Putting nature back into our countryside

Motivating farmers with pheasant’s eye, pink tractors and rare moths – award-winning farm advisor, Alison Cross is putting nature back into Hampshire…

Travelling along a Hampshire track this summer, Alison Cross, jumped from a land rover to take a closer look at a clump of dark mullein, a chalk-loving plant that’s the chosen food of the extremely rare, striped lychnis moth caterpillar. Sure enough, it was covered in the squirmy lovelies. The farmer she was with – the owner of the field – now has a real sense of ownership and pride – “he calls them ‘our caterpillars,’ it really inspired him” she says.

Alison recently won a prestigious farming press award for her success at getting local farmers to work together restoring nature across swathes of Hampshire, whilst also ensuring that it makes financial sense too. She says, “the importance of nature and environmental farming advice has become mainstream and farmers now recognise that. There’s a willingness in the industry to see biodiversity recover.”

The advice that Alison gives to around 55 farmer clients covers 16,000 hectares – that’s over 60 square miles or 16,000 football pitches – and it’s all about enabling farmers to restore their land so that wildlife such as endangered birds like corn buntings, insects and rare wildflowers that are strongly associated with cultivated land can thrive whilst continuing to produce food. This farm advisor firmly believes that the traditional custodians of the land want to do the job of reversing wildlife’s decline. She says, “we’ve got to stop tying farmers in knots – they must feel enabled and encouraged to do good things; the financial cost to the farmer must be recognised and we’ve got to be able to make helping nature work for farmers too.”

Bringing groups of farmers together to improve hedgerows, create wetlands that help wildlife and soak up agri-pollutants, and restore chalkland wildflowers, is more effective than working just with isolated farms. It’s a young-ish concept that’s at the heart of Wildlife Trust thinking – known as Living Landscapes – and fortunately espoused by the government’s DEFRA who now give funding to kick-start this partnership approach. The Wallop Brook group of farmers is Alison’s largest collective that’s already proved wildly successful and she’s just applied to start up two other groups.

Alison grew up on a farm and has always loved farming life. She went to agricultural college then went to work on the family farm. When that was sold she waited until her family had grown up a bit before heading in a slightly different direction – she’d always loved nature and studied environmental protection at university. After volunteering with her local Wildlife Trust she was offered a job giving conservation and farming advice at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. She went on to be head of conservation for north Hampshire and then moved back to giving farm advice.

“I’ve never been as happy as now. Being out there working with farmers is where I feel I can be most use”

 

“I’ve never been as happy as now. Being out there working with farmers is where I feel I can be most use” she says. Some of Alison’s advice is very general such as hedgerow enhancement; some is very focused such as sowing wild bird seed mixes; and some is very site-specific such as species-rich grassland restoration that supports wildflowers like the tiny fairy flax, beautiful orchids and kidney vetch, the foodplant of the small blue butterfly. “I’m advising one new application for an area of land next to one of our nature reserves – it has wonderful fenland habitat restoration potential and could become part of our Living Landscape vision which would be fantastic news for reed bunting, southern marsh orchid and snipe,” Alison says.

Alison is sensitive to the farmer’s perspective and she’s also witness to the shift in attitudes towards reform. “There’s a big change in farmers wanting to do this work – for example, with the NFU setting a zero emissions target – one of the Wallop Brook farmers even took a pink tractor to Westminster to support Extinction Rebellion… suddenly farmers are talking about a wilder Hampshire. The willingness to be involved is there, but there’s fear too – farmers must be properly paid for doing this work otherwise the sums don’t stack up.”

That pink tractor again… Alison says, “The Wallop Brook farmers are so varied – they range from a small biodynamic farm to large conventional farms – but they all recognise that things need to change. The beauty of landscape-scale partnerships lies in the way we can get farmers working together – they’re not being dictated to from on-high.”

The DEFRA fund pays for Alison to give farmers training. She explains some of the benefits: “Some of the farms have rare arable flora, wild plants that have become threatened as a result of modern production methods. But that’s not the end of the story – once these farmers discovered that their farms still had populations of these increasingly scarce plants and understood their importance, they become proud of what they’ve got. Three of the farmers are taking part in a special project with Plantlife and Kew to conserve the very rare and beautiful arable plant – pheasant’s eye. We don’t know yet whether it will be successful, but the important thing is we are trying!”

Alison Cross works for Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s subsidiary, Arcadian Ecology and Consulting delivering farm, and won the Farmers Weekly award for Arable Adviser of the Year 2019.

She was interviewed by Emma Robertshaw.