Environment team aims to integrate nature into major farming estate

Albanwise Environment director Mike Edwards (right) with Phil Jarvis, the firm's chairman of farming and environment

Albanwise Environment director Mike Edwards (right) with Phil Jarvis, the firm's chairman of farming and environment, in a 20m margin of bird seed mix alongside a Norfolk arable field - Credit: Chris Hill

Environmental responsibility has been planted at the heart of a major Norfolk farming enterprise as it seeks to set carbon reduction goals on a landscape scale.

Albanwise Environment is a new company established to increase the focus of wildlife-friendly features within the Albanwise Estate, comprising 28,000 acres across Norfolk and Yorkshire.

The group's new division has launched a carbon and energy audit, as well as an assessment of its "natural capital baseline", in order to inform its future strategy to reach carbon neutrality.

But its directors said much progress has already been made.

At Barton Bendish, where 2,667ha of land is farmed between Swaffham and Downham Market, work to increase the habitat connectivity has included 7km of hedgerow planting and 4km of hedgerow laying in the last four years, along with the establishment of over 1,000 new boundary trees.

The firm is planning future woodland creation and a new Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship scheme next year to benefit farmland wildlife including grey partridge, turtle dove, stone curlew, corn bunting, lapwing, skylark - and 40 species of ground beetle recently surveyed in the arable margins.

Mike Edwards, one of two directors of the new company, said: "I think some of the work we have been doing around the fabric of the countryside is really important, and this is something most farmers could be doing.

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"Not all of this is grant-funded. So part of this is around an underlying feeling of responsibility for the landscape, and making sure it is there for future generations to appreciate." 

One example is a plan to create 15ha of "agro-forestry" near the village of Barton Bendish - planting fruit, nut and timber trees amid strips of cereal crops. 

"We will still be running our 36m sprayer between the rows of trees and growing combinable cereal crops between them," said Mr Edwards.

"We will put down a 4m row of wild flowers and the trees down the middle, so we are creating both another commercial crop, and wildlife corridors. The intention is to make it a viable thing to do within the arable business."

A corn bunting perches on barley grown by Albanwise in Norfolk

A corn bunting perches on barley grown by Albanwise in Norfolk - Credit: Chris Knights

Another new appointment at Albanwise is chairman of farming and environment Phil Jarvis - formerly head of farming at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust's Allerton Project, and a former chairman of the National Farmers' Union's environment forum.

He said the drive towards net-zero food production relied on farmers getting a fair reward for their efforts, and being able to compete amid new international trade deals which threaten to bring cheap imports into the country.

"It needs to be said that food is very important," he said. "Albanwise is primarily a food producer on a large scale, but they are also rural land managers and there is lots of the landscape that isn't food.

"We talk about food production, but that journey is also about looking after the water, soil, air, biodiversity and wildlife - when you have more of a mixed landscape there is always a place for nature to thrive.

Albanwise Environment director Mike Edwards (right) with Phil Jarvis, the firm's chairman of farming and environment

Albanwise Environment director Mike Edwards (right) with Phil Jarvis, the firm's chairman of farming and environment, surveying a 20m margin of bird seed mix alongside a Norfolk arable field - Credit: Chris Hill

"A lot of people see subsidy support going to farming but really there is a three-pronged approach to this in the future - there is a marketplace reward for your products, there is government investment in these environmental land management schemes, and there is also the efficiency of the farm itself to produce its products.

"We have got to be careful of one of those prongs, the market return. We can't say it is cheaper to go and buy food from somewhere else where we don't really know the standards.

"The consumer has to realise that if you want a nice countryside, you cannot expect farmers to have no income, and also to be responsible."

Arable operations on the Albanwise farming estate

Arable operations on the Albanwise farming estate - Credit: Dave Franciosy

Tom Dye, chief executive of Albanwise's farming operation, said viable commercial food production is "synergistic" with looking after the landscape. 

"We are very efficient producers of food, but very respectful of the wider environment," he said. "The phrase 'regenerative agriculture' is bandied about but I prefer to think of us as 'centrist' - we are not at either extreme. We are not organic farmers, although I won't rule that out in future as there are a lot of good principles behind it. But equally we are not spraying chemistry everywhere - it is only used at the point of last resort.

"I make no excuses for saying that food production is the number one 'public good'. Without really sustainable, high-quality food being produced domestically, food security very quickly becomes an issue. But it has got to be done in an environmentally sustainable way."

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