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How an award-winning Norfolk arable farm is making space for wildlife

West Norfolk farmer Michael Rae has won the annual Ian MacNicol award for his outstanding contributions to conservation. Picture: Ian Burt

West Norfolk farmer Michael Rae has won the annual Ian MacNicol award for his outstanding contributions to conservation. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2018

With the political spotlight falling on how to fund environmental work on farmland, an award-winning Norfolk farmer has shown how nature conservation can co-exist with viable food production. CHRIS HILL reports.

Acid grassland at Roydon Hall Farms. Picture: Ian BurtAcid grassland at Roydon Hall Farms. Picture: Ian Burt

It’s a topic that has dominated policy debates for months – how can farms strike the balance between profitable food production and caring for the environment?

But a dedicated conservationist who holds a major Norfolk award title seeks to prove that farms can make space for wildlife, and that commercial operations can be considerate of the sensitive habitats they share the countryside with.

Michael Rae, of Roydon Hall Farms, won the Ian MacNicol Memorial Trophy, awarded by Norfolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) to celebrate the best conservation within the county’s farming businesses.

The arable farm, near King’s Lynn, provides an important link between neighbouring wildlife sites at Roydon Common, the Sandringham Estate and the Babingley valley.

West Norfolk farmer Michael Rae has won the annual Ian MacNicol award for his outstanding contributions to conservation. Picture: Ian BurtWest Norfolk farmer Michael Rae has won the annual Ian MacNicol award for his outstanding contributions to conservation. Picture: Ian Burt

Of its 1,200 acres, about 140 acres is managed under stewardship agreements, which fund floristically-enhanced grass margins and plots of pollen and wild bird seed mixes.

And with the environment likely to become a bigger criteria for farm payments under the government’s post-Brexit ideal of paying “public money for public goods”, Mr Rae said it had never been more important to give farming and conservation equal consideration.

“There has got to be room for both in modern society,” he said. “I want to see it working side by side. There are plenty of farms out there that farm wall-to-wall, and I think there is a lot missing from these farms.

“You certainly hear plenty of farmers saying they voted Brexit so they could get out of Europe and go back to farming how they used to. But that is never going to happen. At the end of the day, the public wants to see the wildlife, and the requirement for the public to see conservation effort on farmland is getting bigger.”

West Norfolk farmer Michael Rae has won the annual Ian MacNicol award for his outstanding contributions to conservation. Picture: Ian BurtWest Norfolk farmer Michael Rae has won the annual Ian MacNicol award for his outstanding contributions to conservation. Picture: Ian Burt

Among Mr Rae’s treasured conservation features is a 20-acre field of “acid grassland”, with plants including hawkbit, sweet vernal grass, yellow rattle and hare’s-foot clover

“This was a potato field 18 years ago,” he said. “It was left into set-aside and then one May they suddenly said we have been granted stewardship which meant we couldn’t touch it, because it was full of breeding lapwings and skylarks. So we have let it run its course.

“All we do is top it. We have sheep grazing on here for a week to 10 days, and then they are off again. It is very light management.

“We get curlew chicks on here, and it is fantastic for bees and pollinators. There is a continual change, a sequence of flowering dates over the year, as different plants come to dominance.”

West Norfolk farmer Michael Rae has won the annual Ian MacNicol award for his outstanding contributions to conservation. Picture: Ian BurtWest Norfolk farmer Michael Rae has won the annual Ian MacNicol award for his outstanding contributions to conservation. Picture: Ian Burt

The farm has created or restored 13 ponds during the last ten years, and Mr Rae as also put up about 120 nest boxes for birds ranging from blue tits to barn owls – during our visit, we saw kestrel chicks nesting in a hole in a tree.

Hedges are allowed to grow “wild and bushy”, rich with fruit and berries as food sources, and acting as corridors to link up plots of wild bird mixes, and pollinator plots with red campion, purple vetches and lucerne.

“These are small fields,” said Mr Rae. “If you take big chunks of 6m or 12m margins around the outside, you impact considerably on the acreages. So we have plots rather than margins and then we look at corridors to link up the wildlife.”

Mike Edwards, business manager at Norfolk FWAG, which runs the competition, said: “It is all about seeking the balance between maintaining and protecting the environmental features and still being able to provide food we need from the land.

Kestrels in a tree on Michael Rae's farm in Roydon. Picture: Ian BurtKestrels in a tree on Michael Rae's farm in Roydon. Picture: Ian Burt

“Mike has got that balance right, taking land out of productions to improve the connectivity of existing wildlife habitats, and moving farming operations away from environmentally sensitive habitats.”

Judging will begin in July for the 2018 Ian MacNicol Trophy, sponsored by Ashtons Legal and Bayer. Three farms have been shortlisted this year – Nethergate Farm near Holt, John Cole Farms near Diss and Mack & Sons, near Holt.

CONSERVATION ORIGINS

Mr Rae, who has been a bird ringer since the age of 16, said he became interested in wildlife management due to his keen interest in shooting

West Norfolk farmer Michael Rae has won the annual Ian MacNicol award for his outstanding contributions to conservation. Picture: Ian BurtWest Norfolk farmer Michael Rae has won the annual Ian MacNicol award for his outstanding contributions to conservation. Picture: Ian Burt

“I think the two go hand in hand,” he said. “You cannot have good shooting without good wildlife.”

He was previously a technical manager for a British government-owned million-acre ranch in Botswana, and he also worked as an ecologist in the Sudan, where he ran a livestock research centre trying to encourage smallholders to produce milk for their town, to move away from a subsistence economy.

He was persuaded to return home to his father’s farm in 1986, after the Sudanese civil war broke out.

“We were right on the South Sudan border, and when they started putting land mines on the road and my father suggested it was a good time to come home,” he said.

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