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How RSPB testbed farm in South Cambridgeshire is bringing Hope to the countryside as wildlife flourishes





In the South Cambridgeshire countryside lies a farm that is a beacon of hope for the future.

For in the battle against biodiversity loss and climate change, it is demonstrating that nature-friendly farming can be commercially viable.

Hope Farm and manager Georgie Bray, showing wildlife-friendly farming measures. Picture: Keith Heppell
Hope Farm and manager Georgie Bray, showing wildlife-friendly farming measures. Picture: Keith Heppell

Hope Farm in Knapwell was purchased by the RSPB in the year 2000.

“Our aim with the farm was to show you can have a space for wildlife and still make a profit and that stands now,” Georgina Bray, the farm’s manager, explains.

“Farming itself was in quite a different place then, with very intensive production and a simple form of cropping, and this farm was typical of that, with only a few, quite small hedgerows. Just wheat and oil seed rape were grown.

“We looked at the farming system and how we could diversify our crops and still produce good food.

“We looked at areas of the farm that were more awkward to crop, and made them into conservation habitats. We’ve tried to be a real exemplar in this, so that we could talk to other farmers and people in policy and explain the difference it’s made to wildlife.”

And that difference is astonishing.

Skylark numbers have soared
Skylark numbers have soared

Just 534 birds of 30 species were counted on the farm in January 2001.

“This winter there were over 6,500 birds of 52 species, which was quite something,” says Georgie.

Back in that first year, there were no corn buntings on the arable farm, and only three yellowhammers.

“In December, we had more than 120 corn buntings – a species that has declined nearly 90 per cent in recent years – and in February we had nearly 450 yellowhammers, another red-listed species, so there has been a huge difference,” explains Georgie.

The RSPB has been collaborating with WWF and The Open University, and with the BBC and Silverback Films on the five-part Wild Isles series showing on BBC One on Sunday evenings, and on iPlayer. A recent episode explored how modern agriculture has replaced our precious grassland habitats.

But Hope Farm is proof that wildlife and profitable agricultural practices need not be at odds.

An adult female yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) feeding on rape at Hope Farm. Picture: Andy Hay, RSPB Images
An adult female yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) feeding on rape at Hope Farm. Picture: Andy Hay, RSPB Images

So how has it been achieved?

The essentials are food, shelter and breeding space, Georgie says.

“For each different species the requirements are slightly different, but to simplify it down you need good hedgerows and you need safe nesting within the field, you need insects and you need seed food as well, and that, along with watercourses and sensitive management in the field, really does the trick.”

Wildflower margins, created in areas of the farm that are harder to crop, create networks for invertebrates, while in-field skylark and lapwing plots – areas left unplanted – provide safe spaces for these iconic farmland species.

Direct drilling into soil and using the plough as little as possible aids the ecosystem underground. And to combat soil erosion, cover crops are used in winter.

“Skylarks and lapwings are insect feeders, so if we have healthy soils that have lots of biology in them that helps us grow our crops but it also provides a good food source for those birds,” explains Georgie.

Hope Farm and manager Georgie Bray. Picture: Keith Heppell
Hope Farm and manager Georgie Bray. Picture: Keith Heppell

The farm is not organic.

“We want to demonstrate a way of farming that is relevant to as many farmers as possible,” explains Georgie.

Instead, it deploys regenerative farming practices.

“It’s a term for describing a way of farming that is looking to utilise and boost natural processes to work in favour of the farming system. There is loads of research out about how to better manage soils to benefit crop health, which should mean you are relying less on fungicides as you’re less at risk of disease.

“Our wildflower margins are a fantastic home for beneficial insects, so it would be completely nonsensical to provide this refuge for such insects to help us with pest control and pollination and then spray them out, so we don’t use insecticides.”

While some herbicides are deployed, pesticides are only ever a last resort.

“Profits on the farm have not declined,” notes Georgie, who adds that lots of farmers are also engaged in similarly positive practices.

Wildflower margins at RSPB Hope Farm. Picture: Ben Andrews, RSPB Images
Wildflower margins at RSPB Hope Farm. Picture: Ben Andrews, RSPB Images

These may also be encouraged in the post-Brexit era of subsidies, where farmers are paid for ‘public good’, such as meeting sustainable soil standards.

“Having the farm has really helped us talk to farmers. We’ve had some tricky seasons in these last few years, with droughts and floods. Being able to talk to farmers about how we’re using the principles we want to adopt to overcome these challenges has been really useful.

“Talking about the mistakes we’ve made as well as the successes makes it much more real.

“It also helps us talk to policy-makers and improve the support available for farmers for nature-friendly farming,” says Georgie.

Today, winter and spring beans, winter wheat, winter and spring barley, oats and oil seed rape are grown at Hope Farm. And a trial of growing beans and oats together to bolster the ecosystem and reduce disease is under way. Grown in combination, they can be separated after harvesting for human consumption or, if destined for animal feed, left together to provide extra protein and prevent the need for supplementary soya.

Wildflower margins among tree planting in crop fields at Hope Farm, Kanpwell. Picture: Steve Rowland Agroforestry
Wildflower margins among tree planting in crop fields at Hope Farm, Kanpwell. Picture: Steve Rowland Agroforestry

Meanwhile, an agroforestry trial is exploring the provision of food through fruit and nut trees, arable cropping and wildflower margins in one system, working together.

“Once we got those trees planted and the wildflowers started to bloom, that was a really exciting moment,” recalls Georgie. “We have some cool technology to monitor the change in carbon emissions from the farm.”

She is equally enthused by the engagement with volunteers who help with trials and habitat management. Some of them witnessed a wonderful sight over the cover crops.

“We were hedge-laying with volunteers and looked up and saw this male hen harrier dipping and dancing on the field. To see that out there, in a cropping system, where you know there is biodiversity thriving, while you are producing food, was special,” says Georgie.

It was a symbol of hope, on Hope Farm, and you can see its progress yourself on June 11, at Open Farm Sunday, when more than 1,000 people are expected to be welcomed on tours of this exciting site.

Visit https://farmsunday.org/ for details of Open Farm Sunday.



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