Sunday, 29 November 2015

The new Agricology website is launched - for everyone to use!

From left: Dr. Alistair Leake, GWCT's Allerton project; Dr Susanne Padel, Organic Research Centre; Sonia Phippard, Director General of Policy at Defra; Patrick Holden, representing the Soil Association. 
I get invited to quite a number of work related events, but invariably I turn to the relevant page in the diary, only to find that once again I already have a commitment for that day. So it was a pleasant surprise when an invitation to attend the launch of a new website, “” for Friday the 27th of November, was shock horror, FREE! 

I was quite well briefed on this new initiative as GWCT colleague, Alistair Leake, (Alistair heads up the GWCT’s farm at the Allerton project, Loddington, Leicestershire) has been a one of the key players in getting this initiative off of the ground and I have also supplied a few photographs for the new website.

More than seventy people attended the launch, which was held at the wonderful Daylesford organic farm near Kingham in Gloucestershire, by kind permission of Carole Bamford. I must say that the staff from the centre made everyone extremely welcome and provided us with a delicious lunch too!

So what exactly is “Agricology”?

Well, it is a collaboration of independent organisations and farmers that provide practical and knowledge-based information about sustainable farming. It promotes sustainable farming regardless of labels and encourages good agricultural practices by using the best ideas from organic farming and integrated conventional farming. The aim of this new website is to bring together information and knowledge to help secure a productive, resilient and sustainable future for agriculture and the farmed environment.

The three key players that have come together to create this exciting new initiative are, the Daylesford foundation, the Allerton Trust and the Organic Research Centre at Elm farm. But importantly they have a wide range of support from across the industry, from organisations such as NIAB, Rothamsted research, LEAF, FWAG, Natural England and DEFRA, just to mention but a few.

Following a welcome from the host, Carol Bamford, there were three really excellent talks, indeed dare I say it - refreshingly so!

Patrick Holden, the well-known supporter of organic farming, told the audience how important it is that all sectors of agriculture work closely together and share their collective knowledge. Indeed, he was humble enough to say that perhaps in the past, there were times when the organic movement had not communicated well with other forms of farming and maybe vice-versa. 

Alistair Leake spoke eloquently about the importance of research and how sharing and accessing practically based science, is so absolutely key to both the success of sustainable farming and the environment as a whole.

Finally, Sonia Phippard, Director General of Policy at Defra, gave her fulsome support to the initiative and seemed really delighted that she could be there to say how important she thought the Agricology initiative is going to be, in delivering practical information for sustainable farming going forward. 

Before leaving the event, a number of people were giving a tour around the Daylesford dairy enterprise by Richard Smith, the senior farms manager. Listening to Richard talk so passionately about his dairy cows, made me begin to see why these people and their associated organisations have fitted so well together and launched this new website.

They all truly believe that profitable, sustainable farming and a thriving healthy environment can go hand in hand. However, to achieve this, ALL forms of agriculture must work closely together, using the very best, up-to-date practical science.

I for one, fully endorse this and hope that you too will take time to look at the new Agricology website, following it over the coming months as it becomes more and more populated with world-class examples, taken from a range of applied and academic sources and of course, from the practitioners themselves – the farmers!

A few more photos of the launch event:

Alistair Leake spoke of the importance of practically based research

Sonia Phippard was very enthusiastic about Agricology

Delegates thoroughly enjoyed looking around the dairy unit

Richard Smith's enthusiasm was a typical trait of the day!  

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The incident of the woodpecker and sheep's wool, a ladder and scissors!

The Sheep's wool was well and truly tangled around the unfortunate bird's legs. The small red patch on the back of the head tells you that this is a male bird, as the female lacks this.
 Once you have lived in a village for a good while – 25 years in my case – a number of local folk get to know you and also what you particular passion is. We are blessed with experts on UK local breweries, old planes, vintage cars, metal detecting, botany and countless other interests! A visit to the Flower Pots pub will without fail teach you a little something, even if it is only that you cannot down as many pints as you used to, without feeling a little jaded the next day!

Over the years, helped along by writing a little wildlife piece in the parish magazine each month, people have learnt about my passion for “all things countryside”, and so come up to me to tell me of their sightings and snippets of interest, which is wonderful as it keeps me informed with what is happening locally. They also send me an array of varying quality photos of thing to be identified! A Chinese painted Quail pecking around under someone’s bird table, is the best so far I think!

So I was not that surprised when the phone rang this morning and good friend Annie Bishop started off by saying “hi Pete – this is going to be one of the stranger calls you will receive today!” She went on to tell me that a black and white woodpecker was hanging up-side-down from a nest box on the neighbour’s house, held tightly by a thick strand of sheep wool!

“I’ll come round, get the ladder out and a pair of scissors!”

Well to cut a long story short, we managed to cut the unfortunate male Great-spotted woodpecker free and take it into the kitchen, were Greg, Annie’s husband discovered that he could easily have been a Vet rather than a Maths teacher! He very carefully and expertly snipped away at the entwined mass of wool that was well and truly wrapped around both feet, while I held the bird and stoically took the frequent sharp jabs from the indignant bird’s extremely sharp beak!

The lady who lives next door, loves the wildlife that visits her garden, so she not only feeds them assorted food, but also puts out a large hanger full of wool for birds to gather when making their nests. Obviously quite a lot of this had found its way into the nest box, high up on the wall. I expect this particular inquisitive guy had explored the box to find spiders and hibernating insects and in the process had got himself in a bit of a tangle – literally!

The neighbour was of course mortified that this had happened and was incredibly grateful that Annie had spotted the unfortunate bird, as it would surely have died a miserable death if she had not been so eagle eyed while putting on the kettle for the early morning cuppa.

Eventually, after a good quarter of an hour or so, the bird’s feet were free and so we took it out into the garden to set it free once more. It just happened to be Annie’s birthday and she declared that to see this beautiful woodpecker fly away unharmed, had been a really great present.

Meanwhile the neighbour set off with a purposeful stride to take down the wool container and clear out the nest box!

It might be an idea to cut the wool into very short lengths if any of you intend to do this in future, rather than long strands, as it is incredible tough stuff to pull apart.
Back to normal and ready for release after the attentions of  "Greg the Vet"! The red patch is not a blood stain - all Great-spotted woodpeckers have this red patch under the tail. 

Monday, 16 November 2015

The farmland around the village of Selborne was alive with action this weekend!

The Selborne Landscape Partnership group - ready for for either hedge laying or Harvest mouse nest hunting!

The Selborne Landscape Partnership – a group of farmers based around the Hampshire community of Selborne was in action over the weekend!

You may well have heard of this village, as it was put firmly on the map because many, many moons ago the famous naturalist, Gilbert White, was born here and eventually wrote his book in 1789 “The Natural History of Selborne”, which chronicled the local wildlife and day to day life of this picturesque part of England.

This group of farmers has come together to see if they can collectively manage the land that surrounds Selborne in a more “joined up way”. This particular weekend was a chance for local farmers and volunteers to come and learn all about the old tradition of “hedge-laying”.

Rob Nicholls, a countryside Ranger with the South Downs National Park in conjunction with farmer, Kate Faulkner, did a superb job of arranging the event by bringing in an expert tutor, laying on lunch and of course providing a suitable hedge! 

An enthusiastic assortment of folk turned up to learn this fine art and I think you will agree that the finished article is something to be mightily proud of!

Meanwhile, another group had also turned up to hunt for Harvest mouse nests around Kate’s farm as we are keen to learn more about this tiny mammal and find out how its population might have changed since Gilbert White’s day. The volunteers had a briefing in the barn, before setting off to hunt the field margins to see what they could find.

This is just one of a number of days nest hunting that will be organised over the next few weeks and I will let you know through this Blog how they all got on!

It was wonderful to see so much activity on the farm. I'm sure this is a group that is going places and I will make sure that you are the first to hear about future happenings!

Here are a few more photos of the action!   

Harvest mouse briefing in progress

The hunt in progress!

Meanwhile - elsewhere on the farm

All starting to look good!

The finished article - what a superb job!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Farmer and the Birder - a happy tale of two enthusiasts working in tandem!

Reed bunting are flocking into George's wild bird seed mix
Where on earth are all the Dunnock coming from!!

Over 3% of the Yellowhammers ringed in the country this year will be from George's wild bird seed mix plot!

I have spent my last two blogs having a “bit of a go” at some of the irritations surrounding the Countryside Stewardship scheme – but not the scheme itself. I have also been told that there is quite a lot of work going on in the background to sort these hassles out, so please persevere, because at the end of the day, it will be the wildlife that suffers if options disappear from farms.

OK, but do these Stewardship options really deliver? In other words are they worth the effort?

Well, I want to show you some bird ringing results from just one hectare (2 ½ acres) of “wild bird seed mix” option, from a farm in Buckinghamshire. This is an option available within Countryside Stewardship for farmers to grow a seed bearing crop mix, which birds can then feed from over-winter.

If the mix also contains a crop within it that seeds in the second year (a biennial), then it can be left for two years, which enables birds to tap into the myriad of insects that will also inhabit the crop during the spring and summer months. Beak full after beak full of insects will be collected with ease from this fast-food diner, and taken back to hungry chicks waiting patiently in neat little nests situated in adjacent hedgerows.  

The farm in question is George Eaton’s Rectory farm, which I talked about in my blog of the 28th October, when I wrote about the course I helped to run there. George has taken this hectare of ground out of production and now grows a range of seed bearing crops for the birds to feed on. He has also planted a hedge alongside the plot and at the far end, created a small block of new woodland, making a wonderful little conservation area.

This is all brilliant – but wait – who should arrive on the scene but one qualified and highly experienced bird ringer, Garry Marsh. Although Garry has been coming to the farm for a number of years, he only started concentrating on this one particular seed mix plot in earnest from September 2014, so we now have just 14 months of data, but already some interesting results are beginning to show.

George and Garry are great mates, which is totally obvious when you see the two of them together. Both spark off of each other. The farmer is eager to find out how much his crop is being used by birds and the birder cannot ply his trade without the seed crop grown by the farmer. They have many things in common, but perhaps first and foremost they both have acutely enquiring minds!   

Garry uses mist nets to catch the birds. These are fine meshed nets strung out along the target area, which in this case is George’s seed mix. The nets are put up and taken back down again on each visit that Garry makes. They are only ever set either parallel or within the cover and conservation crop, which means that almost 100% of the birds ringed will have been using the crop for a purpose and are caught either entering or leaving.

The results are fascinating and I have picked out just some for you to see. Incidentally, all of Garry's records are sent into the British Trust for Ornithology.

Yellowhammers ringed at Rectory Farm in 2015 will be over 3% of the total Yellowhammers ringed in the UK in 2015

Rectory Farm will represent about 20% of the total birds ringed in Buckinghamshire

In 2014 all but one Yellowhammer ringing in Buckinghamshire was at Rectory Farm and similarly 85% of all Reed Buntings.

The first Chiffchaff caught in April 2015 was a bird ringed by Garry as a juvenile at the same site in September 2014. So, a little like our familiar Swallows, this warbler had migrated abroad, only to return to the very same place.

An adult Song Thrush caught in November 2014 was originally ringed near York in March 2012, some 210km to the north

An adult female Reed Bunting caught in October 2015 was originally ringed at Corsham Lake in Wiltshire as a juvenile bird in December 2011, a movement of 100km to the NE. Certainly this is the oldest Reed Bunting recorded at the site.

Of the 108 Reed Buntings ringed last autumn/winter, Garry has already recaptured 8 birds this year which he says indicates a very good survival rate. He has caught 29 adult birds so far this winter, so it means over 25% of them were here last winter. Obviously all the others caught so far this year were born this year.

The total number of birds caught so far (including re-traps) using the Stewardship plot is 1511, which included 31 different species. Remember, these are only the ones that have been caught!!

Garry has in the 14 months so far, caught 190 Yellowhammer, 172 Reed Bunting and 181 Dunnock. We know that Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting will flock together and seek out areas rich in food to feed on over-winter, but in my opinion, to catch this many Dunnock is extraordinary! The Dunnock is a sedentary species, which does not gather together into flocks, so to catch this number using just one wild bird seed mix plot, is remarkable!    

So, I have given you a little insight into one hectare of Stewardship wild bird seed mix, thanks to a committed farmer and a dedicated birder.

But let me now leave you with this thought. The clever guys at Kings Seeds, who supply George with his seed, have worked out that a good, well grown hectare of wild bird seed mix such as George’s, would fill in the region of 20,000 bird table seed hoppers! WOW!

But wait. Do you know that farmers grow around 8,750 hectares of wild bird seed mix under the Stewardship Scheme in England? The equivalent therefore of one hundred and seventy five million bird hoppers full of seed.

Now, that really is one mighty big bird table my friends!!!

Monday, 9 November 2015

A costly margin of error or silence. Both are damaging goodwill.

The outcome of an inspections can depend on a small margin of error.
Following my Blog about all the red tape surrounding the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme (November 5th) and how it appears to be dampening people’s enthusiasm somewhat, (which is such a shame), I received this note from a farmer.

“I agree, just too complicated. I have applied for 7 schemes since the first Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme. But this was the most difficult to plan. Sadly I have not applied but left the grass margins and corners (10 years old) in place, in case the scheme becomes more attractive next year.  
I was inspected last April/May. What has annoyed me most is the fact that I know the inspector wrote and delivered the report in May, but I cannot see it. I have received NO communication since. Nothing”.

Another farmer told me last Friday that when he was inspected, it was found that some of his 6 metre grass margins had a few short lengths where they dropped down to only 5 metres in width, probably due to an overzealous ploughman!

The farmer was not particularly bothered by this news, because he had sensibly followed advice to always have more of an option than you are actually signed up to produce, in case this very scenario occurs. So he pointed out his other grass margins that were “outside” the scheme. The inspector was not interested in these as he was only inspecting the margins marked on the agreement map. A fine duly followed.  

Both of these examples shout to me “what a massively missed opportunity”!

I have been saying for literally years and years in meeting rooms around the country, that it would make so much sense to train Rural Payments Agency (RPA) staff, who carry out these inspections, in the fundamentals of farmland conservation and to get them to work more closely alongside their government colleagues, Natural England (NE), who implement the schemes. 

NE staff are generally extremely helpful, working with farmers and encouraging them to produce top quality schemes. But this relationship and good will, which is often built up over many years, can be completely dashed by an RPA inspector with a tape measure.  

These inspectors can quite easily spend a fortnight inspecting a medium sized farm (I kid you not. Remember that this too is paid for from taxpayers coffers!), measuring, counting, noting down observations in minute detail, which will all then go into a final report. But the farmer only gets to hear anything if they have been a miscreant.

What is to be done? Well, how about this.

New RPA inspection scenario:

Cut unnecessary red-tape and keep rules straightforward.

Send all RPA staff on a recognised farmland conservation course (the BASIS conservation course would be a good start) so that they have knowledge about the “outcomes” that Countryside Stewardship options are trying to achieve.

Inspect a farm where obvious options are missing and rules blatantly broken – a field corner does not exist or a wild bird seed mixture has obviously not been planted even though the plot exists. No sympathy. Throw the book at them. This is public money that is being used after all.

Inspect a farm where it is obvious that the farmer has done everything that the agreement demands, however there are small discrepancies such as the grass margin story above or that the wild bird seed mix is in place, but is not very good. Point out the grass margin mistake and state that you will be back next year to pop in to re-measure it, and if it has not been re-instated by then, fines will be incurred. Advice could then be written into the report suggesting the addition of more fertiliser to grow a better wild bird seed mix. This positive, helpful approach will not leave the farmer with a sour taste in the mouth and may well encourage them to try a little harder to not make these small mistakes any longer, while also growing a better, high quality crop for birds going forward.

Inspect a farm and everything is exactly how it should be and the various options are all looking very good. How about some praise within the report, stating how excellent the conservation options are and that the farmer should be congratulated on how well the scheme has been delivered onto his or her farm. A pat on the back goes a very long way in helping to achieve excellence.  

Following the inspection, write a report and GIVE THE FARMER A COPY!!! How are we meant to improve the delivery of conservation on farms when long reports are written about a farm, only for it to sit in some dusty Government filing cabinet?  


Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme: The message from farmers is loud and clear.

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme will only deliver if farmers are on board
The National Farmers Union, following a survey of 646 randomly selected members, has put out a press statement which says that farmers and growers questioned, state that the new agri-environment scheme (The Countryside Stewardship Scheme) is too complex to take part in.

The survey confirms much of what I am discovering when I talk to farmers. Interestingly, I do not find that much fault with the scheme itself. Yes, it is a lot more targeted and those applying are strongly guided towards specific options and told how much of each option they should ideally be doing.

However, the reason behind this more “bossy” approach is backed by research, as scheme designers now have information to show how much of an option is needed to really make a difference to the wildlife that it is targeting. So, put simply, if this tactic means that wildlife, soil and water will benefit in the long term and this is explained to farmers, they too then see the sense behind this more rigid approach.

But, and it is a big BUT! You will see from the below results of this NFU survey, that farmers are raising issues over the arduous application process, which is bureaucratic and over-complicated, poor information as to how the scheme rests with other schemes such as the Governments own “Greening programme” and finally, the associated risks to an individual farmer should he or she be inspected by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and are found to be in breach of one of the myriad of small print regulations that run alongside the scheme.  The answer to the last point is a fine, which is sometimes large.

Do not misunderstand me however. Of course farmers should be inspected, as this is public money we are talking about here, but if you make the small print so utterly complicated that an inspection is almost bound to fail in some way and result in a fine, then you can begin to understand why farmers have started to wonder if it really is all worthwhile.

Therefore my message is clear. Do not attack the scheme itself, but instead take a very large pair of secateurs to the red tape madness that surrounds it.

Here is the press release about the survey that the NFU has recently sent out:

The NFU is now urging the Government to undertake an urgent review of the scheme’s implementation and to introduce a raft of changes in order to make it more accessible to the industry.

NFU Vice President Guy Smith said: “This scheme is an important tool in enabling farmers to continue to maintain and enhance biodiversity, water, soils and to address future challenges such as climate change and we are very clear - farmers must to be able to continue the very good work that has been achieved in agri-environment schemes.   

“However, final application numbers for the scheme have confirmed the poor uptake that we had feared. This is bitterly disappointing especially as we do not believe it is due to lack of interest or engagement from farmers – our survey shows that 93% were aware of the scheme and that 42% looked at it in detail. The new scheme is simply just too complex for many.

“The key issues have included last minute guidance changes and decisions on critical matters such as dual use, poorly drafted guidance and options, burdensome record keeping requirements and a narrow application window during the busiest time in the farming calendar.   

“Sadly, we are seeing an increasing amount of disillusionment among our members. The key priority now must be to make the new scheme more accessible than it is currently, particularly for mid-tier applicants, and any changes enabled quickly to give much needed certainty to any prospective applicants.

“Despite the initial problems, the NFU remains committed to working with Defra and Natural England on the scheme’s continued development and implementation and we would like to play an active and positive part in any review. 

“Farmers have always been very passionate about their participation in agri-environment and the benefits that these schemes bring to our countryside and we would very much like their involvement and enthusiasm to continue.”

The main findings include:

There was a high awareness (93%) of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme but issues with scheme design, the guidance and the application process have deterred members from applying;
Guidance is not user friendly and is insufficient for making decisions and members are considering paying for professional advice (74%);
Payments are too low compared to what’s being asked for and the associated risks (48% said that joining the scheme would not be worthwhile for their business);
It is over complicated, bureaucratic and too prescriptive;
Small farmers and upland farmers are at a disadvantage.

Monday, 2 November 2015

A man for all seasons

I'm not sure that I could ever live too near to the equator, as I do love the different seasons.

I am so reassured by certain events that take place during the year, such as the first time you hear the chuckle from a Fieldfare flying overhead, indicating that autumn really has arrived. The first really hard frost of the year or that mid-winter silence - such a deafening silence - that only ever comes when deep snow lies on the ground.

The first little yellow celandine of spring and of course the Swallow and Cuckoo heralding the arrival of warmer days once more. Then the purring of a Turtle dove, along with the background buzz of bees that accompanies the sultry heat of summer.

Not only do I find the seasons reassuring, but I also feel comforted from spotting the ways that nature gets prepared for whatever its next big job is. I know, I know, I'm getting thoroughly soft in my old age!

Here are a few photos I took during last weekend.

Fungi is such a part of that cycle of life, giving that end of year feel

A spider's web - hoping for just one last fly - not helped of course by the dew forming on it!

But so many things are already looking to next year, such as this Oil Seed Rape crop 

And these male Hazel catkins, all ready for next spring's pollination job, even though this years leaves have not yet fallen!

This Wayfaring tree has not wasted any time in getting its buds ready for next year's grand opening!