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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

A Life Time on the Farm

Reg started with horses and ended with 280hp tractors!




Last week Radio Suffolk was out on the farm talking about the populations of farmland birds. This has been a well written about subject in the farming press and some of the national broad sheets. Farmland birds have been in decline since the 1970’s and the BTO and the RSPB have been monitoring this decline. However, some farmers are working hard to slow and reverse the decline. I feel that this can be achieved but we need to look more long term and not expect that the reverse can be done quickly if we want the numbers to return to where they were 30 years ago.
It has taken two generations to lose the large flocks in the countryside, so realistically we should be judging it again in two generations time; however the world we live in has changed dramatically. We expect everything instantly and we get frustrated if things slow us up. The pace of life has ‘snowballed’ out of control and nature has been left behind, some species have adapted, but some, the more specialist species, just haven’t been able to move as quickly as we have.
We had a dear old farm worker called Reg and he retired (for the third time) about six years ago when he was 85. He had worked on this farm all his life for over sixty years. Reg had seen everything through his life and travels. He told stories about shooting crocodiles on the Nile and watching cricketers like Don Bradman and Len Hutton, but he had also seen the ‘snowball’ roll over farming in general. Reg was working on the farm before our family bought it in 1957. Our Grandfather, Eric, bought a very good farm but it was in no way modern for its day and needed improvements to make it productive for a quickly changing industry post war. The natural farmland wildlife must have loved the farm back then, as it was all overgrown, high thick animal-proof hedges to keep the full range of livestock where they should be. Wheat in sheaves was thrashed all through the winter in the yard to be stored in sacks, large field boundary trees, scrubland and loads of grassland for the horses to refuel on before they got worked on the land. Reg worked with hand tools and horses. Then, as our grandfather bought the first tractors, he learnt to use them and by the end of his career, he was driving tractors similar to what we use today. His career spanned everything –  including the infamous farmland bird decline. As I said, Reg loved to tell a good story and I listened as we grew up around the farm but never really put the two together and really thought about our farm and our farmland bird decline. Yet it has happened and it happened everywhere, all over the countryside - bird populations were declining but, why? What were the reasons? What happened through Reg’s life that could so dramatically change the farmland ecosystem to make the specialist bird species dependent upon farmland, nearly disappear?
Below, are a few factors that contributed to the decline in farmland birds. I say contributed - not that one is the cause, but that lots of different decisions made by the Government, the farmer, the industry researchers and the general public have jointly caused the decline that we are working so hard now to reverse.
·         Agri-Chemicals
Not as accurate as today!
This is a big one but the chemicals used to protect and help crops grow have changed the industry. They allow us to control plant diseases and weeds that compete with the crop; we reduce disease and weeds that compete, to make sure yields are maximised. Reg helped to put up our grain store on the farm as the production kept growing year on year. He also applied them using the early sprayers, without protective equipment like we have today. Nowadays, the chemicals go through years of research and development and everything we use is tested for its impact on the ecosystem. This was not the case back in the early days when there was unregulated use, limits could be exceeded and the impact was not known. This had to change and it has. We are governed by many rules and regulations to make sure that the chemicals used today are in no way impacting the wildlife and the consumer adversely but still allow us to maximise the yield potential of our crops.


·         Land Drainage
Not an obvious one but land draining dramatically altered the landscape. By being able to put clay pipes (now plastic) into the soil to allow free draining of water from the soil into ditches, meant that the wet marginal land, which could never be farmed, was brought into the cropping rotation. These areas, before, would have been left as wet boggy corners in paddocks that would have been poached by cattle, making them wetland habitats with sedges and long grass ideal for ground nesting birds like the Lapwing and home to many insects. Reg spent hours working over the whole farm with the old trencher laying these pipes; back breaking work, but the crops soon responded, as the soil was much more workable and the yield increased.
·         Spring to Autumn Cropping
Today, 80% of our land is prepared and sown in the autumn. This is due to plant breeders producing varieties of cereals that could grow for longer and be stronger, due to agri-chemical help through the winter, giving a huge increase in yield. Winter wheat produces average crops of 9-10t/ha whereas spring wheat produces 5-6t/ha crops. This on the back of government pressure to produce more food was a no-brainer for the farmer, especially as the price per ton increased.  
·         Food Safety and a Farming Revolution
Hedges and ditches were removed
The government and the general public after the Second World War did not want the reoccurrence of rationing, so farmers were challenged to be more efficient and maintain higher levels of production. This was helped by Government grant money to remove hedgerows, making the fields larger, to coincide with larger more powerful tractors, as the horse was slowly phased out. The enlargement of fields meant that the landscape was dramatically bulldozed out, losing many miles of hedgerows, ponds and scrub: the entire habitat that was required to maintain a healthy farmland bird population. Farmland landscape is unique, as are the specialist species that inhabit it, so bulldozing out two thirds will have a knock-on effect on those populations dependent upon it. As part of our HLS agreement we planted 4km of hedgerow and Reg laughed when we started planting, as he remembered bulldozing out the hedge that was in the exact same place back in the 60’s, and removing it!
·         Loss of Livestock
Loss of livestock and diversity of livestock has also played its part.  Livestock, with the flies, dung, open food troughs, haystack (home to many small mammals) and huge paddocks of rough grass, gave so much back to wildlife. Reg worked with pigs, sheep, cattle, dairy cows and chickens, all of which were small enterprises at Lodge Farm in his life. Now there is no livestock on the farm and not a dairy herd in Mid Suffolk and only a handful of other pure livestock farms. This means that all the land has been turned over to intensive arable farming using agrichemicals, to create a very sterile monoculture within the countryside. Diversity has been lost in all manner of ways and this is something that is being addressed today with farmers replacing marginal wheat-growing land with rich flowering and seed producing wildlife habitats. 
·         Machinery and Speed of Operations
Machinery developments from the old small vintage tractors that took over from the horse, have happened really quickly. I can remember when our biggest tractor was 120Hp. Now we have our challenger with 280Hp and that is a small tracked tractor in today’s terms! The speed and size of implements that these modern tractors can pull was something that Reg never got his head around. The idea that a combine could harvest 400t of grain in a day was something for him that would have taken all of August to collect with horse and carts. The combines now leave the field and the tractors are straight in behind, turning the soil over, whereas there used to be a month or even a whole winter’s gap which allowed the farmland birds to clear up the spilt seeds and weed seeds. This is now returning with over-wintered stubble options in the environmental schemes but when you’re trying to cover large amounts of land with one tractor, speed is required.  Gone are the days when there were 10 men on the farm, with ten tractors, working on a third of the land we farm today. 
These are only a few decisions, choices, issues and reasons and many others helped. All these factors contributed and their effects sadly went unnoticed by us in regards to farmland biodiversity. The birds, wildflowers, insects and mammals that we took for granted were not adapting as we changed their homes and unique habitats with such speed, all within a lifetime.
Reg was a jack of all trades; he changed as the farm changed: hand tools to horses, to the first tractors, to the modern tractors. He may not have liked it but he adapted to his surroundings and this is what we have found with the bird species on the farm. The jack of all trade birds who can adapt to changes in habitat conditions and climate change have faired better, like the Goldfinch demanding Nyjar seed on all our bird tables now, or the Woodpigeon breeding all year round as we feed it with Oil Seed Rape. (a crop we had to introduce because of our thirst for oil based energy and products). The scavengers like Magpies, Jays, Buzzards and Crows are all pushing their numbers up. Why? Because these are the birds that have a range of nest sites or a varied diet. They have done much better, whereas the specialists, dependent on that mixed farming system, have not adapted and have been left behind as we strive for a quick return in food production or increased efficiency. The Grey Partridge, with its specific diet of insects when it is young, lost the rough grassland provided by the horses and the wet marginal land. The Sparrows and Finches lost the easy access to feed troughs, open grain barns and spilt grain in the fields as machinery became more efficient in collecting the grain. We as consumers wanted our food free of any type of contaminates, as we were scared of possible disease outbreaks, like salmonella. The introduction of tighter regulations meant farmers were inspected to make sure they were living up to the consumers’ demand and we, as farmers, became more aware of the need to be better at business by making every penny count.
It will take a united approach by Farmers, Government, Advisors and the General Public working together and believing that the farmland bird decline can be reversed but it WILL take time. We are already seeing increases on our own farm and I hope that in my life time I will see the huge flocks return. One thing is for sure, I take my hat off to Reg for working so long, changing with the times and adapting to so much change. He definitely deserves to enjoy his third retirement! BWB

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