Organic farm shows how wildlife can thrive alongside commercial food production

Wildflowers growing in grass margins around the crops at Duncan and Mary MacGregor's farm at Great W

Wildflowers growing in grass margins around the crops at Duncan and Mary MacGregor's farm at Great Witchingham. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

An award-winning Norfolk farm aims to prove that organic environmental credentials should not come at the expense of commercial productivity – the two can go hand in hand.

Wildflowers growing in grass margins around the crops at Duncan and Mary MacGregor's farm at Great W

Wildflowers growing in grass margins around the crops at Duncan and Mary MacGregor's farm at Great Witchingham. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

With its flower-rich margins alive with birds, butterflies, bees and grasshoppers, the environmental successes at Mill Farm are clear to see.

But those successes are only part of the reason why it was awarded the coveted Ian MacNicol Memorial Trophy for farm conservation, run by the Norfolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group).

It was also celebrated for integrating conservation into all aspects of its commercial operations – and its owners are determined to prove that the creation of wildlife havens in Norfolk’s farming landscape does not have to come at the expense of profitable food production.

The 1,000-acre mixed organic farm at Great Witchingham, near the headwaters of the Blackwater river, has been in organic production for about 15 years – four of those under the ownership of Duncan and Mary MacGregor.

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Farm manager Leigh Nobes oversees the 600 acres of arable production, along with the farm’s herd of pedigree Shorthorn cattle and its flock of pedigree poll Dorset sheep. All the farming operations run alongside an environmental system funded under a Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship agreement, aiming to provide year-round food sources and habitats for wildlife.

It includes extended margins and grass leys featuring plants such as bird’s-foot trefoil, which has sparked a population explosion for common blue butterflies, while “unusual and interesting” flowers like bladder campion have emerged from dormancy in the soil.

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Nature has been allowed to manage itself, keeping weeds out of the margins and providing homes for beneficial predatory insects which have kept aphids out of crops.

Award judges also noted the sensitive hedge-cutting regime, allowing birds like skylarks and yellowhammers to thrive, and the “considerable work” undertaken to improve the soils on the farm including soil testing, worm counting, tillage technique experiments and the use of cover crops.

Mr MacGregor said this whole-farm system has benefited the farming output, rather than compromising it – proving how nature can coexist with food production.

“We don’t need to have these extremes of organic and conventional,” he said. “It is so confusing if you’re a consumer, you’ve got so many labels – Red Tractor, organic, it goes on forever, so it would be great if organic and conventional farming could merge into the middle, if we could borrow the best bits of both to make just one ‘best practice’ way.

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“Our ethos is to prove we are a top-tier organic farm, and use the conservation side to benefit us and get us to where we want to be.

“We firmly believe that allowing this whole life-cycle, this succession, is great for the farm because that is our natural protection. We cannot use pesticides or artificial fertilisers so we are relying on nature to do that job for us.

“For example, this field of beans looks superb, as good as a conventional crop, and the reason we don’t have to worry particularly about aphids and things like that is because we have enough of the good stuff working for us.

“Nature does what it does best and where you have the option to leave things alone – and grass margins give you that option – they will look after themselves.

“There’s not one dock in here, not one weed. There was five years ago, but because we’re allowing nature to do its own things, unbelievably, the docks are being pushed out and it is full of wildlife.

“The message is – leave things alone and let nature get on with it. Have patience. Give it a three or four-year window to see what happens. That builds into the whole ethos of the farm to be a commercial successful top-ranking farm. We grow seed for seed merchants because the farm is so clean, there are so few weeds.”

READ MORE: How a Norfolk farm was transformed from a lifeless prairie into a thriving wildlife oasis

Mike Edwards business manager at Norfolk FWAG said the farm was a perfect example of how conservation can work alongside commercial farming.

“It has always been our ethos that you can do both,” he said. “You can have a productive commercial farm and look after the environment – neither one has to be at the expense of the other.

“This is a great example. It is one of the judging criteria for our award is how well they are integrating the environmental measures into a viable, commercial farming business, and that is something they have done very successfully here.”

This year’s Norfolk farm conservation competition, as well as the traditional summer farm walk at the 2019 winning farm, have been cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions.

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