CONSERVATION

A voice for wildlife

Staffordshire arable farmer Andy Roberts on conservation work and doing his bit for habitats

Andy farms in partnership with his brother and parents. He is a great advocate for farmland conservation and has monitored the bird species on his family’s farm from a young age. He encourages other farmers to share their wildlife sightings using his twitter account @Farmland_Nature and the hashtag #tractorbirding. His personal twitter account is @handles4forks.

Thanks for talking with me Andy. Can you tell me about your farm and the conservation work you undertake?

It’s my pleasure.

We’re mainly an arable farm but we also have a beef suckler herd. The arable comprises wheat, malting barley, OSR and potatoes. Two thirds of the farm is rented from the Crown Estate and the rest we have managed to buy over the years. In terms of conservation I’ve always had an interest in wildlife but it was the 2001 foot and mouth crisis that led to us getting involved in stewardship. We went down with the disease because we had some sheep on tack. The cattle had to go. However, the silver lining was that we received some free advice from Business Link and a visit fromFWAG.

They came and looked at the farm and were quite impressed by the steep sandstone escarpment which runs through the middle of the farm. It was identified as a valuable habitat and they suggested we maintained it by getting cattle back on the land and entering into a countryside stewardship scheme.

You’ve been interested in wildlife for a long time then? 

Yes absolutely. I’ve been interested in wildlife since a very young age. I enjoyed watching the wildlife on the farm and recording the birds. I was able to show FWAG all of these records when they visited in 2001 which certainly helped our application. I’d never really spoken to anyone about my interest before though because when you go to young farmers you don’t compare skylark plots, you talk about wheat yields. I now realise there are lots of like-minded farmers about who enjoy talking about farmland conservation. I’ve been to many meetings about stewardship and realise that most farmers enjoy the wildlife on the farm and want to conserve it. They just never get a chance to talk about it.

Have you got a mix of HLS and ELS?

Yes. We started with the original countryside stewardship scheme and then we added on entry level when that came in. We renewed the whole lot in 2012, so it’s an HLS scheme with ELS options.

What notable species do you have on the farm? 

We have a few pairs of lapwing. They’ve always seemed to do well in the sugar beet, and we’ve got some low lying wet grassland so they have chick rearing habitat and nesting habitat in close proximity. When the sugar beet factory in the region closed we were concerned that we would lose our nesting habitat, so we added a fallow option to our stewardship scheme to provide them with that, and they have used it occasionally. We usually have three or four pairs of lapwing, but this year we happily have eight pairs. Six pairs nested on one field destined for potatoes, which created a bit of a challenge when it came to planting. I managed to delay for an extra week to allow most of them to hatch out but we ended up having to move some of the nests and put them back when we finished. But, the trouble with that was that there were so many gulls, rooks and crows coming down when we started cultivating that they didn’t really stand a chance. One pair was successful in nesting though after we planted.

We have a few grey partridge. I’d like to increase their numbers if I can but it’s a struggle. We have plenty of skylarks because we have quite a good proportion of spring cropping. Yellow wagtails nest in the potatoes. We’ve got a few corn bunting which are always nice to hear. We also have plenty of yellowhammers. I remember spotting them from a young age with their ‘little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheese’ song.

Birds get really close to the tractor at potato planting time, giving Andy great opportunities to capture them

You run two twitter accounts, your personal one (@handles4forks) and the @Farmland_Nature  account. Can you tell me how that started and whether you think social media generally is a good way of engaging farmers and the public in conservation?

I’d been putting my wildlife sightings on my personal account but I realised that not everyone’s interested so I thought I’d set up a dedicated account for them. It’s now become a means of sharing other people’s sightings, trying to show the public what farmers do.

Then there’s the #tractorbirding as well.

Tractors are like a mobile bird hide. The birds come really close, particularly at potato planting time. I’m normally on the de-stoner so I’m trundling along at under 2mph. It’s quite easy to take a few photos of the birds. It’s a great way of seeing the wildlife on the farm. I try to follow non-farmers on twitter, otherwise you’re preaching to yourselves. I follow birders and people with a general wildlife interest as well. Through twitter I’ve found a good network of local birdwatchers. I put my images on twitter and they pick up on it. I’m trying to show what we’re doing for wildlife.

“We really need to work together. Both conservationists and farmers want to reverse the declines in species”


Do you think there’s a divide between farmers and conservationists?

Well there’s been a lot of conflict over the years and a lot of the wildlife groups are perceived as ‘farmer bashers’. However, I think we take it too personally. It’s not farmers but ‘farming policy’ that has caused the declines in populations. Farming has changed and there are winners and losers as a result. Some of the losses are down to intensification and some of it is down to changing practices.

We really need to work together. Both conservationists and farmers want to reverse the declines in species…The usual response from farmers is to say that it’s not farming, it’s badgers and buzzards that are causing the declines, and yes they have a role to play, but farming has also had an impact. At the same time I think the wildlife groups need to accept that some predators have risen significantly in population and are affecting the populations of other species. However, it’s a combination of both. We shouldn’t blame one or the other. We should work together to find a solution.

Do you think the August hedgecutting ban is a sensible rule or an impractical pain?

On the face of it I thought it was unnecessary because nobody is going to cut all their hedges in August. On our farm we find the earlier cut hedges have a chance to put on regrowth before winter and they can still flower the following year. Having said this, I understand that some species will nest in August, towards the end of the season. We have a lot of hedges so we employ a hedge contractor. Now he’s got a lot of hedges to cut and not cutting in August means that there’s less time for him to get round everything. Conditions get wetter as time goes on so you lose one of the best months for hedgecutting from a practical point of view by not cutting in August. Having said that, there’s a derogation that you can apply for if you’ve got OSR and that’s worked really well for us.

If you could encourage our farmer readers to do one thing for wildlife on their farms, what would it be and why?

I would look at things that aren’t going to cost you anything. One thing we do is to collect the wheat screenings and feed them to the birds. I made some home-made partridge feeders from old drums and I feed them in there. Yellowhammers love them. You can spread them along a track. So, when you’re drying the wheat you’re increasing the specific weight and you’re also getting the screenings which you can feed to the birds. It’s a win-win situation. So that would be one tip. I’d also suggest getting to know your local nature groups and invite them on to your farm. You might be surprised to find out what species you’ve got. It’ll inspire you to want to improve the farm.

How do you plan to conserve wildlife on your own farm moving into the future?

It will depend on what is in place when our current scheme runs out. Will we look at something new post Brexit? There’s quite a lot of uncertainty at the moment. I’d like to continue with a scheme that’s similar to what we’ve got currently. That would allow us to continue the good work we’ve been doing. Hopefully the payments will be appropriate for what we do and we’ll continue to do it.

Thanks Andy, great to speak to you. ■

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Ben Eagle

Conservation Editor Ben Eagle runs the regular 'Meet the Farmers' podcast series and writes at thinkingcountry.com

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