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Farmers share expertise to protect Brecks wildlife

07:46 23 January 2016

'Nature Friendly Zone' in the Brecks. Pictured from left are farm owner Chris Cock, Kerry Skelhorn of the RSPB and farm worker John Secker at Glebe Farm, Feltwell.

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Breckland farmers are being encouraged to join a new knowledge-sharing nature partnership which aims to create valuable habitats for the area’s most important wildlife.

Stone curlew. Pic: RSPBStone curlew. Pic: RSPB

Five farms in the Feltwell and Hockwold area are already part of the Nature Friendly Zone (NFZ) – a farmer-led initiative supported by the RSPB.

The pilot scheme has created a local network for farmers to share best practice for encouraging wildlife on their land by creating nesting and feeding habitats specifically designed to target key priority species in the area.

In the Brecks, that involves three minimum requirements: Setting aside bare land for stone curlew plots, planting wild bird seed mixes to encourage birds like finches and buntings, and cultivating margins for arable flora such as prickly poppy and viper’s bugloss.

Other key goals include promoting the benefit of these wildlife-friendly farming methods to the wider community by hosting farm walks and public visits.

It is hoped the NFZ model can be introduced in other areas, to create a linked network of wildlife corridors.

RSPB farm conservation advisor Andrew Holland said: “By having these three options within the Brecks, the farmers know they are doing they best they can do for the wildlife in this particular area.

“It is farmer-led, because we want it to be owned by the farmers, so other farmers are encouraged and enthused to do this good work in their area.

“Knowledge sharing is an important part of it. If one farmer says he has got fodder radish and it is brilliant for linnets, someone else might not have tried that. It is about sharing that knowledge and experience, otherwise it does not work.

“There are five different farms in the Brecks NFZ and seven people involved within that group. We want it to grow, and there are more opportunities for farmers to get involved and learn from each other.

“Then you have got the community side of it, so the public can come onto the farm and see how they produce the food and look after wildlife.”

One of the Brecks NFZ members is Chris Cock, who owns Glebe Farm in Feltwell, near Thetford.

He said: “The biggest benefit of the NFZ is learning from other people who are also in the zone and also in agri-environment schemes.

“Farmers traditionally go their own way but we had a meeting in the Chequers pub when four or five farmers got together. That does not normally happen.

“Farming over the last 20 years has got a bad press as far as wildlife goes. But within our Nature Friendly Zone we have got a new breed of farmers who are more sympathetic to it.”

Protecting Breckland birds

About 10pc of Glebe Farm’s 750 hectares of land is managed for wildlife.

Farm worker John Secker said the specific measures which meet the NFZ requirements include two-hectare plots for stone curlews – a protected Brecks specialist which had four nests on the farm last year.

Hedges are only trimmed every two years, allowing them the chance to bear fruit, while the neighbouring grass margin is a haven for harvest mice and bumblebees.

Mr Secker said a spring-sown mix of fodder radish, mustard, quinoa and reed millet provides food for finches, while an autumn-sown wild bird mix, with linseed, phacelia, gold-of-pleasure, kale, mustard, fodder radish and triticale, is favoured by buntings. During our discussion, about 200 corn buntings flew out of one of the 8m strips.

RSPB farm conservation advisor Andrew Holland said: “The corn bunting is one of the rarer of those ‘little brown jobs’ which you find on farms. Their numbers have decreased by over 90pc, so having the wild bird seed mixes is key to helping the survival prospects of these birds.”

Farmers interested in joining the NFZ, or members of the public interested in visiting one of the farms, should contact RSPB farm conservation adviser Kerry Skelhorn on 01842 756714 or kerry.skelhorn@rspb.org.uk.

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