Vast farm network aims to be a trailblazer for wildlife
- Credit: Mike Page
A vast network of Breckland farmers is hoping to become a national template for how wildlife conservation can be achieved within an important agricultural landscape.
The Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network, formally launched earlier this year, now has 52 members covering more than 100,000 acres.
Believed to be the largest farmland cluster in lowland UK, it aims to protect and enhance the special wildlife of the Brecks, guided by a UEA-led biodiversity audit in 2010 which catalogued 12,843 species - many of which are found nowhere else in the country.
But it also aims to balance ecology with food production. A key objective is to help shape Defra's new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), still under development, which will replace EU subsidies with a new system of payments for wildlife-friendly farming.
The network recently completed a Defra-funded "tests and trials" project, creating a "landscape-scale management plan" using analytical tools to map exactly where uncropped arable margins or corridors of disturbed grazing land should be targeted to gain the maximum benefit for priority species such as the stone curlew, woodlark, sand catchfly and grey carpet moth.
And now it is awaiting imminent news on a second phase of funding which could help implement that plan - with the hope the model could be implemented nationally as new policies take shape.
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Group member Richard Evans, based in West Harling, said: "If we work together on biodiversity enhancement we can have a much more dramatic result on a landscape scale.
"It is very much one of our objectives to work with Defra to ensure ELMS suits the Brecks and its farmers and we are waiting to hear whether we have got funding for a bigger, better, two-year trial.
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"It will allow us to employ a facilitator and implement the plan created by the first project, drawing members together and creating a network to demonstrate to Defra how we as farmers can achieve those goals - and hopefully they can use that as a model for the whole country.
"It is a targeted approach. Within the farming community, we know that high-yield agriculture is so essential to the Brecks, as it is such a breadbasket for the country. So if we are going to put land aside for conservation it needs to be targeted.
"Some of the schemes in the past have had disappointing results, so from our point of view it is the targeting and linkage which are really important."
Mr Evans said the farmer-led project draws on the expertise of the UEA, along with bodies including Natural England, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Plantlife and the Forestry Commission.