A nature-friendly west Norfolk farm has carried off a top conservation prize for blending productive agriculture with extensive environmental work.

AR Wilson Ltd, based at Manor Farm in East Winch, near King's Lynn, won the 2022 Ian MacNicol Memorial Trophy, awarded by Norfolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group).

The award celebrates the most significant contribution to wildlife conservation among the county's farmers.

It assesses factors including the conservation and creation of wildlife habitats, how well they are integrated into the farm business - and the "overall enthusiasm of the farmer and how effective they have been communicating this to the wider farming community".

Judges said the winner's 1,493 acres of light land has been "worked hard with historically low yields that have improved through good husbandry and re-introduction of livestock and manures to the system. This is very much a model sustainable intensification".

The farm's conservation efforts are funded through government Countryside Stewardship schemes to create flower-rich margins and plots, woodland and scrub - even reservoir banks are floristically enhanced and carefully managed.

Herbal leys are incorporated into the rotation where possible. 

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Arable land is rented to specialist growers, but around 10pc of total area is not in production - mainly field edges, awkward corners and ex-gravel extraction sites.

Farm director Robert McNeil Wilson said: "We have managed to integrate intensive and varied irrigated cropping, various livestock enterprises and cereal production with extensive environmental schemes and quarry restoration."

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The runner-up was Deepdale Farm in Burnham Deepdale on the north Norfolk coast, a 635-acre farm which has converted to organic and "regenerative farming" principles.

It has made extensive use of flower-rich margins and plots to square off fields for more efficient food crop production, while wild bird food and cultivations for rare arable plants have been provided on the marshes.

And a "highly commended" certificate went to Thorpe Hall Manor at Thorpe-next-Haddiscoe in the lower Waveney valley, which has permanent grassland and a higher-tier stewardship agreement for fen creation, willow scrub removal and grazing with native breeds.

Norfolk FWAG members will be offered the chance to visit the winner and runner-up farms in summer 2023.

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Conservation across the county

The awards were presented at Norfolk FWAG's annual meeting at Easton College, which outlined the extent of farm conservation efforts across the county.

Managing director Neil Punchard said the government's Countryside Stewardship scheme is "still the most important and effective tool in the box for delivering benefits to wildlife on farmland".

He said the Norfolk FWAG team had completed 22 mid-tier and six higher-tier agreements on behalf of their farmer members in 2022 – bringing an eight-figure sum to the Norfolk farming industry over the five and 10-year terms of the agreements.

Norfolk FWAG has also undertaken a "test and trial" for Defra's Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, and has recruited two new staff and as it looks to broaden its offering to farmer members.

It has partnered with the Prince’s Countryside Fund and a consultant to deliver business and environmental support for family farms and tenant farmers through Defra's Farm for the Future scheme. Business workshops are planned for December, and more details are available by contacting sasha@norfolkfwag.co.uk.

Norfolk FWAG is also working with Norfolk County Council over the next two-and-a-half years, as part of the One Million Trees for Norfolk campaign, to ensure more woodland planting on small areas of marginal agricultural land.

It said new woodland can provide windbreaks, shelterbelts and assist game shoots, but the cost of grant applications is often a deterrent, so this will be covered for free for county council tenants and heavily subsidised for Norfolk FWAG enhanced members. 

Guest speakers at the meeting were the Rt Rev Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich and the Church of England's lead bishop for the environment, who outlined the vital role of farmers in nature recovery in Norfolk, and Martin Lines, a third-generation farmer from South Cambridgeshire who is chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network.

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