Song birds and wildlife have been a lifelong passion of Paul Griffiths who has modified his farming to cater for it.
Shropshire arable and pig farmer, Paul Griffiths is passionate about wildlife, especially birds, and while he is the first to say management for wildlife is dependent on a profitable farming business, he also says the two are complementary to each other. His other interests, in shooting and game management, have also shown land managed for game birds also attracts more wild birds, in part because of predator control.
His Higher Kempley Farm, at Calverhall, near Whitchurch, recently hosted a visit for Owen Paterson, then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and organised by the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.
At the time Mr Paterson praised Paul for achieving the right balance between food production, providing significant environmental benefits and realising a substantial increase in yield from the hives and margins he has put in place.
Paul says: “You cannot really separate commercial farming and managing for the environment. If agriculture is producing food in any area, whether it is dairy, arable, pigs, or whatever you are in, is not profitable you are not going to spend any money or time on conservation.
“We fatten about 8,000 pigs a year on contract for the Co-op. They come in as store pigs about 30-35kg in weight and go out at 110kg after 15 weeks maximum. Feeding is a proprietary concentrate bought on a rolling six-month contract to give a consistent feed.
“From start to finish we have batches up to 1,900 and operate an all-in and all-out system. This allows us to clean and repair the piggeries, normally over about a two-week period, before the next batch come in,” he says.
The arable operation consists of 129 hectares (310 acres), mostly arable with some grass, with land ranging from heavy loam to sandy loam. The farm is also part of an arable group sharing machinery which spreads the cost of operations over 728ha (1,800 acres) of combinable crops across the group.
He says: “I have been in this arrangement since 2001 and wish I had done it earlier. Before then we were responsible for all the crops on the farm and the related costs of machinery, for buying/selling of the crops – whereas within the group I can sell it whenever I want or need to. The benefits of a group approach are the savings made on fuel, cost of machinery and man hours.”
Paul has been block cropping for about eight years and grows winter wheat, winter barley, and winter oats with oilseed rape the main break crop. All crops are grown for the margins produced rather than yield.
He says: “Since we have been block cropping we share all the costs and share all the profits on a percentage basis linked to the acreage of each farm. This takes away the risk – if for example one farm does less well than another and prices are reflected accordingly. This method ensures equality across all the holdings.
“As a result of the new Single Farm Payment review we will be adding more spring crops to our rotations as the review requires three separate crops on each block of land. We will grow maize either on contract to dairy farmers or for feedstock for anaerobic digesters and will be looking at other crops.
“The objective is about saving fossil fuels and putting your carbon footprint right. We are already doing this and now we have to go back to our old system which will increase man hours, wear and tear on machinery and fuel costs which is nonsense and a backward step from our point of view.
“Throughout the year we conserve the grassland by grazing sheep on it. Depending on the year they may be our own sheep or other farmers’ sheep. A commercial game shoot is also run on farm during the summer months, something which Paul has previous experience in along with rearing pheasants on grass too.
“When I gave up the shoot, I carried on with the game farm and have increased that because I enjoy working with gamekeepers and shoot owners. We have customers which buy as few as 20 birds, while others buy as many as 5,000,” he adds.
Turning to the farm’s conservation work, Paul’s attention falls on the hedges.
“We have always let our hedges grow quite big. Over the years I have gapped them up with native species of hedging plant.
“I joined a Natural England Farm Stewardship scheme in the 1990s and that enabled me to establish three-metre margins of grass. Within five years I had upped those 3m margins to 6m round every field and 12m in some cases against woods.
“After that I started incorporating some wild flowers in these margins. Before then, as a young chap, I was as guilty as anyone, ploughing furrows as close to the hedges as I could.”
Shortly after, Paul pursued his interest in bees and introduced some hives on-farm and teamed up with a local beekeeper.
“I have always thought I would like to have some beehives on the farm as they are a good management tool which makes you think about when you spray, how you spray and what you use. This is essential to ensure you don’t kill the bees or any other advantageous species.
“I have no bee hives myself but a local member of Shropshire Beekeepers Society has been bringing his hives on to the farm since we have been growing oilseed rape here. We have definitely found over the years that yields have increased since having pollinators.
“Once we started keeping these margins our barn owls started to come back. Before that I don’t think we saw one for 10 years. I started putting up barn owl nest boxes along with others so I now have about 90 around the farm. We have had at least three barn owl boxes used every year since and this year 11 young owls have been ringed and monitored by the North Shropshire Barn Owl Group.”
This year has also been a bumper year for voles which the barn owls rely on for their main diet.
“It is amazing how the owls seem to know it is going to be a good year and they lay more eggs, well before the big numbers of voles are out.
“For many generations the RSPB and farmers tended to work in isolation of each other. But a few years ago a farmer-RSPB alliance scheme was formed, which I joined, to identify what species of birds are present in different areas.
The future of the farm lies with Paul’s sons, 24-year-old Justin and 22-year-old Rory who hope to take over the tenancy. They are keen to expand the pig unit, including bringing in pigs as weaners rather than stores.
Their elder brother, Oliver, works for a local brewery while their sister, Georgina, is engaged to a dairy farmer. Paul’s wife, Elaine, has her own full-time employment and helps on the farm from time to time when needed.
Paul says: “Basically we must keep managing for change as what is working well now may not work well next year or the year after. We are always looking for new crops and innovations while still looking after the environment.”