Jim Egan is the Training and Development Manager for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project in Leicestershire. He has broad experience in engaging a wide audience about farmland conservation issues, from primary school children to DEFRA ministers.
The Allerton Project, which aims to demonstrate that commercially viable farming can sit alongside a thriving farmland biodiversity, clean water and local community engagement, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I spoke to Jim about life and his sixth year of work at Allerton, engaging people with conservation and GWCT’s plans for the project’s 25th birthday.
Thanks for speaking to me Jim. You and the team at Allerton have quite a varied workload and there are lots of different projects going on. Can you describe a typical week in the life of the Allerton Project?Happy Birthday @Allertonproject! @Benjy_Eagle and @JimEgan08 talk #Conservation & Life &… Click To Tweet
This week is probably a good example of what we do. On Monday we hosted a school visit for thirty year 3 pupils from a school in inner city Leicester. We aim to deliver them a farm visit which covers core parts of the key stage 1 national curriculum. While they were on the farm we did maths, English, history, geography, science and art. We talked to them about identifying trees in the field, about pollination and seed dispersal. We had ninety seconds of silence during which the children are quiet and listened to their surroundings; they listened to birds. We spent the afternoon talking about the crops grown on the farm. So, that was Monday.
On Tuesday I did a Farm Advice Framework Countryside Stewardship workshop on behalf of Natural England, which talked fifteen farmers through the Countryside Stewardship scheme.
Then, wednesday we had sixteen game keeping students from Reaseheath College. We talked about how you can make farming and keeping work together, how you can use the financial opportunities of stewardship to benefit the farm, how you can use unproductive land effectively for the shoot, and the importance of responsible gamekeeping. We also spoke about our research and how important keeping is in the recovery of farmland birds. On Thursday we hosted the Country Trust and Warburtons, and passed on our experience of working with schoolchildren. Then on Friday we hosted a land agency company who came to understand the research and practical work that we do. In the background we are organising Open Farm Sunday, there’s the research work and other events. There’s a lot going on!
How and why did the Allerton Project begin?
We were left the farm by Lord and Lady Allerton in 1992. They were very forward thinking. They didn’t have any heirs or successors and they left us with three key charitable objectives, second nature to us now, but radical at the time.
The first was to demonstrate that productive farming and wildlife conservation can be done side by side. The second was to research the interaction between farming, wildlife conservation and resource management.
“During the 25 years of the project, we have generated over 250 peer reviewed applied science research papers.”
Thirdly we were asked to disseminate the results of this research for the benefit of farmers, policy makers and others. We don’t lobby. We demonstrate what can be achieved. We have a fantastic visitor centre which was due to the foresight of our Trustees and Head of Project Alastair Leake. Since 2012 we’ve built our visitor numbers from 300 a year to 4000 year.
Research is central to what you do. Can you give readers an example of current research?
Long term research on songbirds is a key one for us. We’ve got records of what has been happening to them on the farm for a twenty five year period. In 1992 we implemented a full game bird management system and we doubled our songbird numbers. Then from 2001 to 2010 we dismantled the system to understand which part of the system had the biggest impact. We then started again with a game management system in 2011. We saw bird numbers go up initially, we then saw them decline by 60% (2001-2010), and today we are at 92% above 1992 levels. We’ve gone full circle and we are really starting to understand how our management can impact on wildlife on the farm.
How will your research help farmers and how will it help wildlife?
Our research on soils will help farmers make better decisions because it’s applied and practical. Whatever system or project we undertake we are clear that the farm has to be profitable. Interestingly, we now understand that by doing more for wildlife we can actually make the farm more profitable, so, for example, by focusing on lower yielding and difficult areas and encouraging wildlife there, encouraging pollinators and beneficial insects, we can improve the services that those areas provide for other areas of the farm.
You’re planning an open day on 25th June to celebrate your 25th anniversary. Can you tell me more about that?
It’s a birthday party and there is an open invitation to whoever would like to come! We will be celebrating our successes with a range of key partners who have worked with us over the last 25 years and hopefully give people a taster of what we have done. Guests will see how we have developed our chemical and pesticide areas, by working with companies like Syngenta and BASF. They’ll see our new agroforestry project, and hear about how we are working with our partners at Agricology. They’ll see our game management and our wild bird management, working with partners like Kings. It’s a great opportunity for people to come to Allerton, share some food with us and talk with us and our partners about what we’ve achieved.
Can you just turn up on the day?
No. People need to book. Walks start at 10.30 and the last one is at 3.30. People can go online and book a place.
Let’s talk about conservation generally. The (second) State of Nature report was published last year. It presented quite a mixed picture for farmland conservation. Did you find it a cause for concern or optimism?
We found the State of Nature report didn’t sufficiently recognise the excellent work that is being done by a large number of farmers already. Some might see it as a divisive document, rather than one that can encourage collaboration. It is important that we act on science and true research, but we need to do it in a way that encourages rather than blames, and I think a lot of people in farming felt that they were being blamed for the declines. Unfortunately it switched a lot of farmers off who have done a lot of good conservation work in recent years.
Do you think that enough is done to profile conservation in a farming context?
Sections such as yours in Farmland Mag are great for demonstrating the good work that is being done. Farmers themselves really need to demonstrate the good work they are doing and get this message out on social media. However, we also need all farmers to step up and take their responsibility seriously. It can’ be left to a minority to do the work. Conservation isn’t just something you can put at the side. It needs to be truly integrated into all farming businesses. For us it’s a big challenge but the industry needs to step up and accept its responsibilities.
Should the politicians be using a stick or a carrot to encourage conservation on farms?
I think it should be a combination of both, but primarily a carrot. You have to have an element of sensible regulation at the back of things. We shouldn’t underestimate the environmental value that’s already delivered by things like cross compliance. I think many people forget that. But, we need to do it in a proportionate way. Schemes need to provide value for money but we shouldn’t wave a huge stick all the time and hit farmers behind the back of the head, which is how it feels for a lot of people at the moment. Farmers should be encouraged and rewarded for doing good conservation work.
The deadline for applications for mid-tier Countryside Stewardship is coming up. Why should farmers consider getting involved in the middle tier scheme?
As I say when I open the Countryside Stewardship workshops on behalf of Natural England, middle tier won’t suit everybody, but it will suit a lot of people. It will help a lot of people deliver good work, and it does provide financial rewards. There is still a lot to be desired about the administration of the scheme, and we are working very hard to help Natural England and Defra improve that. We’ve now hosted nine workshops on the farm, bringing experienced advisors and farmers together.
However, in essence the scheme is really good and has the potential to really improve the state of nature on farms. My advice to farmers would be to please look into it.
Finally, how can people find out more about the Allerton Project and GWCT?
They can visit our website which is www.gwct.org.uk/allerton . That will take you to the Allerton Project dedicated pages, and there’s information on the Birthday Party there. As long as people book we’d love to see them. There’s also always the opportunity for farmer groups, discussion groups and focus groups to visit. Just get in touch and come and see us.
Thank you very much Jim.
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