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Chilterns Farmer Cluster

What is a 'farmer cluster'?

A farmer cluster is when a group of farmers from a region form a group to discuss important issues and agree on cross-farm strategies and initiatives. Our farmer clusters were started to support and encourage farmers to get involved in conservation and to become more aware of the unique wildlife and habitats on their land. 

Our farmers meet regularly, and so far have worked with various delivery partners to undertake the following:

  • put up bird and owl boxes to support key species
  • have surveys done of their land, to tell them about which species are present (and therefore how to support them through farm management)
  • planting of hedgerows to support small mammals and birds
  • put out supplementary feed for wild birds through the winter (9 tonnes of bird food in total!)
  • dedicate over 2 km to field margins across the cluster (land to cultivate wildflowers and chalk grassland, to support pollinators and birds)

Why do we have farmer clusters in the Chilterns?

Conservation

Nature corridors

Sharing knowledge and expertise

Joint initiatives

Where are our farmers based?

The Christmas Common Farmer Cluster includes 16 farmers and covers over 5,000ha. 

The Central Chilterns Farmer Cluster includes 18 farmers and covers over 6,500ha.

What have the farmers been up to?

Central Chilterns

The Central Chilterns Farmer Cluster is a relatively young group made up of 18 farmers covering c. 6,500 hectares across the Buckinghamshire area of the Chilterns AONB. Since our first meeting 18 months ago we have focused on getting a better understanding of the birds using each of the farms and looking at the wider distribution of key farmland bird species (Yellowhammer, Linnet and Corn Bunting).
 
Being a keen birdwatcher myself I have been able to speak with other local birders and work through both the Bucks Bird Club and the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust to recruit 14 experienced volunteer surveyors. They each covered the 9 farms in 2019 and now 17 in 2020 as part of the of the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count; the first time any of our farms had taken part in the scheme.
 
This gave a snapshot of the birds wintering on each of the farms and led to a similar survey project in spring 2019 carrying out 2 visits on each farm in the breeding season. Running alongside this volunteers from the Bucks Owl and Raptor Group have been out across the cluster installing nest boxes and both the Hughenden and Bisham Ringing Groups have completed their first winter of a long term farmland bird ringing study on 4 of the farms.
 
In total 27 volunteers have worked with the farmers to deliver:
 
26 winter farm bird surveys as part of the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count
24 spring breeding season bird surveys
18 ringing sessions across 4 farms
42 new nest boxes for Barn Owl, Tawny Owl, Little Owl and Kestrel
 
Volunteer surveyors have recorded 86 species across the cluster. Species counts have topped 50 on 3 farms with some standout highlights. Yellowhammer counts of over 40 were recorded on 6 farms (one had 85!) and Corn Bunting were recorded on 4 farms, revealing the area to hold one of the strongest populations in the county. We also had some great individual records; the standout one being a passage Stone Curlew but supported by records of Short-eared Owl, Snipe, Peregrine, Raven, Yellow Wagtail, Stonechat, Linnet, Marsh Tit and Barn Owl.
 
The Hughenden Ringing Group caught and fitted rings to 339 birds including 93 Yellowhammer and 19 Corn Bunting showing the importance of the area for farmland birds so much so that BTO have recently approved a new Corn Bunting colour ringing project. BORG have managed to carry out site surveys and, despite being hampered by the weather, have installed 42 new nest boxes on 12 farms across the cluster (including 14 Barn Owl boxes). Ordinarily they would now be monitoring the boxes and ringing chicks and we hope that some of this might still be possible later in the summer of Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
 
This work has given a real sense of energy to the cluster and a healthy sense of competition between farmers to get higher bird counts or to find rarer species with some great photos, conversations and banter on our WhatsApp group! Our farmers have been really keen to take time out to welcome the volunteers and join in with the the surveys, have a go at ringing and help put up the Owl boxes. They have said how much they have enjoyed learning from the volunteer’s skills and experience and our volunteers have really valued the chance to explore new areas and find some great birds.
 
This work has led to some exiting practical conservation work and is making a difference. All 18 farmers have completed the first winter of a supplementary feeding project. We bought 9.5 tonnes of seed that has all been eaten by farmland birds across the cluster this winter with the significant Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting counts recorded by volunteers at feeding sites. My role has simply been to put the farmers and volunteers and share in the exciting results that have been recorded. It has been great to celebrate success, and fuel the competitiveness between our farmers, with a few bottles of wine and boxes of chocolates; who wouldn’t want to host the most species or the rarest winter visitor on their farm?
 
Plans are in place to build on this engagement and launch a major new bird, butterfly and plant survey next spring across 50 1km squares (more on this in a later post hopefully). Suffice to say that the farmers have happily given permission for volunteers to access their land for their surveys.
 
-Nick Marriner, Landowner Engagement Officer (Chilterns Conservation Board)

 

Christmas Common 

Christmas Common Farmers is another exciting example of farmers working together to help wildlife at the landscape scale. Farmer Clusters, as these groups are often known, have been springing up all over the country and Christmas Common Farmers is one of the latest groups to receive funding through Defra’s Facilitation Fund. The 3 year  funding doesn’t provide a direct financial benefit to the farmers themselves, but helps pay for the advice and training the farmers need to make changes that improve their farms for wildlife, promote healthy soils and clean water and generally benefit the people that live in or visit the area. 

The name Christmas Common was chosen by the farmers to reflect the area where it all started, led by local farmers Andrew Ingram and Will Carr with the help of Natural England and the Chilterns Conservation Board. In common with other Farmer Clusters, the group appointed an advisor, or Facilitator, to work with them and help make things happen. They asked Alison Cross from the Wildlife Trust to act as their Facilitator. Alison has experience of working with other such groups in Hampshire. 

Full of enthusiasm, the group, now with 18 members, had its official launch earlier in 2020. Like so many things the pandemic has not made things easy and some plans have had to be postponed. 

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For many people, the events of the last year have resulted in a new or renewed interest in their garden wildlife, and no doubt many reading this will be putting out bird food as winter approaches.Like our gardens, farmland is an extremely important habitat for birds, with no fewer than 19 different species considered farmland specialists. This winter, Christmas Common Farmers, with support from Natural England, are rising to the challenge and will be putting out bird seed from December to April. Many of the farmers already grow winter  bird food  in patches  across their farms, but these  areas often run out of seed by January, and birds and small mammals are left to fend for themselves through what is known as the ‘hungry gap’. Christmas Common farmers hope that by carrying out supplementary bird feeding during this time they will see the birds through winter and into the next breeding season.

Christmas Common Farmers are keen to do more with their local communities; here is a short video of Simon Beddows talking to his local primary school about his farm and the wildlife there.

If you would like to find out more or to see how you might be able to get involved please do contact Alison on 07917 616693  or email alison.cross@hiwwt.org.uk

Want to learn more?

Re-watch our Open Farm Sunday videos from Daniel, Wendy, David, Richard and the Lacey's on our Youtube Channel.

Find out more about farmer clusters across the country here.

Looking to get your children interested in farming and agriculture? LEAF have plenty of online resources.

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