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”