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Rethink Farming - James Robinson

James farms at Strickley Farm, a 300-acre organic dairy farm that has been free from artificial fertilisers or pesticides for the past 16 years. James’ approach to supporting nature includes planting woodland, leaving areas of grassland ungrazed, maintaining sensitive hedgerow management and fencing off watercourses to improve water quality, so there is less silt and soil from his cattle on the banks. His farm’s hedgerows are seven miles long, some 20-22ft tall.

Key Facts:

  • James opts for regular soil testing to maintain the right level of nutrients to benefit both his livestock and local wildlife.
  • Multi-species swards are planted to nurture biodiversity from the ground up with herbal leys – including clovers, chicory and plantain – that help to fix minerals into the soil. This diverse plant life supports insects and pollinators, which attract an abundance of birds and mammals, including breeding thrushes, finches and tree sparrows, a red-listed species.
  • The farm’s hedgerows act as necessary corridors for movement, so species, such as bats and hawks, can travel safely between habitats.

“Biodiversity is important to me because it helps create a huge cycle of life around the farm across many different habitats. When you start making room for nature, the place comes alive.”

 

How do you deliver for biodiversity on your farm?

Being organic which means no artificial fertilisers or pesticides have been used for 16 years and this allows natural predetors to control any pests we have. We also allow our hedges to grow tall, we leave areas of grassland ungrazed too. Wetland creation, ponds and scrapes. We have renaturalised becks and planted woodlands.

We have always managed our hedges in a traditional rotation of hedgelaying about every 20-25 years, so we have a full mosaic of ages and sizes, which benefits much more wildlife than a landscape covered in the same size or shaped hedge. While we trim the outer hedges alongside the roadside for safety, we don’t flail the interiors.

Within a few years, the hedges were taller and bushier and there was more fruit and nuts for wildlife to forage. It also provided greater shelter for livestock and they can always be seen behind the hedge after a stormy night.

We have also fenced off many of our watercourses, which have always been the main source of drinking for our grazing cattle. The benefits to water quality are huge, less silt and soil from the banks, no muck in the water, no disturbance in the riverbed. We have renaturalised some stretches of beck and this has created pools and bends, natural scrapes and gravel beds. It has also slowed the flow of water down and during flood events it will slow ands store water and, helping to mitigate the flooding of homes and businesses further down stream.

What have been the biggest learnings and challenges in improving biodiversity on your farm?

If you can manage without outside funding, then do it. Funding from government agencies can be incredibly slow and hard to get.

Be patient! If you build it, they will come. Sometimes wildlife will find your habitat within a few days, but sometimes it may take a few years to develop and mature.

Top tips?

  • Start small. Leave hedges around a few fields unflailed for a start. The following year leave some more – that way there is a good range of hedgerow heights across the farm.
  • Leave some awkward field corners uncut and let the grass grow long and tussocky for cover.
  • Plant a few trees, it doesn’t take many to make a small coppice and in a 10-15 years there will some nice shade underneath.
  • Fence off wet areas and create a few scrapes to hold standing water,
  • Doing a few small projects all around the farm can soon collectively make a huge difference. You store carbon, nature moves in and the place comes alive.

Have you experienced the effects of climate change on your farm?

We have a number of fields that were once cut for hay and silage and are now only suitable for grazing. Constant wet summers and milder winters are causing land to become waterlogged. Flash floods are also much more common now than they have ever been in our family’s 145-year history at Strickley.

What support do you need from the government to continue farming in a nature-friendly way?

We need a way for consumers to be able to recognise which foods help to protect and create important habitats for wildlife, We need the UK government to back us not just in direct support for nature-friendly farming, but also in the trade deals which they negotiate.

If farmers give up land to store and slow down flood water, if they plant trees and change the way they manage soils, if they reduce harmful emissions and improve public access, then the government should recognise and reward those farms.

What would your message be to the public to encourage them to support farmers’ delivery of climate action and nature recovery? 

Find out about the food you eat. Ask where it has come from, how was it grown or reared. Speak to farmers, ask them what they are doing for wildlife and biodiversity on their farm. If we all do our bit, the results will be incredible.