The first national conference on farmer cluster groups with Natural England and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust was a ‘swell’ event.
The room was awash with the exchange of ideas, chests swelling with pride as farmers restored stone curlews to farmland, yellowhammers to hedgerows, brown trout to brooks, pollinators to headlands while getting together over beers in their local pubs to talk habitat for wildlife.
The applause was noticeably louder for those farmers, land managers, facilitators who had picked up the baton and run with it for wildlife. Nope, not just quarry species, but species that they wanted on their land – many of which also happen to be of biodiversity concern.
Sir John, who triggered the idea of landscape scale conservation (Making Space for Nature), wrote on a slide that he found ‘the Farmer Clusters initiative so brilliant’ for moving in the right direction towards land sharing for people and nature.
Farmer clusters represent a tipping point towards the positive – ‘a consortium of the willing putting back more nature than is being taken out’.
Rob Shepherd (Hants farmer) told us about land managers taking back ‘ownership of conservation’s destiny’ during his deadpan delivery of ‘don’t mention buzzards and badgers’ when getting farmers around the table to identify insects and put £1 for every hectare they own in the #farmercluster kitty.
Humour within honesty abounded in refreshing doses which helped us to learn what went wrong, as much as what went right. No one knew who their Natural England adviser was, where to find the nearest cluster (on a website soon) and Heidi Smith, FWAG facilitator, told us that farmers will only hear it from other farmers.
That’s if they actually talk to each other as Andrew Paul reported from Suffolk – some shaking hands for the first time over a meeting convened under the eye of respected ‘farmer’ chair, in a safe space – warmed either by an Aga or a room serviced by a publican.
And we weren’t all just clustering around safe, easy to access lowlands within range of a Breeding Bird Survey recorder. Huge tranches of temperamentally temperate soggy uplands in Nidderdale were receiving attention from groups of land managers (a term I prefer, as it includes those managing woodland and un-farmed areas), bringing gamekeepers in from the cold of culling crows to the warm fold of counting linnets.
‘Farmers have had enough of being told what not to do‘ Tara Challoner, a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust facilitator, told us bluntly. Farmer clusters are a way of bringing joy back into conservation by choosing and listening to experts, forging ideas together and producing data for an ogre holding the purse strings to Defra – the Treasury.
Of course some of the mainstream media there wanted titillating stuff on badgers to pique their readers’ interest but this day, this idea was all about land managers, as well as people managers, all sharing experiences, airing concerns, and working quietly on an adventurous new way forward for wildlife conservation.