Increasing numbers of farmers are joining farmer cluster groups to deliver landscape scale conservation so how is it working and what does the future hold?
With 61 Countryside Stewardship Facilitation-funded (CSFF) farmer clusters involving 1,350 farmers covering nearly 350,000ha (864,500 acres) now involved in delivering landscape scale conservation measures, and the concept likely to find favour in future government agri-environment schemes, the pros and cons were debated at a Farmer Cluster Conference, hosted by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) with Natural England.
Natural England chairman, Andrew Sells, said: “As a new era dawns for farm support the argument for this approach will be compelling.”
Rob Shepherd, who runs Allenford Farms, an 800ha (1,976-acre) mixed farming partnership in Hampshire, and chairs the Allenford Farmer Cluster group said he is not sure farmers are naturally collaborative and that facilitator Peter Thompson of GWCT had been key in keeping everyone on board and moving in the same direction.
The group, which comprises eight holdings covering a total area of 6,800ha (16,796 acres) including large scale arable, chalk downland, water meadows and livestock on the edge of Martin Down chose 10 target species including grey partridge, turtle dove, corn bunting, woodcock and barn owl that it wanted to increase.
“A softly, softly approach so we don’t lose any of our members is so important. Mutual suspicion reduces when we sit around a table and are pursuing a common goal. Looking to future access to stewardship funding this could be a good tick in the box for that,” said Mr Shepherd.
So far the group has been self-funding, with money coming from a seed growers’ association and each farmer contributing £1/ha per year. But with the association funding coming to an end, it is considering applying for CSFF.
“With your own money you have complete autonomy; the problem is the money runs out after a while and it’s not cheap to run a cluster with the admin and everything so we will go for facilitation funding as and when we can,” said Mr Shepherd.
Suffolk-based farmer Andrew Paul, who manages a 1,052ha (2,600-acre) farm in the Sandlands of East Suffolk, of which 485ha (1,200 acres) is cultivated, grows potatoes, onions, cereals, sugar beet and AD maize. With Diane Ling from FWAG, he facilitates three farmer cluster groups covering 60 holdings – a total of around 21,862ha (54,000 acres).
“Of the 60 farmers we approached to join, only once said no. All got the concept of collaboration as many are already involved in vegetable groups.”
Mr Paul said it took two months to apply for the first round of CSFF in 2015. “They rang to say we’d been successful so we went back to the darkened room and tried to break it down into what we wanted to look at, who we wanted to work with and what topics we wanted to cover.”
Group activities include learning about invertebrates, including pollinators; planting bare vegetable headlands with early flowering mixes providing food for fledglings; and working with the Environment Agency to address sand erosion.
Dividing the area into three farmer cluster groups rather than one made sense in terms of members knowing each other as well as funding, says Mr Paul. “If you reached the threshold of four holdings and 2,000ha for going in you got initial facilitation funding of £10,000 plus £500 per holding - bigger farms got less money on a per acre basis.”
Looking ahead, Peter Thompson of GWCT warned that to safeguard future agri-environment funding for farmer cluster groups, more needs to be done to demonstrate what they are doing is working. “If we are going to compete post-Brexit for money against the NHS, education, policing and social care we need to show what we are doing in clusters has worked.
“Surveying and monitoring wildlife is key. Are [groups] all using the same system? Are we using apps? Where does the data go? At the end of 3-5 years can we interrogate the information to see if it’s been successful? We need the data to be robust.”