Jemma Batten describes what happened when a group of farmers began to work co-operatively to make space for nature on 25,000 acres of land on the Marlborough Downs.
Following the 2010 publication of Professor Sir John Lawton’s report ‘Making Space for Nature’, the Marlborough Downs farmers were horrified to learn that across England, countless native wildlife species were in decline or, at best, just about holding their own. To add insult to injury, this was the case despite a long history of farmland conservation supported by Government Stewardship schemes, in which many of the group had participated for years.
Consequently, when Defra launched a competition inviting partnerships to submit proposals for new ways of working for wildlife, the farmers asked me to put together a business plan and apply on their behalf. We wanted to show how a farmer-led, bottom-up approach could result in real gains for the habitats and species found on the Downs.
Happily, of 76 initial applications submitted, ours was one of only 12 which were successful, and in April 2012, the Marlborough Downs became a new Nature Improvement Area (NIA). At the heart of the Downs lies an expansive landscape of open rolling downland, defined by the crest of a chalk scarp along which runs part of the Ridgeway National Trail. A predominantly arable landscape, remnants of chalk grassland cling to steeper slopes and on protected sites. The Downs are sparsely populated with no significant watercourses. However, what we lack in people we make up for in wildlife including farmland birds and many species associated with chalk grassland.
The concept of landscape-scale conservation has been around for decades but, as far as we know, had never before been applied in this context in the UK. Even within the NIA ‘family’, our farmer-led partnership was unique, and from the very beginning we rose to the pioneer challenge.
We were determined to show that by being allowed to make our own decisions about wildlife management on the Downs, together – whether as a landowner or tenant farmer – we could accomplish greater and more wide-reaching benefits than those who do not have the responsibility that comes with custodianship.
Three years on, we were able to demonstrate an impressive list of achievements including:
• Over 150 acres of chalk grassland habitat created / undergoing restoration
• Seven new sites identified as being of local importance for wildlife
• Over 600 acres of rough grassland managed for owls and raptors
• A necklace of 16 new or restored ponds across the Downs
• More widespread populations of tree sparrow, corn bunting and short-eared owl
• Improved public access on 47 miles of footpath and bridleway
• 8.5 miles of permissive access for disabled carriage drivers
• Over 4,300 people attended 42 talks, 25 farm walks, 2 Open Farm Sundays, 24 volunteer workdays, 13 best practice workshops, and 10 celebration events
• Collaboration with representatives of over 50 conservation and community organisations
Funding for NIAs came to an end in March 2015, but the partnership lives on thanks to the continued commitment of the farmers and their supporters, most notably the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Wiltshire Council. We did away with the old NIA geographical boundary in order to encompass new land and new members, and have evolved into the Marlborough Downs Nature Enhancement Partnership, working together to create Space for Nature on a landscape-scale.
For the past year we’ve kept things going on love and a shoestring, but recently we’ve been offered a grant through Defra’s new Countryside Stewardship Scheme to continue with some of our projects.
Space for Nature is owned by the farmers and their supporters. We have invested a lot into it and are therefore committed to the responsibility of ensuring that our achievements are sustainable. Wildlife conservation is not all about money and we have shown that it is undertaken far more enthusiastically by people who are genuinely motivated at a personal level, rather than merely incentivised by financial reward.
We have also discovered that by working together – with one another, with specialists and with local residents – we can create a vibrant community that is able to achieve so much more than we would alone. Furthermore, we’ve seen how what started out as a fairly straightforward wildlife project has grown into something that has social, health and economic benefits as well as bringing about better awareness, understanding and management of our local biodiversity.
For more information on the Marlborough Downs NIA and Space for Nature project see our YouTube channel, website www.mdnep.org.uk, and facebook page www.facebook.MarlboroughDowns, where you can also see details of upcoming events or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jemma Batten is a farm environment adviser who founded Black Sheep Countryside Management in 2002 after various jobs including wildlife film-making with the BBC and lecturing at land-based colleges. Black Sheep is a consultancy with a broad client base ranging from individual farmers to local and national wildlife organisations and government agencies. While we are committed to making farms better places for wildlife, we are aware that this needs to be achieved within the context of a working landscape, and have a reputation for our success in achieving this.
Photo credits: Chalk grassland (front page) © Nick Upton 2016 Tree sparrow © David White 2016