A BLOT on the landscape at Longbank Farm near Alnwick in Northumberland has recently been reshaped – into a conservation bank. Rats and flies may miss the old farm dump, but grower Harry Chrisp doesnt.
"The quarry was a practical place to dump farm waste but it marred the beauty of the surroundings. When we were digging the pond we realised it was an ideal place for the excess soil, so that gave us an excuse to fill it in. Not only has it added conservation value but it has increased the cropping area of surrounding fields," he explains.
Such benefits keep conservation high on the agenda on the 243ha (600-acre) mainly arable farm. But Mr Chrisp is adamant that it shouldnt impinge on profitable farming and drain the budget.
"Were not bobble-hatted bunny huggers up here. We are prepared to be as serious about conservation as we are about farming, so it must pay its way in terms of agronomic side effects. Im hoping for better natural control of pests and easier management of weeds around field margins."
But conservation features are not cheap to establish. Mr Chrisp could not have started without his £5,000 win for first prize in the Cyanamid conservation competition, supported by Crops and FWAG.
Mr Chrisp believes he was chosen because of his enthusiasm and the clean sheet he had to work with. Although his father Jock had laid extensive hedges over the years, he hadnt had a whole farm conservation plan. Long-bank Farm, sandwiched between the East Coast railway and RAF Boulmer, was almost a wildlife-free zone.
Now bats and owls are made to feel welcome in purpose built boxes constructed by local Scouts. The new pond is starting to attract a variety of birdlife never before seen on the farm, including snipe, curlew, teal and mallard.
They remain ignorant of the effort which allows them a safe haven. Leaving the army to take on the farm two years ago, with no formal agricultural training, Mr Chrisp had to learn fast. His excellent management skills were invaluable.
"Farming Longbank isnt straightforward with its two distinct soil types. We grow winter wheat and winter oilseed rape on the heavy clay soils to the north, and the same interspersed with winter malting barley and winter oats on the light sand to the south.
"Our set-aside land supports high erucic acid winter and spring rape, and we also have 20ha of permanent pasture for 300 breeding ewes which lamb in mid-March," he says.
Independent agronomist Jim Callighan of Kelso Grain Consult-ants helps with the day-to-day decision making and FWAG conservation adviser Nick Teesdale is called in to integrate conservation projects with agronomic practice.
It has been easy to spend the £5,000 awarded by Cyanamid. Creating the pond alone took a third of it, and the remainder bought protection for the 5,000 hedge plants and 300 trees provided by Mr Chrisps landlord, the Duke of Northumberland. From now on, the income from farming will be used to maintain existing features and build upon them.
First wheats grown at Longbank Farm produce average yields of 10t/ha (4t/acre). The majority of the wheat is sold through local grain co-operative Coastal Grains, although some is grown for seed.
All other crops are grown under contract, which demonstrates the high standards achieved.
The standard of Mr Chrisps conservation work is also exemplary. The pond was constructed in a way that would make it as natural and attractive as possible, with an irregular shape, uneven depth and a small island.
It should always be full since the water table is high and it is fed by an adjacent ditch.
Mr Chrisp has purposefully not introduced pond plants. He has placed decaying tree stumps in the shallows to encourage the establishment of a micro-environment.
This should provide an important food source for the birdlife attracted to the pond. It is hoped that the vegetation within the pond will establish naturally.
Trees and bushes have been planted around the pond and the whole area fenced in to ensure that field operation do not encroach on it. However, the 0.75ha (2-acre) site hasnt removed good arable land from production.
"We drained the corner of the Kiln field three times in an attempt to make it cultivatable, but it was unsuccessful. More than one combine sank in it. The ideal solution was a pond," he explains.
Nearby, the watercourse now has a 20m wide buffer zone along its length. This is currently in flexible set-aside, but may become permanent, forming a better wildlife corridor through the intensive arable area of the farm.
The buffer zone has been planted with a wild bird cover mix, including kale and quinoa, and old seed lying around the farm. Wildlife activity will be monitored by children from the local primary school.
"We have created a variety of food sources to attract birdlife to this arable desert by spinning on a mixture of cereals, pulses, rape and linseed which were redundant, and leaving an area of rape stubble.
"The plants which germinated are competing for space with a healthy crop of weeds."
Weed control in arable fields is expected to become easier rather than more difficult with the introduction of conservation features.
Conservation headlands have been approached in three different ways to see which best suits the farm. Mr Chrisp expects the "grassy strip" field boundaries to offer the greatest help in the form of weed control.
"Tight grass swards next to the crop should in theory help to prevent the encroachment of cleavers and other pernicious weeds from the hedgerows. Leaving a 2m margin unploughed may be great for insect life, but it probably wont pay its way," he suggests.
Mulch hedges, among others, have been planted on some field boundaries to evaluate their usefulness in weed control. The idea of having a plastic sheet on the soil surface with hedge plants poking through it is to hinder weed interference while the hedge is establishing.
If it works, Mr Chrisp can save on propyzamide (Kerb). But laying mulch hedges could prove to be too labour intensive. Using canes or spiral shelters may be more cost effective, and equally beneficial to wildlife, he suspects.
The long-term plan is to plant 18 more hedges, to surround almost every field on the farm with a field margin, and to establish eight small woodlands in stony patches that cant be cultivated.
Mr Chrisp has applied for a Countryside Stewardship Scheme grant to follow up more of the proposals put forward by FWAG in a recently commissioned whole farm report.
Somehow hell find a way to keep the momentum going until there are no more blots on the landscape and far more birds at Longbank Farm.
Making a commitment to conservation neednt involve loss of land or profits, as the winner of last years Cyanamid/Crops/FWAG competition clearly demonstrates. Sarah Henly reports.