How the NSR-PARTRIDGE project at Rotherfield helps to influence the influencers - Harold Makant, lead advisor at Natural England explains
There is a distinct benefit from sitting on the Steering Committee for the PARTRIDGE project, and also being the Natural England (NE) adviser with oversight of the stewardship agreement for the Rotherfield Estate, directing land management delivery across the counties of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and feeding into national scheme development. In that, NE can use the estate as a fantastic training resource for our land management advisors and as a proving ground for option management.
A key thread of the PARTRIDGE Project is to influence the influencers. NE staff are in a key position to be able to influence the management of arable land when farmers apply for Stewardship grants. Just in the counties of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, known as Area 13, we have somewhere in the region of 1,000 agri- environment schemes, ranging from a few hectares through to 1500ha arable farms. Habitats covered include; heathland, inter-tidal mudflats, chalk grassland, wood pasture and arable land. We talk to farmers on a daily basis, we value the close working relationship with them and they can draw on our knowledge and experience.
We are always looking to improve the management of the infield arable plots to make them more effective, and to be able to deliver benefits for a wider range of farmland wildlife for a more sustained period. If I look back 15 years ago to the way that we implemented the first generation of plots, how they were managed and the scale of our ambition, to what we do now, I can see that things are certainly better -but that there is still room for improvement and to be able to visit an Interreg Demonstration Farm is a much-valued resource.
So, I arranged a farm walk for my colleagues in late November, the idea was to see the plots at the peak of their production and to compare the way that the plots look at this time of year, with the plots earlier in the summer when we had another farm walk. Needless to say that the effects of the summer drought were seen in some of the plots, but because of their diverse composition nature they were producing huge amounts of food and providing habitat for a range of farmland birds.
The plots as they are constituted do not conform to the prescription as set out in the current Natural England management guidelines for wildbird seed plots, but as the schemes are evolving into being more outcome focused, the inflexible following of prescriptions will change. The experience of the mixes at Rotherfield is already being taken on board by Defra who is developing the future Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), that will come out sometime in 2021-2024 depending on how Brexit goes. Being able to give land management advisers the confidence to discuss alternatives with farmers is to be encouraged, and having access to Francis and his years of experience and knowledge is a valuable resource that we should build on. Seeing the plots at Rotherfield, in their various stages and being able to visit them during the growing season, is a great training opportunity.
A few days after the farm walk one of my colleagues visited a farm and, while discussing plot management, introduced some of the new thinking and different approaches to management that we had talked about. The farmer took it all on board, was impressed with what my colleague had to say and is keen to make alterations for next season. Result!
Written by Harold Makant