Natural England chair visits Suffolk farm to draw inspiration on how to reverse wildlife losses - and farm productively
PUBLISHED: 18:11 12 July 2019 | UPDATED: 14:01 05 February 2020
The chair of one of the most powerful environmental bodies in the UK visited Suffolk to find out how one farming family is reversing worrying trends in wildlife losses - while running a highly commercial growing operation.
Natural England chair Tony Juniper visited EJ Barker & Sons at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, as he seeks answers to one of the knottiest problems to beset the land-based sector.
Farmers and policymakers want to reverse catastrophic species decline - much of which has been laid at the door of farm practices as well as urban encroachment - while producing more high quality, healthy foods and other crops than ever.
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"It can be done, and we can see right here how," he said after touring the farm.
A new farm subsidy system
Government officials also want to work out the best way to measure and reward farmers for their environmental efforts as part of a 'public money for public goods' future pact with the sector.
The idea, spearheaded by environment secretary Michael Gove, is to find a suitable post-Brexit replacement for UK farm subsidies under the current European Union (EU) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) system.
Officials are developing what they suggest will be a 'simple' farm subsidy system rewarding farmers for environmental measures called Environmental Land Management (or ELMs).
However, there is still a window for farmers to take part in existing farm-based conservation schemes, and Mr Juniper visited the Barkers' inspirational 545ha farm ahead of the deadline for farmers and land managers to submit their application packs for Countryside Stewardship agreements, which start in January 2020.
The Barkers' farm has been in Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) and Higher Tier environmental schemes for the last 14 years, and their approach has meant the return of populations of various species including grey partridge, newts and barn owls.
On the tour, the Natural England chair looked at the environmental benefits the Barkers have achieved as part of a productive arable operation at the farm and discussed ways in which a future scheme could work, the role of Natural England and room for improvement under ELM.
Farm is 'inspiration'
He described the farm as a "real inspiration" in showing what can be done under current schemes, and praised the "great work" going on to help healthy wildlife populations while producing food.
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"I think this is a great inspiration for the future in terms of how we are going to design a new scheme which will be coming in the coming years to enable more farmers to be able to do even more of this dual job of keeping our wildlife healthy at the same time as producing food."
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) currently favours a 'whole farm' approach covering both production and environment.
But details have still to be worked out, including which organisation will be the delivery body, and which one will carry out the farm monitoring.
It is in the process of testing and trialling potential schemes which could form part of ELMs, which is set to launch around 2022.
Patrick Barker, who has spent a lot of time developing the farm's environmental benefits, said they had talked about how markets needed to be developed for British grown crops such as pulses and linseed. "People are eating pulses, but just not the ones we are growing, so there's a massive opportunity for that in the future, we think," he said.
Post-Brexit, farmers were going to need to be "a bit more canny" about what they plant in the ground, he added.
"We believe we have a model of farming and farmland conservation that delivers on both fronts," he added. The Barkers also believe that what they have done - such as taking the least profitable parcels of their land out of production and into wildlife conservation - could be rolled out to other farms. Because of the nature of the plots, the change has hardly hit their bottom line, they said, and had the added benefit of enabling them to focus their energy on high-yielding areas.
Among the topics discussed were the high amount of food waste across the piece which rendered farmers' efforts to increase yields futile, the limiting and prescriptive nature of HLS, and the Barkers' 'whole eco-system' approach to farming.
Also on the visit was Rob Yorke, a rural commentator, and David Whiting, Natural England's arable agronomy national leader.
Mr Whiting described what the Barkers had done as "amazing".
In 2017, the Barkers' farm became the Agricultural Horticultural Development Board's (AHDB) first Strategic Farm for Cereals and Oilseeds in the UK.