“Every farmer I’ve ever met wants nature on their farm. They all want healthy soils and a thriving ecosystem.”
31st October 2022
Back in 2000, the RSPB took over the management of Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire. Their mission was to show that farming could work with nature, not against it, and still turn a profit. It was, at the time, a revolutionary idea: chemically intensive, conventional farming was still widely seen as the only viable way to produce food.
Twenty-two years on, the results are staggering. While farmland bird populations have dropped by over 60% since the 1970s, Hope Farm has recorded a 226% increase in breeding farmland birds, a 213% increase in butterflies and 15 times more wintering farmland birds.
Third generation farmer Georgie Bray is at the helm of this inspiring enterprise. She grew up on an arable farm in Essex but initially went into academia, completing a Master’s in Zoology before becoming an assistant at Hope Farm in 2017. After working across both research and farm management she became farm manager, completing a BASIS agronomy course a few years ago.
Georgie calls what she does “conservation agriculture”, providing and protecting habitats for wildlife while producing food. But she’s the first to admit that it’s been a learning curve – and a steep one at that. “When we bought the farm, a lot of farmers in the local area couldn’t understand what we were doing. They thought we didn’t know about arable farming – which, at the time, was partly true. But we did know what birds needed to survive in farmland.”
Much of it, she tells us, was experimentation. “It was a real blank canvas for us. There were only two crops in rotation, wheat and oil seed rape. Some hedgerows were here but they were a lot smaller.”
What did they first embark on? Spreading winter bird seed in fields and hedge management. “We wanted to take out the marginal areas of land that were shaded by the hedges anyway, put wildflowers in the margins, and make the hedges taller and wider.” It meant removing potentially profitable land from production – but Georgie says profitability has stayed stable. They’ve managed to increase the wildlife count significantly just from nurturing what Georgie calls “edge habitats”.
“What we really want the hedges to deliver on is shelter for wildlife over winter, nesting habitats for birds, food for pollinators – which in turn increases insects and provides food for birds.” By providing a home for beneficial insects and pollinators, crops are better pollinated – which can lead to better yields.
The hedges also provide a carbon store. “If you deliver for wildlife, you’re going to deliver for carbon storage. Wider hedges mean more roots below ground, and these store the most carbon.” It’s yet another example of how agroecological farming practices and integrated land use bring multiple benefits.
Georgie thinks managing hedgerows and making them resilient habitats for local wildlife could be a great first step for farmers looking to transition to more regenerative practices. “We started by farming conventionally in the middle of the field, and managing habitat around the edges. We saw that the farm business wasn’t suffering from this, and there was all this new wildlife on the farm, too.”
For Georgie, creating and protecting wildlife on the farm leads naturally into agroecology. “Get your habitats in a healthy condition, plant wildflowers, make sure your ponds and streams are clean and accessible. Make sure you have seed food for farmland birds. Then you can start to improve pest and soil management – which means there’s food for the wildlife on the farm.” In other words, if the land is managed properly, a farm can become a thriving ecosystem like any other.
Hedge management was just the beginning. Hope Farm’s also been using other regenerative techniques to improve soil health and reduce their reliance on inputs. A few years ago, for example, the farm started a cover crop and compost trial to look at the impact on biodiversity, and the results for oilseed rape crops were astonishing. “Where we’d used cover crops, we had wall of oil seed. It was a three and a half tonne yield per hectare – which is a good yield even in high input farming. This was compared to a crop failure without cover crops or compost applied.”
It was a thrilling discovery, especially because oil seed rape is becoming increasingly high in risk but also potential profit, and it’s highly beneficial to birds, who feed on the insects that use the crop.
It was also significant because oil seed rape has been at the heart of the neonicotinoids debate. An insecticide toxic to bees, neonicotinoids were banned for use in oilseed rape in 2013 (and subsequently banned on non-flowering crops in 2020). Subsequently, many farmers reported crop failures due to the return of flea beetles.
But Georgie’s crop was so strong that it was able to withstand the flea beetle. “And”, she adds, “if you’ve got healthy soils your beneficials – organisms (such as ladybugs, lacewings, and bacteria) that feed on pests – will also play their part in pest management.”
She admits, however, that moving towards more agroecological techniques like this require a shift in perspective – one that values resilience over yield. “If you put a cover crop in, you probably won’t get an increase in yield the next year. And it’s really tempting to use short term gains like insecticides because they cost very little. But by using a cover crop you’re improving the resilience of your soils – and they’re less likely to fail during a bad year.”
It’s this kind of integrated, long-term thinking that pays dividends for both the farmer and the natural environment – and it’s starting to catch on. Hope Farm regularly attracted farmers from the local area who want to improve biodiversity on their farm. “It’s great to take them on a walk around. They want to learn more about what habitats they should nurture and how they can look after birds on the farm. They also often share their knowledge so we can compare notes on different practices”
Georgie thinks shared knowledge between farmers is crucial for the future of regenerative agriculture. Farmers listen to other farmers. “I was at an AHDB webinar the other day and a farmer spoke about how he doesn’t use insecticides, how good his soils are, the amazing things cover crops do – and the increased biodiversity he had on the farm as a result. I was sitting there amazed. This is the mainstream information farmers are now being given.”
But there are still significant barriers to those who want to produce food in a nature-friendly way. And much of it comes down to uncertainty.“Every farmer I’ve ever met wants nature on their farm. They all want healthy soils and a thriving ecosystem. But they need to know it makes sense from a business perspective.”
So, what’s next for Hope Farm? They’re currently building agroforestry into the farm, planting apple and cobnut trees to build soil health, sequester carbon, and create more habitats for wildlife and pollinators. It’s early days, but pioneers like Wakelyns have proved how effective agroforestry can be – and Georgie’s hopeful that it could increase overall yield from multiple systems and even bring extra profit from harvesting the fruit and nut trees.
They’re also planning to cut fungicides and inorganic fertiliser from the farm over the next few years – which they’ve already reduced by using agroecological farming techniques.
Managing land in a way that delivers on multiple fronts simultaneously is ultimately at the heart of what Hope Farm wants to achieve. “We want the farm to deliver on food production in a sustainable way, both ecologically and economically. That means managing it for crops, for carbon, for biodiversity, for good water and for healthy soils.”