by Dave Webster, Chief Executive of Natural England (taken from the GWCT members' magazine Gamewise, summer 2014)
Successful conservation relies on strong partnerships and sound science. Throughout my tenure as chief executive of Natural England, the GWCT has been a shining example of both. Conservation across large areas of the English countryside poses many challenges, not least how best to help farmers and land managers to act in the best interests of the natural environment, while running a profitable farm or other businesses. GWCT’s contribution to meeting these challenges is huge. For example, research undertaken at the Allerton Project Farm, which I recently visited, showed how winter feeding can improve farmland bird numbers. And last winter’s Big Farmland Bird Count helped showcase the work farmers do and brought the issue into the public eye.
I saw real innovation when I visited the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area. I was impressed by how the Trust has helped forge a new and ever strengthening bond between the farmers and the local authority, Wiltshire Council. It’s a new bottom-up approach to conservation that is already delivering real benefits to wildlife and people in and around the Marlborough Downs.
The work that the GWCT is leading on ‘cluster farms’ takes this approach forward. Again, the Trust is bringing people together to help deliver biodiversity and wider environmental improvements across the farmed landscape. All the feedback I’ve had suggests that there is real enthusiasm for this approach among landowners, and this is great news: conservation should be a source of pride not a burden, and we will achieve so much more when all sectors work together.
The local approach to farm clusters mirrors the approach we are taking at Natural England. Changes we’ve made recently to devolve power and decision making to our 14 new Area Teams will, I hope, support this approach, and enable our local advisors to work more closely with local communities and interests to get the best results for the local patch.
This exciting ‘farm cluster’ model is also helping to shape the design of the new Rural Development Programme. Innovations like ‘option bundles’ for certain groups of species like wild pollinators and farmland birds could make a real difference in the farmed environment. As well as benefiting wildlife, there is also potential for this work to reduce diffuse pollution and improve water quality. This integrated approach to the environment is exactly what is needed now.
We may not always agree on every issue, and nor should we, but the pragmatic approach the GWCT takes, aligned with its expertise and dedication to wildlife conservation, show how farming, shooting and nature can work in harmony.