If you watched Country File on the TV recently (Sunday May 9th) you may have taken note of this item, if only because it related to somewhere local – our own AONB, Cranborne Chase, which lies principally in the south-west of Hampshire and Wiltshire. The initiative itself is orchestrated by the Game and Conservation Trust in Fordingbridge and it is helping groups of farmers to liaise and work together (to cluster) to enhance the habitats and environment of the wildlife and nature in their areas. There are, I believe, farmers’ clusters being established in many other parts of the country, too. The success of the cluster seems to stem from two main features:-
1) It is ‘farmer led’ – this gives the scheme the enthusiasm and energy of the local landowners and occupiers who consequently thrive on the project. Knowing their own land better than anyone, the owner/farmer can implement the schemes that best suits the area they are in and encourage the species of fauna and flora that are most likely to flourish.
2) The wildlife benefits from the natural, continuous and evenly spread nature of the scheme. Such conservation initiatives are not inhibited or discouraged by ‘man made’ ownership boundaries. All the properties involved link and co-operate together.
This is not to imply that government or other organisations’ schemes are not worthwhile and successful. Everyone who supports the concept of conservation must be grateful for the support offered. But the ‘hands on’ aspect of the cluster groups seems to me to give their scheme such different and positive dynamics.
The longer-term funding of the ‘cluster’ type of initiative remains uncertain as is the prospect of such groups being established more widely, but I believe the majority of farmers and country people are – and have always been – ‘pro’ the environment. Most of them are not entering into this initiative because of the grant that they might be paid; they are doing it for their love and appreciation of the countryside. As well as earning their living, raising their families and working in their communities, most country folk voluntarily accept their ‘stewardship’ role, and aspire to leave their ‘corner’ in an improved condition for the generations to come. No public funds can create this inner belief that most farmers and their families naturally have.
In any case, subsidies tend to come with strings attached – understandably so if it is public money – and those conditions do not always suit the local district or property where the money is to be spent. What suits one part of the country may not suit another. There simply isn’t the flexibility and freedom of choice in a state-sponsored system that a conservation-minded landowner may be seeking. It will therefore be interesting to see how these clusters evolve, with or alongside any government initiative.
It will also be interesting to see if cooperating through clusters takes hold for the long term. Nature needs the long term. This initiative will not succeed if it is subjected to budgets or the vacillations of ‘expert’ opinion or popular causes. Let’s hope they will continue to be a success and add to this generation’s contribution to protecting and enhancing our rural landscapes and the wildlife that depends on them.
It is reassuring to notice that even with this extra focus on ‘nature’, British farmers still intend and plan food production from their farms. Their businesses need to remain profitable, and the demand for food is not diminished. Practices will continue to evolve in this respect too as they have over the centuries, but there is added energy to make farms more fertile and therefore no less productive, whilst still enhancing the landscape and the environment.