Friday, 20 March 2015

Working together for nature conservation

Picture by David Mason
Encouraging Farmer Clusters in Scotland could deliver huge benefits for biodiversity. GWCT Scotland Director Adam Smith (@ScotGrouse) explains more about a project due to start soon.

We all know that with skill a little can go a long way, but what if that little were organised in such a way to be greater than the sum of its parts?

This is essentially the goal of collaborative conservation farming; near neighbours working with each other to deliver effective conservation and cropping at scales large enough to be really meaningful. In England our ‘Farmer Cluster’ approach has been a real success story, garnering support from Natural England, but most importantly being led by farmers.

At its core this is a bottomup approach, stimulating clusters of farmers to choose for themselves how and where to manage for wildlife, with the experts on hand to provide advice when wanted.

In Scotland the benefits of collaborative or ‘landscape-scale’ conservation have been recognised and even desired by the Government, and there has been some good work done by bodies such as the
Tweed Forum. But for groups of tenant farmers on a large number of adjacent land holdings, discovering and co-ordinating farmland conservation for themselves is still relatively new.

Understanding what is needed to help these busy folk to achieve great things for wildlife is ever more important as money in the agri-environment pot declines.

Last year we were delighted when The MacRobert Trust suggested that it might help us explore the challenges behind farmer-led conservation on its Deeside Estate. This 2,000 hectares of let farmland
sits in the Howe of Cromar, a bowl-shaped geographical feature on the eastern side of the Cairngorms.

The land and farming are mixed arable, grass and wooded farmland; typical of the type of farmland and farming on about a third of Scotland’s land area. Landscape-scale conservation is really the
only way to manage for clean water and the farmers in this area already have experience of this kind of work, having established riparian buffers to protect streams that feed into pearl mussel rivers.

We hope that lapwing, black grouse, brown hare and red squirrels might come to benefit in the future,
and find a way to tackle the 20-year gap in grey partridge sightings. The project is an exciting opportunity, bringing together local tenant farmers’ knowledge with the Trust’s monitoring capability and our farm conservation advice.

We aim to:
  • Review the estate’s wildlife to provide a reference baseline.
  • Assess the interest in and restrictions on the estate’s tenants bringing together an integrated plan to enhance environmental measures.
  • Facilitate a best practice cluster.
  • Consider the most effective delivery of greening
Much of this first year will be information gathering, speaking to the farmers and surveying. We propose to make use of our GIS department in addition to gathering and accessing various data from bodies that hold environmental information on the Howe of Cromar. Maps are an essential part of facilitating such farmer-led projects – a picture is worth a thousand words.

This is a significant opportunity for local farmers to demonstrate that by working together, and with the facility of advice, they deliver many goods, such as food and biodiversity. Given the land tenure, landscape and climate, this project has the potential to demonstrate good practice to a wide range of
other land managers who influence and shape our agricultural policy.

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