project design, securing funding and establishing monitoring, in an end-to-end support package.

Winter 2021 saw 18 farmer members covering an area of 6,500ha, with an average farm size of 360ha.

These farms either hosted or adjoined nine sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) and 54 local wildlife sites and were in the Buckinghamshire section of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB).

The clusters’ results speak for themselves. Supported by 50 experts, specialists and contractors working together, the following are just some of what has been achieved:

  • 1km of pollinator margins created
  • 18 whole-farm plans written
  • 52 owl boxes made and installed
  • 286 species recorded on botanical surveys of arable reversion chalk grassland and arable margins on one farm
  • Landscape-scale conservation planned, delivered and monitored
  • 20 Longworth traps purchased for small mammal surveys
  • 23t of supplementary food provided for farmland birds
  • 50 Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust Big Farmland Bird Count visits
  • 339 birds ringed with Hughenden Ringing Group
  • More than 600 skylark recorded on one farm
  • More than 20,000 new hedge whips planted along 4,000m of hedgerow
  • 1,565m of hedgerow coppiced
  • 5ha of chalk grassland managed
  • 4ha of flower-rich meadow created
  • 6ha of planting to provide winter food for birds

In terms of finances, an initial investment of £387,500 spread over five years covered staffing costs of £175,000, specialist advice/consultancy fees of £65,000, equipment and material costs of £20,000, capital funding for contractors of £125,000 and volunteer equipment and materials of £2,500.

It is estimated that every £1 invested has triggered £3.71 of additional spend on nature recovery.

The farmer cluster has also delivered £111,562 of health and wellbeing benefits for the Chilterns from volunteering.

In 2021, a partnership between the group and the Rothschild Foundation supported a cluster-wide approach to reducing carbon emissions.

All members received individual carbon reports, and an additional cluster-scale carbon assessment was produced to show the wider impact of reducing emissions.

The cluster was chosen by Defra as one of the five pilot areas for the development of Local Nature Recovery strategies.

It is also in Buckinghamshire’s Natural Environment Partnership, which brings together groups that want to make a positive change for nature.

As chairman Ian Waller explains, the Central Chilterns cluster’s work proves that delivering large-scale projects requires sufficient funding.

“Getting farmers to engage needs understanding and buy in, which takes money,” says Ian.

“There aren’t any overnight solutions – but as you build relationships and break down barriers, you see habitat management and conditions improve, leading to change at scale and species recovery.”

Setting up a cluster group

It all starts with a farmer who has an interest in conservation, says Ian Gould of Oakbank, who stresses that all successful clusters are farm-centric.

Securing funding allows a facilitator to be appointed and ensures that farmer aims and targets are adhered to – often because there’s a management team of farmers working with the facilitator to keep the initiative on track.

While there is government funding in the form of the Facilitation Fund – which has a three-year limit – accessing that money can be a long, drawn-out process fraught with difficulties.

“Increasingly, there are privately run cluster groups, where farmer members either pay a subscription to be part of the group, or organisations such as water companies provide funding and invest in the activities undertaken,” he says.

“Being paid to put some habitat in the right place works for both the farmer and the water company, for example, in certain catchments.”

Many of the groups that started just as Covid hit were unable to spend all the money Defra allocated but were prohibited from rolling on, which is why they are increasingly being supported by new and different funding models.

“If farmers invest in these groups, it confirms their commitment. We’ve seen how successful they can be – many have got oven-ready projects that will appeal to emerging natural capital markets.”

Getting started

  1. Lead farmer – a well-connected communicator with good green credentials becomes the steering member and gets the ball rolling.
  2. Invites neighbours – uses networks and relationships to recruit local farmer membership and spread the word.
  3. Decide aims – discuss and agree issues as a group, including species loss, habitat requirement, watercourses, other targets and outreach activity.
  4. Choose facilitator – recruit the right person to administrate, seek funding, organise events and co-ordinate training requirements.
  5. Get funding – investigate sources of funding, including the Facilitation Fund in Countryside Stewardship, independent funding options such as water companies, charities and sponsorship, and natural capital markets.

Transition Farmer Ed Shuldham

Farmer stood in front of solar panels

Ed Shuldham © Kathy Horniblow

Being one of the founder members of the Wylye Valley Farmers Cluster has allowed Transition Farmer Ed Shuldham, JM Stratton & Co, Wiltshire, to learn from others in the group, receive relevant training and ensure that valuable habitats on the farm are being protected and enhanced.

By working together, the group members can access advice and support that would otherwise be unavailable or too costly, visit other farms in the area and understand how any changing management practices have contributed to success.

“Whether it’s looking at how a very comprehensive stewardship scheme has been designed, observing how direct-drilling is helping to reduce sediment loss or investigating better methods of manure management, there are always things we can learn from each other,” Ed says.

“If that expertise doesn’t exist within the group, or we identify areas where we need additional support, we can use some of our funding to bring it in.”

Established in 2017, the group has grown over time and now includes 30 members covering 12,000ha between Warminster and Wylye.

Membership reflects the diverse range of farms found in the area, with all welcome to join.

Originally self-funded with each member paying a subscription, it has since received money from the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund, which covers some, but not all, of its activities.

Other sources of income include grant applications for certain projects, charitable donations and private company contributions, especially those that have an interest in community projects.  

As Ed explains, the focus of the cluster is biodiversity and water, as the area has two important environmental priorities – rare chalk downland and the river Wylye, which is a chalk stream.

Both are protected sites that will benefit from connected management, so the activities reflect that.

“The River Wylye is a chalk stream and we know that its condition has deteriorated,” he continues.

“We are all very keen to put that right and have been working with the Wessex Rivers Trust and the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust to restore it.”

As a result, the cluster has recently set up a system of water monitoring, for which a laboratory has been established and photometer equipment purchased.

Training from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Rothamsted Research has also been secured, so that the monitoring results meet the Environment Agency’s requirements.

The aim is to identify any sources of pollution along the river so weekly water samples will be taken at 17 sites. Less frequent measurements of sediment from drainpipes are also recorded.

“At this stage, we don’t know what we will find out,” Ed says.

“As well as various farm types in the catchment, there are also some old water treatment works that haven’t had any recent investment.

“When we do find out if any of them are polluting the river, or causing degradation, we will know what can be done to prevent it.”

If the initiative is successful for the Wylye Valley Farmers Cluster Group, it is likely to be rolled out in a conservation plan for the entire river, he adds.

The other priority habitat, chalk downland, largely comprises steep, grassy banks.

A scarce habitat nationally, it is home to a huge number of plant species and increasingly rare invertebrates and butterflies.

With expert guidance from Plantlife, JM Stratton & Co is restoring some of this habitat.

“We have already put some arable land into downland reversion, as it wasn’t productive and it was impractical to farm it,” says Ed.

“We have also identified a couple of other sites that we hope to do the same with – we are currently investigating the best way of funding that.”

Wylye Valley Farmer Cluster – main activities

  • Reducing water pollution
  • Flood alleviation
  • River restoration
  • Priority habitats
  • Farm wildlife
  • Wild pollinators

Environmental Farmers Group

JM Stratton & Co is also a member of the Environmental Farmers Group, founded in 2021 to link the various cluster groups in the area and provide a catchment-wide environmental solution.

It will offer natural capital trading services based on the grain co-operative model, helping to support farm incomes as the Basic Payment Scheme is phased out.

While it is still early days, members get a small slice of every deal brokered by the group, says Ed, who believes that the advent of biodiversity net gain will see the pace accelerate and bring greater rewards for members.

“There’s increasing interest from corporates and funds with ESG [environmental, social and governance] projects,” he says.

“Being part of the group means we will be able to realise the revenue potential of our land and get a fair return for delivering public goods and services.”

As the deals can be large and long-term, being represented by a single contact who understands the new trading markets has enormous benefit, he believes.

“Carbon and biodiversity offsetting and trading are fast-moving areas that most farmers don’t have expertise in.

“If we act as a group, with the right representation, we are more likely to be part of the right deals, which bring appropriate rewards.”

Explore more / Transition

This article forms part of Farmers Weekly’s Transition series, which looks at how farmers can make their businesses more financially and environmentally sustainable.

During the series we follow our group of 16 Transition Farmers through the challenges and opportunities as they seek to improve their farm businesses.

Transition is an independent editorial initiative supported by our UK-wide network of partners, who have made it possible to bring you this series.

Visit the Transition content hub to find out more.