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The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project was established in 1992 at the bequest of the late Lord and Lady Allerton.  Based on an 8oo acre mixed farming estate in the East Midlands the Project has sought to reconcile the management of game and wildlife, soil and water protection with profitable agricultural production

Almost twenty years later the objectives of this research could not be more relevant with experts warning of the challenges mankind faces with expanding population, climate change and the depletion of fossil fuel reserves.  The substantial increase in crop production in the UK between 1950 and 1990 is testament to man’s ability to use natural resources and scientific expertise for all our benefit.

However, while the ability to use less land to produce more food is the best way to protect the worlds remaining natural habitats, those species associated with a less intensive agriculture suffered badly.  Species which had become adapted to extensive mixed farming systems were pushed out by this specialisation and intensification.  Increasingly we are becoming aware of the food chain and habitat links between ourselves and the multiplicity of other organisms which share this planet.  Some exert a direct and obvious beneficial impact upon us, for example the pollinating insects which fertilise our crops whilst others may provide a more subtle benefit such as the soil micro-organisms which recycle nutrients to help feed our crops.

It is essential that the intensive management of our agricultural landscape requires us to develop a greater understanding of the interactions which are taking place.  Without this understanding our ability to manage the negative impacts is impaired.  

The first ten years of the GWCT’s  Allerton Project were characterised by the testing of the most intensive agricultural and environmental system known; that of high intensity arable crop production alongside wild game bird management.  The former is highly mechanised, energy intensive and relies on the frequent use of fertilisers and pesticides.  The latter is labour intensive with the creation and management of a range of year-round wildlife habitat, provision of supplementary feed and the targeted control of antagonists, such as pests, diseases and weeds.

During this period wheat, which makes up the cropping on around 50% of the land, yielded above the national average whilst the dramatic rise of a number of indicator species was remarkable.  The abundance index for brown hares, a Biodiversity Action Plan Species, rocketed from around ten pairs to over two hundred.  Song thrush breeding territories increased from 14 to 64, wren numbers tripled, white throats doubled.  Of the sixty odd bird species recorded on the farm fifty either maintained or increased their populations.  Meanwhile nationally the Farmland Bird Index remains stubbornly unresponsive.

New hope emerged with the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy during the last decade.  Set aside was introduced as a production control measure, but also delivered some environmental benefit whilst payments were moved from production subsidies into support for rural development.  The Commission on the future of food and farming (the so called ‘Curry Report’, after its chairman) advocated the establishment of a ‘broad and shallow’ environmental stewardship scheme and in England much of the rural development support was directed towards environmental stewardship.  Farmers can choose from around seventy options for which they earn points to accrue towards a payment of £30 p/ha.  Farmers have enthusiastically embraced the scheme with around 70% of land reportedly now in stewardship.  Yet six years from its launch we see no reversal in the fortunes of farmland bird populations, and certainly nothing which reflects the success of the GWCT’s Allerton Project farm.   Farmers are selecting the options which they find least demanding and a lack of guidance and good advice on which options complement each other in terms of wildlife recovery means that the scheme outputs are below what could be achievable. Certain options which could deliver substantial benefit, such as supplementary feeding during “the hungry gap”, and part of the successful regime at the GWCT’s Allerton Project, are missing from the scheme. If we are serious about taking care of our wildlife then we need to up our game.

 



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Written by Alistair Leake   
Friday, 09 September 2011 09:38
Last Updated on Friday, 09 September 2011 10:01
 

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