FW Awards 2011: Countryside Farmer of the Year finalist – Chris Dowse

Chris Dowse

Sir Richard Sutton’s Settled Estates, Market Rasen, Lincolnshire

The library of wildlife books in the back of Chris Dowse’s Land Cruiser is the first clue that he is a man who loves nature.

They are an essential item for a man who says he has always been fascinated by wildlife – a passion that he has translated into his role as estate manager for Sir Richard Sutton’s Settled Estate in Lincolnshire.

Since arriving in 1989 he has made it his mission to look after and improve the farm’s biodiversity while at the same time delivering good-quality food.

“I find it very exciting that I have been given the opportunity on a large scale to integrate farming and the environment and demonstrate that it can work together,” he says. “I’ve always believed one piece of land can do everything so long as it is managed right.”

The farm’s strategy is to push for high yields from its arable crops while at the same time caring for the environment. In 2008 the whole of the farm was entered into either Organic Entry Level or Higher Level Stewardship, building on a previous Countryside Stewardship agreement.

The estate now includes 200 miles of field margins, 22 acres of pollen and nectar mixes, 25 acres of wild bird mix and a whole selection of bird, barn owl and bat boxes. About 600 acres have also gone into arable reversion – doubling the acreage under grass – to protect some valuable Neolithic, Bronze, Roman and Medieval archaeological sites. The arable reversion has enabled the recreation of an area of traditional parkland, which had been destroyed by a previous owner of the estate.

Across the farm the impact of taking such steps is obvious. Since 2003 over 150 nesting barn owls have been ringed on the estate and lapwing, grey partridge, buzzard, tree-sparrow and skylark numbers have all increased. Seven ponds have also been created and an eighth restored in what once was an arable field. This area is a valuable feeding site for lapwing chicks and is attracting a number of other bird species, dragonflies and amphibians.

Chris admits he is often challenged by other farmers who say it is easier for him to embrace environmental work because of the scale of the estate. “What I tell them is that I have to get this [environmental plan] past four accountants on the company board before I can do it – so I need to show it makes financial sense. I’m in a fortunate position that the company supports this – but it has to stack up.”

But he stresses that he does feel for those farmers who do not have the office structure he has to deal with the paperwork involved in joining environmental stewardship.

“We should be paying more for the management hassle,” he says.

In 2009 a carbon audit was completed by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, which identified that 49% of the total greenhouse emissions associated with the estate came from using nitrogen fertiliser.

To reduce this, chicory is currently being trialled for fattening lambs as it requires no fertiliser and is perennial. To avoid releasing soil carbon by ploughing and to cut the use of fuel, the estate will this autumn also use no-till establishment across a quarter of the arable ground.

This is a move that Chris is really excited by – although he reveals he will not be in situ to see the results. At the end of October he will be stepping down as estate manager and retiring to Scotland.

He will remain involved on more of a consultancy basis for the next two years. But because he has been involved in recruiting his successor he has the reassurance of knowing the estate will be left in safe hands.

It will inevitably be a huge wrench but will leave him a very satisfied man. “My working life has been wonderful.”

Farm facts

* 3,300ha in Lincolnshire Wolds

* 13 farm staff including farm manager

* Predominantly arable cropping

* 120 Lincoln Reds plus followers

* 1,200 breeding ewes

The judges liked

* Delivering environmental benefits over a large scale for over 20 years

* Engagement with schools and other farmers – 100 farm walks since 2003

* Tweaks management options to make them work


2011 Farmers Weekly Awards

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