Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Farmer Cluster Conference.
Held at the Birmingham and Midland Institute on 1st November, the event was hosted by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), with support from Natural England. This year's event was the second of its kind and served as a way to bring together those who have organised or work with so called 'Farmer Clusters', highlighting examples of current work, best practice and identifying opportunities for the future.
What is a Farmer Cluster?
The Farmer Cluster concept stems from Sir John Lawton's 2010 Making Space for Nature Report, where he neatly pushed the need for conservation to be bigger, better and more joined up. Rather than working individually, 'clusters' encourage collaboration from groups of farmers, therefore helping to achieve shared goals around supporting local wildlife and the environment on a landscape scale. The GWCT describes clusters as allowing farmers to, "appoint a lead farmer, choose their own advisor, set their own targets and record their own progress". Quite often, this joined-up approach helps farmers to meet certain conservation requirements that are part of existing agri-environment schemes.
Originally, the idea came about as a way to help protect vulnerable farmland birds but it has since gone on to include the conservation of more farmland wildlife such as brown hare and arable plants, as well as resource protection and responsible soil management. Participating farmers can decide what their personal focus is and set goals to help them meet their own conservation targets.
It was a full house at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, proving just how topical the subject of landscape-scale conservation is for the agricultural industry. In particular, the event was an opportunity to look at the progress of 'facilitation groups' so far (funded groups under Countryside Stewardship to promote landscape scale conservation), with both Natural England and Defra seeing the Farmer Cluster concept as a vision for the future. Conservation activity post-Brexit will likely require a lot of collaboration between farmers, meaning this approach is likely to be an integral method of conservation delivery.
To start the day, we heard talks from the GWCT and Defra centred on nature recovery and the 25 Year Environment Plan. Of particular interest was the launch of the official Farmer Clusters website – a new and very valuable tool for both farmers and organisations (including us!) alike. The idea is that the website can be used to share best practice as well as provide opportunities for more farmers to sign-up and more organisations to become partners.
After this, the focus turned to the monitoring work of the Farmer Clusters. The work around butterfly conservation was extremely interesting, as was the GWCT's Big Farmland Bird Count initiative – something which Kings strongly supports and works closely with the GWCT to promote.
As the day progressed, the afternoon gave farmers an opportunity to learn from others as 'example Farmer Clusters' were put under the spotlight to showcase some of the amazing work they had done. This element of the Farmer Cluster network is probably one of the most important. The ability to share ideas and experiences is clearly very important to those involved, with many of the farmers amongst me commenting that seeing the achievements of their peers motivated them to get involved and spurred them on to do even more. It really was uplifting to see such genuine pride in our wildlife and the wider environment, with so many farmers taking on proactive roles to help safeguard our countryside for future generations.
Finally, Sir Jim Paice, chairman of the GWCT delivered a very vibrant and poignant closing speech about the amazing work already being undertaken and where this has the potential to take us in the future.
With a bigger focus on the environment forming a significant part of post-Brexit agricultural policy, it's great to see farmers embracing these objectives and working together for the greater good. Some of the case studies brought to the fore were amazing examples of work and, if anything, really acknowledged our farmers as the custodians of the countryside. The commitment and drive shown was nothing short of inspirational and at Kings, we're really proud to be able to work so closely with so many Farmer Clusters across England.
If you're interested in joining a Farmer Cluster, you can visit the GWCT Farmer Cluster website to find out how it works. If you're already part of a Cluster but would like information on how Kings could support you with advice and guidance, please get in touch.
Kings are also delivering several events to support the Big farmland Bird Count and these will be listed on our website as dates and venues are firmed up.
Hopefully we'll see many more of you at the next conference!