Nature-friendly farming delivers for wildlife, climate and profits, charity says

Nature-friendly farming can deliver for wildlife, carbon storage and profits, the National Trust has said after an audit of a farm run by the conservation charity.

Wimpole Home Farm is a 1,419-acre mixed arable and livestock farm near Cambridge, which has been run using organic, wildlife friendly and sustainable farming methods for the past 12 years, the Trust said.

A full “health check” of Wimpole’s wildlife and how it is storing carbon has revealed benefits for the environment, as well as public access through a network of footpaths and financial returns from growing food, the charity said.

The findings are published as the Agriculture bill setting out the UK’s post-Brexit farming policy, with a focus on paying farmers to deliver “public goods” such as boosting wildlife and preventing flooding, is set to be debated in the Lords.

Skylarks have been in decline in the UK, but numbers have risen at Wimpole in recent years (Nick Upton/National Trust/PA)
Skylarks have been in decline in the UK, but numbers have risen at Wimpole in recent years (Nick Upton/National Trust/PA)

But conservationists warn progress at home towards more environmentally-friendly farming must not be undermined by trade deals that allow imports of food that does not meet UK environmental and welfare standards.

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Wimpole Home Farm is managed using organic farming and other measures to boost wildlife and store carbon including planting hedgerows, creating flower-rich field margins, planting cover crops and reducing cultivation.

The National Trust has also planted 1,000 parkland trees and brought in rare breed livestock to graze flower-rich meadows, and the land has 25 miles of footpaths providing public access to the countryside.

Surveys of Wimpole have revealed that numbers of rare skylarks, in decline in the wider countryside, have nearly doubled since 2013, from 12 to 21 pairs, while the number of linnets has increased from three to seven pairs.

Wimpole is also an important site for corn buntings in Cambridgeshire, with between five and eight pairs breeding each year, and the farm provides winter feeding habitat for other threatened birds, including grey partridges, lapwings and hen harriers.

Bumblebee on red clover
The number of invertebrate species has been boosted by nature friendly farming (John Miller/National Trust/PA)

A total of 1,145 invertebrates such as bees, ants and butterflies were found in a survey  – a 38% boost in the number of species since 2003 – which are vital for pollinating crops and preying on pests – the Trust said.

They included 95 rare species such as the large garden bumblebee and the cinnabar moth.

The team at Wimpole also conducted a carbon audit of the farm, which found measures to manage the soil, alongside tree planting and managing woods and hedges, helped the landscape soak up 2,260 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

While the Trust acknowledges the livestock emit greenhouse gas emissions, Callum Weir, farm manager at Wimpole, said animals were the “perfect tool” to manage Grade I listed parkland and traditional hay meadows.

If that land were ploughed up for arable farming, it would release large amounts of carbon, he said, adding: “If meat is produced in the right way and consumed in the right amounts, it can be sustainable.”

Field margins planted with phacelia which attracts pollinating insects (Phil Morley)
Field margins planted with phacelia which attracts pollinating insects (Phil Morley)

The Trust said production levels on the arable farm were “impressive” for an organic system, and the farm saw income of £294,617, with £117,588 profit, in 2019 including its subsidy payments.

Weir said: “We want to farm sustainably at the same time as being a truly viable business and it’s fantastic to see how nature friendly farming and a profitable farm business can go hand in hand.”

Much of the boost to wildlife was down to the combination of organic farming and the field margins, hedges and habitat around each field, Weir said, though he added that organic farming was not the only way to farm with nature.

Wimpole is the only lowland farm run in-hand by the conservation charity, and is being managed in line with its focus on farming models which are good for nature, deliver public benefits and make a profit.

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