Top Norfolk farm conservation award goes west

Two contenders for Norfolk's top wildlife conservation award were on tenterhooks for the presentation evening near Wymondham.

The Ian MacNicol Farm Conservation Award aims to recognise the very best wildlife friendly farming in the county.

And more than 70 members and guests crammed into the offices of Farm Conservation at Beeches Farm Barn for the evening.

There were two short-listed entrants, Robert Hambidge's exceptional holding at Pudding Norton, near Fakenham, and Ed Cross, of RS Cross & Sons, of Abbey Farm, Flitcham, on the Queen's Sandringham estate.

Mr Hambidge, who is also a member of the NFU's regional sugar board, was praised for encouraging what the judges described as a 'fantastic diversity of habitats for wildlife and manages the land in a sympathetic way to protect the historical features of interest'.

The judges who awarded the trophy to West Norfolk farmer Ed Cross were Chris Coupland, of sponsors, Birketts solicitors, Charles Sayer, chairman of Norfolk FWAG, and conservation adviser Henry Walker.

Mr Hambidge's farm extends to 262 hectares on light soils near Fakenham. The majority of the holding is arable, interspersed with 45 ha of woodland and grassland.

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The arable is managed using precision farming techniques, allowing Mr Hambidge to reduce the amount of chemicals used on his land. He also uses his GPS system to mark out lapwing nests within crops, so that farming operations do not disturb breeding attempts.

The spring cropping in the rotation further benefits wildlife by providing nesting habitat for some farmland birds. The spring crops follow overwintered stubbles which have a green cover crop to benefit the soil organic matter and provide cover.

The arable land is enhanced by arable stewardship options, including beetle banks, cultivated margins, wild bird seed mix, pollen and nectar mixes, and floristically enhanced margins. These options create a network of habitats around the farm that link up boundary features, benefiting invertebrates, arable flora and birds.

In the centre lies Pudding Norton, one of the best preserved deserted medieval villages in East Anglia. It was emptied during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) when the landowner ousted the occupants to use the land for grazing.

The extensive earthworks that remain, along with the ruined church of St Margaret's are protected as part of a Countryside Stewardship agreement.

In common with Pudding Norton, there is also a scheduled monument at Abbey Farm, Flitcham, which is managed as low-intensity grassland. This holding is 375 ha including 15pc of the arable land as organic.

The diverse cropping, with seven combinable crops, benefits wildlife by providing a range of conditions on the farm. The arable areas are further enhanced by a range of options such as wild bird seed cultivated margins, and species rich margins. In total, these options in higher-level stewardship are worth about 15pc of total farm income.

Habitat restoration on the farm has included manipulation of water levels so as to provide habitat for wintering waders and wildfowl along Babingley river valley.

At Abbey Farm, public access is encouraged through guided farm visits, and a public bird hide adjacent to scrapes and pools.

Afterwards, Gavin Siriwardena, of the BTO gave a talk on landscape scale impacts of agri-environment schemes on birds in England.

A new beginning for Farm Conservation in Norfolk, was also marked by the retirement of Richard MacMullen after 25 years guiding farmers through the bureaucracy of grant applications and rules. To mark his achievement as the second longest serving member of staff at FWAG, retired Norfolk farmer Roger Kidner, who was chairman in 1986, presented him with two Henry Becker lithographs.

Farm Conservation will continue the work with former FWAG employees Henry Walker and Sarah Cunningham at the helm. The directors of the not-for-profit body are Charles Sayer, Joe Martin and Clarke Willis.

For details email or call 01603 814869.