Farming and wildlife - examples of our work

We own and manage 20 working farms across the UK, from lowland arable to upland hill farms. We use these to demonstrate wildlife-friendly farming methods and several are managed in partnership with local farmers.

Lower Smite Farm (Worcestershire Wildlife Trust)

Field margin at Lower Smite Farm (credit Zoe Stevens)A 150 acre working farm in Worcestershire with a nature trail, owned and managed by the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.

Purchased in 2001, the farm is managed to demonstrate how sensitive farming techniques can improve the quality of the agricultural landscape for wildlife. The Trust uses a wide range of crop types and diverse management strategies to provide wildlife with year round habitat and food. You can find out more in their most recent farm report.

Restoring farmland soils and foodwebs

Since the post-war drive to intensify farming, the soil at Smite has steadily declined in terms of humus content, organic matter and soil wildlife. As a result it had become almost totally reliant on artificial inputs to grow arable crops and this was associated with costly heavy cultivations to create seedbeds. With around 75% of terrestrial wildlife living in the soil, a thriving soil food web is vital to the recovery of the majority of farmland wildlife, most of which continues to suffer ongoing declines.

a thriving soil food web is vital to the recovery of the majority of farmland wildlife

Rebuilding humus levels and earthworm numbers are a priority at Lower Smite and the Trust have planted a wide range of ‘green manure’ mixes, including red and white clovers, cocksfoot, yellow trefoil and phacaelia to ‘feed’ the soil and encourage microbial activity. These mixes also provide good forage for sheep and cattle. Earthworms are not only the ‘lungs’ of the soil they are directly linked to the survival and abundance of a wide range of farmland wildlife including thrushes, lapwing, curlew, buzzard, moles, badger, robins, rooks, frogs, ants and can even form up to 34% of the diet of foxes. A healthy soil is also fundamental to establishing a resilient cropping system able to cope with the adverse weather patterns created by climate change.

Wide and wildlife-friendly field margins

The farm’s wide field margins - some planted with special seed mix, some left to develop their own flora – encourage a wide range of insects with butterflies frequently observed. Bees and butterflies can also be spotted in good numbers in the gardens in front of the main farmhouse. These are managed to help schoolchildren attending our education centre discover more about the importance of growing your own food and gardening for wildlife.

Organic farming

Half the farmland at Lower Smite is now managed organically and a diverse range of crops is grown including traditional varieties of strawberries, blackcurrants, orchard trees, spring wheat and forage crops. A neighbouring farming family rents the remaining arable land and under the auspices of the Trust grows forage for their dairy herd as well as carrying out operations for the Trust on the organic land.

Higher Level Stewardship

The entire farm is in the Higher Level Stewardship scheme (HLS) which pays land-managers to take areas out of production and focus on creating and maintaining wildlife habitats. Within this scheme the Trust has recently planted over 2 km of hedges, built a bridge and replaced 500m of fencing allowing them to take in livestock which will improve the diversity of the farm’s grasslands.

Helping to restore wildlife to the wider countryside

Wildlife needs connectivity between habitats in order to be able to move about and the Trust is working with neighbours and other landowners to develop innovative approaches to creating corridors which will benefit both wildlife and the local economy. Farming plays an important role in Worcestershire's countryside and has a significant impact on wildlife in the county. Worcestershire Wildlife Trust owns and manages farms at Naunton Beauchamp and Lower Smite as well as managing many other grazed and cultivated fields around the county.

More information on Lower Smite Farm

Abbotts Hall Farm (Essex Wildlife Trust)

6 metre wide field margin at Abbotts Hall FarmAbbotts Hall Farm lies close to the Blackwater Estuary on the Essex coast – an area of international wildlife importance. Essex Wildlife Trust purchased the 283 ha arable farm in 1999 and manages it using modern agronomic practices, whilst also farming very much with wildlife in mind. The Trust has gradually introduced changes to the cropping practices of the farm, increasing benefits to wildlife but retaining farm profitability.

As a member of the Guild of Conservation Grade producers, the Trust has to leave 10% of the farm’s land as wildlife habitats. The Government’s Higher Level agri-environment scheme has helped to achieve this and is an important framework for nature conservation on the farm.

What is Conservation Grade?

Conservation Grade is a unique sustainability protocol implemented by farmers in return for a contracted premium price for their crop. Independent scientific trials demonstrate the Conservation Grade approach leads to a significant increase in biodiversity compared to conventional farming systems. The original Conservation Grade standard was developed in 1985 and initiated as a working farmland conservation model. To comply with the Conservation Grade Protocol, farmers have to satisfy a series of key requirements, including complying with Conservation Grade production standards and creating a whole farm environment plan. Meeting the Conservation Grade requirements means that Essex Wildlife Trust receives an increased premium for the wheat crop it produces whilst also achieving valuable benefits for wildlife.

Find out more information about Conservation Grade

Cropping practices at Abbott’s Hall

Every effort is made to reduce the need for spraying the crops on the farm. For example, a crop rotation scheme is used to maintain soil fertility and prevent the build up of diseases, and wherever possible crop varieties with high resistance to pests and diseases are chosen. Although autumn sown crops are generally more successful than spring sown ones, some fields are sown in the spring resulting in a more open sward offering sites for ground nesting birds such as skylark. Patches are left undrilled in autumn sown crops for skylarks to nest.

Managing field margins for wildlife

Hedges and field margins across the farm form valuable wildlife corridors

Field margins on the farm are managed in a variety of ways to support biodiversity. Some have been sown with a specially formulated grass mix and are left to regenerate naturally, supporting plants such as teasels that attract insects and feeding finches. On the 6 metre wide margins that the farm supports, the inner 4 metres are cut once a year in the autumn, while the outer 2 metres are cut every 2-3 years so that tussocky grass forms. This provides habitats for beetles, spiders and nesting birds. Pollen and nectar rich margins support many invertebrates including 3 species of BAP carder bee. The combination of hedge and field margin provides a good base for wildlife and the network of hedges and field margins across the whole farm forms a valuable wildlife corridor of connected habitats.

Grassland on the farm

The farm also supports a small (35ha) area of permanent grassland, some of which is let out for grazing for part of the year. This grazed area receives some fertiliser in the spring but is not sprayed. The remaining grassland is also fertilised, and is cut for hay in the late summer, benefitting wildlife. These fields are grazed in the autumn to improve the grass cover in the following year. In the winter the short grass is used by birds including wigeon, lapwing and starling.

Hedgerows for wildlife at Abbott’s Hall

Hedges on the farm have been restored by coppicing trees to the ground and planting saplings in any gaps. This ensures that there are always hedges of different heights providing song posts for bullfinch and lesser whitethroat, as well as low hedges for grey partridge. Road and trackside hedges are trimmed with a hedge flail to allow access but some 2-year-old wood is left to flower. This provides pollen for insects and fruit for birds. Mature trees have been left in hedges to support bats and owls. The farm also supports woodland habitats which are home to a wide range of insects, small mammals, and birds, such as tawny owls, woodpeckers, tits and chaffinch.

Farm ponds

The farm supports six ponds, including mid-field ponds that are surrounded by 6 metre field margins to support amphibians such as newts that leave the water in summer. Care is taken not to spray too close to the ponds. The pond wildlife at Abbotts Hall includes aquatic insects and larvae, frogs, great crested newts, water voles, nesting reed bunting, reed and sedge warblers, and visiting kingfishers

Find out more about farming at Abbott’s Hall

Stirley Community Farm (Yorkshire Wildlife Trust)

Stirley Farm was an upland dairy farm in Newsome, south east of Huddersfield that went out of business eight years ago. Since then part of the site was marginally farmed, whilst the rest was left vacant. The farm buildings were derelict and the site in disrepair. People regularly used the public rights of way through the site, but a lot of potential for use as a green space was going to waste.

As the owners of the farm buildings and land, a few years ago Kirklees Council approached the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust about the site and nature conservation, whilst input from local activists suggested there might also be some benefit to the community to be gained from renovating the site. Local consultations followed, which proved great support for the idea of Stirley Farm becoming a community resource to demonstrate, inspire and educate people about local food production and growing.

The concept was put to the Cabinet of Kirklees Council in November 2008 who supported a transfer of the land to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and after lots of hard work, planning and business analysis, the project is finally going ahead!

A new farm – for local people and wildlife

Now Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are redeveloping Stirley as an open access community farm providing facilities for a great day out as well as providing opportunities to learn all about a working farm. Stirley Community Farm will be run as a beef social enterprise based on a low input traditional farming model, rearing slow maturing hardy breeds fed on grass and hay grown on the farm. An initial herd of 14 beef shorthorn was established in 2011, and a successful calving season has meant this herd has grown to 26. The farm will be open to all, with a visitor centre and self-guided trails currently under development.

As an example of sustainable farming, Stirley Community Farm will explore and provide a demonstration of concepts such as low carbon farming and land management that will improve the wildlife of the Pennine Fringe. Tree planting is planned to increase woodland cover and provide wood-fuel, whilst pond and wetland areas will be established.

Growing food and bringing people together

The farm is also a base for a wider community vision which looks at local food production and growing as a way of uniting local people and helping to bridge gaps in the community. The vegetable training area has been hugely successful in the first year of the project thanks to the help of all the people who have volunteered their time to maintain it.

Many people and community groups on our doorstep are growing their own food and at Stirley we are creating a variety of food growing areas – ranging from traditional vegetable beds to the Forest Garden - where people can share their skills and knowledge and learn more about 'growing your own' both on the farm and closer to home.

As well as a model of sustainable food production, the land around Stirley Community Farm will also be enhanced to create species rich grassland which will be a haven for wildlife and become a crucial part of the West Yorkshire Living Landscape.

More information

More information on Stirley Community Farm

Gilfach Farm (Radnorshire Wildlife Trust)

Gilfach FarmGilfach is a 410 acre traditional Radnorshire hill farm on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains that missed the post-war drive for agricultural improvement. Radnorshire Wildlife Trust purchased the farm in 1988 and with huge support from volunteers, spent the next few years renovating the 15th century Welsh longhouse, restoring ancient field boundaries and managing the land in a way that put wildlife at its heart.

 The reserve is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) largely for the mosaic of habitats it contains and falls within the larger 'Gamallt, Gilfach Farm and Macheini uplands SSSI'. This area is also a Special Protection Area (SPA) for birds, and part of the River Marteg is in the River Wye Special Area of Conservation (SAC). A major Biodiversity Survey of Gilfach was undertaken in 1998 and particularly highlighted its importance for lichens and mosses with a good number of other rare and declining species. A management plan was developed from this basis.

Gilfach is registered as an organic holding and is currently entered in the Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme and the Better Woodlands for Wales scheme. It is managed in a strong partnership with a local farmer who grazes the land from spring to early autumn using traditional breeds including Welsh black cows, Welsh mountain sheep and Hebridean sheep. He works closely with the Reserves Officer to develop a grazing plan annually which benefits the Trust’s conservation aims as well as supporting the farmer’s animal production and welfare needs.

Keeping the balance between farming, enhancing the land for wildlife and inspiring visitors is a really important aspect

Although the farm was largely unimproved, it had been grazed heavily by neighbouring farms and restoration work has been a feature of the Trust’s management over the last 25 years. A traditional hay meadow was created using the green hay method and monitoring shows that this has developed into a typical upland meadow. Careful stock grazing is increasing the species richness of the grasslands and wild bird cover crops add diversity to the landscape. Bracken management has been on-going using a combination of cattle trampling, mechanical mowing and volunteer work and is showing appreciable results with the return of acid grassland and heather, both priority habitats. The conifer plantations are very gradually being felled by contractors and are regenerating as native woodland.
People and volunteers are integral to the nature reserve which has a network of footpaths and a small visitor centre which provide locals and visitors alike with an enjoyable farm walk in a stunning valley. Keeping the balance between farming, enhancing the land for wildlife and inspiring visitors is a really important aspect for what is Radnorshire Wildlife Trust’s flagship nature reserve.

Farmland Bird Bed & Breakfast scheme (Notts Wildlife Trust)

Filling a hopper at one of the farms taking part in the projectA number of bird species found on farmland are of conservation concern because their numbers have declined dramatically over the last 25 years. These include several species that were once common in the countryside, including: tree sparrow, linnet, yellowhammer, reed bunting and corn bunting

Some of the main factors currently affecting bird populations on farms include:
• Lack of nesting sites
• Too little food for young
• Limited winter food

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s Bed and Breakfast Scheme is currently involved with providing farmers with a feeding hopper and nest boxes for tree sparrows. Farmers fill the hopper with crop tailings/screenings and a specially blended seed mix until habitats improve enough for the populations to become self-sustaining.
Feeders are monitored to record the species and numbers of birds using them so that success can be evaluated. To date around 50 farms across Nottinghamshire have joined the scheme.

More information on the Farmland Bird B&B scheme