Wensum Valley farmers combine local knowledge to conserve a cherished Norfolk landscape
- Credit: Chris Hill
A group of 21 growers in the Wensum Valley aims to prove that truly farmer-led collaborations could hold the key to managing conservation on a landscape scale – and justifying public funding with measurable results. CHRIS HILL reports.
The way farmers are funded to care for the countryside has become a key focus of post-Brexit policy debates.
Defra's much-vaunted principle of 'public money for public goods' – due to supersede the EU's direct subsidy payments – has already been well established, however there is still plenty of discussion on exactly how it will work.
But in one of Norfolk's most cherished river valleys, a group of farmers seeks to prove that the answer lies in collaboration rather than competition, working across landscapes rather than within field boundaries – and, critically, with priorities driven by local knowledge rather than national bodies.
The Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group (UWCFG) is a partnership of 21 landowners managing a total of 10,000ha within the nationally-important Wensum Valley.
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The initiative was launched in 2015 but has been reinvigorated with the appointment of a new independent adviser, funded by the group members, whose goal is to ensure that truly farmer-led decisions are taken to achieve objectives which align with the government's 25-year environment plan.
UWCFG advisor Eliza Emmett said those objectives include protecting the natural resources of soil, air and water, enriching biodiversity, connecting wildlife habitats, and surveying and documenting successes.
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Working with technical advice from Nik Bertholdt of Natural England, she also aims to engage a wide range of stakeholders including the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk Rivers Trust, RSPB, Anglian Water, Buglife and Butterfly Conservation.
'We have been hinted at that these are the right doors to push at,' said Miss Emmett. 'I am very confident that this is the future. It is not just the landscape scale conservation, it is the collaboration between the farmers.
'It is them exchanging knowledge and skills that they can learn from and working together as a team to work towards their own objectives they have chosen. I think that's really important.'
Documenting results and data is also an important aspect of the project. A good example could be found in December at Malt House Farm in Horningtoft near Dereham – one of the newer members of the group, and one of five farms carrying out wildlife work despite their funded agri-environment scheme having ended
Here, a rigorous regime of soil testing was carried out to assess, compare and record the structure, quality, organic matter and worm life of soil samples from fields of minimum tillage, cover crops or sugar beet.
'They (Defra) have asked for payment by results, so we're going to give them those results,' said Miss Emmett.
'That is certainly one of our objectives. The farmers deserve recognition of their hard work over the last 40 years plus. But it is also about finding out what levels we have got, where particular species exist and where there are limitations so we can then build on it.
'For example in this area we have got four landowners where we know for a fact they have got turtle doves so we will work closely with Operation Turtle Dove and with those farmers to do some supplementary feeding because we know the species are there to benefit from it.
'Then we can say to the government you want results, you want collaboration – we are doing it, and we are doing it well.'
Farmer Colin Palmer, of the 500-acre Manor Farm at Horningtoft, is a member of the steering group for the UWCFG. He said the farmer-led group was able to employ decades of local knowledge without 'a vested interest in any particular method or species' – meaning neighbours could combine the habitat benefits of their land.
'The countryside as a whole is a puzzle, and each farm is an individual piece,' he said. 'But the problem is that each individual piece is in an environmental scheme of its own which does not necessarily relate to the benefit of the whole. We are trying to fill all the pieces in on a puzzle to create a better environmental scheme.
'Wildlife doesn't stay in the same field all day, they fly, move, run. So no species is restricted to a certain area. I might not have some of the soil types and areas that the species need for certain aspects of their lifestyle, so they move around from mine to other farms.'
One important aspect of the data monitoring within the group is a technique called nutrient budgeting.
Inputs including fertilisers and manures, and outputs such as livestock and crop tonnages are assessed by a computer programme which calculates a farm's likely levels of pollutants such as nitrates and phosphates, depending on the soil type and drainage.
UWCFG advisor Eliza Emmett said it could be a valuable tool in assessing the level of farming's contribution to pollution in protected watercourses such as the Wensum.
'It is about examining where the discrepancies and losses are, so we can improve our business and reduce leaching losses,' she said. 'We know that soil health and air and water quality are three things the government will be pushing for. When I started here the steering group said they wanted to focus on water quality and asked what can we do, realistically, in 18 months to improve that water quality?
'We are already doing a lot of mitigation measures and we already have nutrient plans on the farms, but the water companies and others are saying to us that farmers are polluting this river by this amount or this amount.
'Well, this is a way to look at individual businesses to get a figure to demonstrate to the government our best practice and how we are fine-tuning that.'