Healthy profits help pay for conservation
A profitable farm can co-exist with a healthy countryside, as this years winner of a major conservation award proves. Robert Harris reports
NICK Bumford is an enthusiastic conservationist – and a highly efficient farmer. Successfully wearing what could be seen as two opposing hats has won him the 1996 Booker Silver Lapwing award.
As manager of a LEAF demonstration farm, he believes both are important. "I operate a whole farm approach. I try to manage landscape and wildlife much as I would grow a crop of wheat. Everything is planned and worked out in advance."
But farming for maximum profit is his prime aim on the 694ha (1715-acre) Guiting Manor Farms, Guiting Power, near Cheltenham. "Healthy profits must come before conservation."
Winter malting barley and winter wheat for feed and milling are the main crops. Spring malting barley is also grown. Peas, oilseed rape and winter or spring beans provide breaks from cereals.
Average cropped land output last year was £1306/ha. Gross margins hit a healthy £1041/ha, and net farm income £490/ha. That sort of performance means more money can be ploughed back into conservation, says Mr Bumford. In a year like 1996, up to £20,000 may be earmarked for projects.
Grant aid helps further (see panel). The farm has entered the Cotswolds Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme, which approves and helps pay for hedge maintenance, walling, pond restoration and pasture management, managed on a 10-year plan.
The Woodland Grant Scheme operates in a similar way for existing woods, and the Forestry Management Scheme has helped offset costs for new plantations. "These 10-year plans provide the skeleton on which to hang the work," says Mr Bumford.
Success means going to the right place for advice, and not being overambitious, says Mr Bumford. He makes full use of his local FWAG adviser and ESA consultant, and an independent forestry consultant helps manage trees commercially, but with an eye on environmental impact.
To the visitor, perhaps the most obvious of Mr Bumfords projects are the 2m-wide field margins. Average field size is 8ha (20 acres), giving a total of 56 miles, 12ha (25 acres), of margins. They have been sown with different mixes to encourage a diverse habitat attractive to a range of birds, small mam-mals, insects and birds of prey.
Some 18 miles of hedges are cut on a three-year rotation to ensure most berries, an important winter food for birds, remain. Mr Bumford is keen to maintain these "wildlife corridors". Two local livestock farmers have laid, coppiced or gapped up 1500m so far of the 9000m agreed in the 10-year plan.
Traditional cotswold stone walls abound. At £54/m, Mr Bumford admits the cost of repairing all 10 miles of them is prohibitive, so the contractor is targeting those near roads and footpaths. To date, 400m have been rebuilt.
Walls and hedges are good public relations, he has discovered. "The work we are doing has been well received by the public. They like to see the old crafts continuing. It helps allay fears that everything we farmers do is bad for the countryside."
Trees are another emotive subject. Emphasis is placed on commercial management. All 40ha (100 acres) of woods on the estate have been surveyed by a private forestry consultant and divided into blocks. Each has its own 10-year plan. About £15,000 worth of trees have been felled this year. "We aim to break even on costs."
That applies to ancient woodland, too, which accounts for about a quarter of the estates woods. "Ecologically, it is some of the most important woodland in the county," says Mr Bumford. Best trees are being kept to establish a seed bank. Rotational coppicing for charcoal has been reinstated.
About 33,000 trees have been planted over the past nine years, including five new plantations covering 7.3ha (18 acres). "These not only improve habitat. Holdings with woods are more valuable than those without," says Mr Bumford.
But replanting does little to offset public fears over felling. It is vital to explain the benefits of tree management and other schemes, says Mr Bumford. An annual village meeting helps put the message across. "This way, we can explain what we are doing," he says.
The farm contains 62ha (153 acres) of permanent pasture, including some natural limestone grasslands. The best contains up to 130 different plant species, including rare orchids.
Such improvements are not just aesthetically pleasing, Mr Bumford maintains. They could stave off political interference.
"Farmers are custodians of the countryside. It is down to us to prove we are fit for the job and the best people to carry it out. But we are a minority – if Joe Public doesnt like what he sees, then we could lose that control." *
Drystone walls are being rebuilt alongside footpaths and roads at Guiting Manor Farms. Manager, Nick Bumford, believes such projects are a good way of showing the public that farmers do care for their surroundings.
Nick Bumford: This years Booker Silver Lapwing Award winner.
Guiting Manor – project costs and grant aid.
• Hedge maintenance – £6/m. (66% ESA-funded).
• Wall rebuilding – £54/m (46% ESA-funded).
• Woodland management:New woods: Farm Woodland Scheme pays establishment grant of £1350/ha over five years, plus £250/ha management grant over 15 years.Existing woods: Woodland Grant Scheme pays management grant of £35/ha + £525/ha restocking grant where felling agreed.Log sales of £1500 a year + mature timber sales (£15,000 this year) offset costs.
• Pond restoration – £6700 for first pond. ESA grants pay 50% of cost to a £3000 maximum.
• Field margins – no grant or allowance, but minimum yield loss if assume such areas, when cropped, only produce 33% of average field yield.
• Pasture management – ESA grants of £30/ha a year for improved permanent grass, £60/ha a year for extensive permanent grass.