Farming Matters April

Below is a copy of the text that went into my monthly column for the Henley Standard on April 2nd. Under the banner of Farming Matters with the title of the piece ‘Helping rare birds to survive’. The first two paragraphs are excepts from previous blogs, then in summary I try to relate this to our core business which is producing food.

This was the image that went with the piece.

As a farm, we are a member of The Christmas Common Cluster which is a group of farmers and landowners who have got together to work on environmental projects in our area. By working collectively, as well as on our own projects, we can deliver more for the environment. Cluster groups led by a conservation advisor look at the local area and approach environmental work on a landscape scale. We are based in and around the Chilterns and are involved in projects that are more specific to our area, rather than a national strategy or farm scale. Bear in mind flora and fauna in particular know no boundaries.
Every year in early February, farmers and landowners are invited to take part in the Big Farmland Bird Count which is organised by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. The results are then published on their website. The 2021 results are still being compiled, but in 2020 over 1500 farmers took part and recorded more than 120 different types of birds with 25 species from the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. Meanwhile here at Dunsden, thanks to the cluster group in conjunction with Natural England, we have had Tony Powell a Freelance Professional bird monitor survey part of our farm. During his 3 hour walk he observed 38 different species including 5 from the amber list and 6 from the red list of endangered birds. That is a great endorsement as to how we farm and a credit also to our gamekeeper and his management of the wildlife. Our hardworking woodland department also need a mention as it is a joint effort. Spotted on the amber list were: Meadow Pipit, Stock Dove, Dunnock, Kestrel and Lesser Black-Backed Gull. From the red list: Grey Wagtail, Linnet, Mistle Thrush, Redwing, Skylark, and Song Thrush. He saw 24 of my own particular favourite the Skylark, which I am always hearing when out crop walking. In total, 248 birds in 3 hours on what was a pretty awful day weather wise. That list does not include Pheasants, Partridges, Rooks and Pigeons. I would like to think we can keep building on this.
Last month I mentioned how we have stopped using insecticides to control crop pests on the farm. Instead we try to encourage what we call beneficial insects to feed on the crop pests. We, along with many other farmers, practise Integrated Pest Management (IPM). To define ‘pest’ it covers weeds, insect pests and diseases that inflict damage or compete with our crops. We combine non chemical methods such as rotation and cultivation techniques with carefully monitored thresholds that have to be exceeded before we use a chemical control. Hand in hand with this we set aside areas on the farm that we actively manage for the wildlife with a variety of habitats. Small areas of wild flowers have been established to encourage a range of insects including the all-important bees. This also provides a food supply for birds which in turn feed on the insects. For those birds that eat seeds, we have plots of seed bearing plants such as millet and sunflower to provide food over the winter.
All of this costs money and is supported by our core business which is providing safe food for us all to eat. However, we can only achieve this if our business is profitable. The loss of government support which has provided us all with cheap food is being removed to be replaced by payment for public goods. We still wait for much of the information on how this might work in practice and if it will cover the true cost of providing it. Coupled with this, we are expected to compete with foreign imports produced to lower standards using methods that are illegal in the UK. We have a challenging few years ahead of us.

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