Norfolk FWAG adviser Richard McMullen honoured with lifetime achievement award

Richard McMullen, a conservation adviser with Norfolk FWAG, pictured at High Ash Farm, Caistor St Ed

Richard McMullen, a conservation adviser with Norfolk FWAG, pictured at High Ash Farm, Caistor St Edmund. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

After being 'humbled' by a lifetime achievement award, a respected farm wildlife adviser reveals some of the techniques he uses to persuade commercial growers to employ conservation measures on their land.

Encouraging wildlife into an agricultural landscape is no easy task.

But the job of persuading commercially-minded farmers to expend time, money and resources on nature-friendly stewardship schemes is also a delicate art, according to an experienced farm adviser who picked up a special honour this week.

Richard McMullen won the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership, for 'his work over 30 years inspiring landowners to incorporate conservation practice into their farming activities, thus improving the prospects for farmland biodiversity'.

During his long career at Norfolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group), he has developed tactics ranging from finding the right financial incentive to using the influential power of peer groups – and tapping into farmers' inherent competitive psyche.

Occasionally, he said that could come from highlighting best practice at farm walks and competitions, and then watching farmers try to out-do each other over the quality of their hedgerows, or the number of lapwings and linnets in their fields.

He said: 'You have got to be able to persuade and show and demonstrate, and it goes back to the idea of 'farmer see, farmer do.'

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'You can sow the seeds in so many different ways. Part of the FWAG process with the farm walks and the competitions is to show best practice so you then have the experts in place to talk about these options, and if you are relatively skilled you draw out key members of the audience to draw out their experience, so you get that competitive element.

'One farm had some of the best hedges I had seen, and the report came back that he saw it at a farm walk and decided to adapt it. It was not a direct impact of advice.

'There is also a way of 'selling' a feature in terms of its importance or its relative importance – saying whether you've got the 'only one' or the 'best one' It works because farmers are so competitive.

'There was a case when the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) handed out bat detectors as part of a survey they were carrying out. I was inundated with lots of farmers saying how many more species they had than their neighbours.

'There is another significant trick that you need to work in Norfolk, and that your radar needs to be in tune for: Don't cite someone as a best example of something unless you know their relationship. They may have fallen out over a pheasant in the 1990s and the families are not talking to each other.'

At the start of his career, Mr McMullen spent five years at NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany), then studied at Bangor university, where he said he had his 'Road to Damascus' moment while studying the productivity of permanent pasture versus grass leys.

After short-term contract work for the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, 18 months with the Forestry Commission and a spell with the Nature Conservancy Council, he joined FWAG in 1996 as the first full-time farm conservation advisor for Norfolk.

'If you look at what FWAG is fundamentally about, which is essentially a group made up of farmers and landowners as well as conservation groups which were all trying to reconcile the differences between commercial farming and the impact on conservation... you could say that my background was part of what FWAG was,' he said.

'When we first started we had the landscape conservation grant scheme, which was small woodland management and pond work. That was the only source of persuasion we had as financial support. Since then we have seen an evolution.

'There have been 34 different significant changes in grant schemes and incentives over the years. One of FWAG's central roles is to work out what appears in farmers' terms to be gobbledegook into something that they can use, and make a difference with on the ground. You need to understand the rules and the opportunities, and you need to be able to see what the priorities are.'

Mr McMullen is still part of the FWAG association of advisors, but he has been succeeded as the organisation's business manager by Heidi Smith, who remembers meeting him in 1996.

'I watched him do a farm walk on the north Norfolk coast,' she said. 'There were about 30 farmers and landowners and they didn't want to be there. They were strong-armed into being there. I had never seen anything like it, watching Richard talk to them. You could see it was flicking a switch in their heads. 'He was being quite hard and quite challenging, but he did it in such an amazing way and he took the whole crowd with him. I thought: 'I would like to be able to do that.''

Those thoughts were echoed at this week's awards evening by Steve Scott, area director for the of the Forestry Commission, who presented Mr McMullen with his certificate. He said: 'A lot of people say they didn't get into this conservation lark until Richard persuaded them. He has a unique way of flicking that switch in a farmer's head that makes them into a conservation farmer.

'He is liked and trusted by farmers and he can deliver a hard and perhaps unpalatable message with humour. There are so many ways he has influenced biodiversity.'

Stewardship concerns

At a time of political upheaval and uncertainty over how environmental projects could be funded after Britain leaves the EU, Mr McMullen said it was important that volunteers and community groups had input into any new policies.

He said: 'I have worked with many volunteers over the years, but we are moving into a period of massive uncertainty and I hope we can keep the community spirit of wanting to do something for wildlife going while we sort out this mess of grants and funds to be beneficial for wildlife.

'What we end up with is going to bear no resemblance to what we are currently getting out of the EU. I don't think it is sustainable to expect that level of funding for the equivalent of the Basic Payment Scheme, agri-environment and rural development going to such a small number of recipients. Politically, that's going to be difficult.

'How it evolves, I don't know. I suspect there will be some kind of capping system dependant on farm size. I hope there will still be something in terms of agri-environment, but what we have currently got with Countryside Stewardship is not fit for purpose. We are out of it with Brexit for the longer term, and the community and the community groups should have an input into determining the priorities.'

Award winners

Richard McMullen said he was 'very humbled' to be among the winners at the annual Norfolk Community Biodiversity Awards, presented by the Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership. The other category winners were:

• Parish and town councils: South Wootton Parish Council, for 'connecting the community with improvements to South Wootton Park'.

• Commons and greens: Litcham Common Management Committee, for 'continuing commitment to achieve the conservation of Litcham Common'.

• Churchyards and cemeteries: Joint winners: The Friends of Great Yarmouth Cemetery and St Nicholas Churchyard, and Wymondham Abbey.

• 'Inspiring Others': Geoff Doggett, for his 'inspirational leadership in linking the River Waveney Trust with the wider community'.

• Group award: Little Ouse Headwaters Project, for 'the imaginative way they have involved their community in their ambitious, large-scale conservation work'.

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