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Elizabeth Ranelagh, Farm Conservation Adviser
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Farming for wildlife: Nicholas Buxton

Nicholas Buxton has introduced measures to protect wildlife on his farmNicholas Buxton on his farm

Nicholas Buxton farms the Easneye Estate, which lies alongside the Wildlife Trust’s Amwell Nature Reserve. He has an impressive track record for wildlife conservation.

The Easneye Estate won the Cambs and Herts FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) Farm Conservation competition in 2012, and it’s not hard to see why.

Links across the landscape

The estate is a mixed landscape, with areas of steeper ground that were once dairy pastures, arable land with hedgerows and spinneys, blocks of ancient woodland and the River Ash running through. The key, Nicholas explains, is to try to link areas together – connecting bits of woodland with hedgerows, hedgerows with field margins and field margins with grass margins that run down towards the river.

River restoration

Previously sluggish and damaged by dredging in the 1970s, work has been done to the River Ash to improve the flow with the help of nifty in-channel deflectors and channel narrowing. The non-native signal crayfish has so far not invaded the upper reaches of the river, and native populations of trout and grayling are growing. Sightings of cormorants have increased, indicating there is plenty for them to feed on.

Over 5,750 metres of grass buffer strips now run alongside the river, which, as well as providing habitat for bankside wildlife such as water voles, will prevent arable run off and flooding. It’s likely that the work along the river to control mink has resulted in the return of the water vole to Widford dairy pastures nearby.

Hedges, trees and margins

Hedgerows and trees are very important for wildlife. So far at Easneye over five kilometres of hedgerow coppicing and gap-filling has been achieved, with more than one kilometre of new hedgerow planted through Entry/Higher Level Stewardship. These are grant schemes open to all farmers to help with environmental management. In addition hundreds of hedgerow trees have been planted. Nicholas is confident about the work carried out so far: “The tree planting and hedgerow work is already yielding benefits, but over the years ahead it should be a real improvement.”

For farmland birds, Nicholas points out the importance of providing field margins, so that hedges don’t just lead straight into the arable crop: “You want to have that brood cover, with plenty of insects, through the spring, which is a very important time for chicks.” Grey partridges and lapwings breed on the farm. Seed mixes are planted to provide for birds and nectar/pollen mixes for insects, which are so important for pollinating crops.

Woodland management

Hazel and hornbeam coppicing work started last year, as part of an ongoing programme with the help of the English Woodland Grant Scheme. Thinning allows light to reach the woodland floor, encouraging wildflowers to emerge and
associated wildlife to thrive. The wood that’s removed is sold on as firewood, or used to fuel a woodchip boiler on the estate, making it not only a good solution for wildlife but for the farm’s economy too. The drought has made tree and hedgerow planting difficult over the last two years, but Nicholas is hopeful that the 360 oak trees just planted in hedgerows will take well – and looks forward to them flourishing in the future: “In twenty years I hope to be able to look back on this year as a good thing.”

Sensitive, sensible management

As Nicholas says, estates like Easneye need to be managed. After a number of lean years in farming, there is now the opportunity to put them back in good heart. Active management is as important here on the farm as it is on the Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves. Man has been shaping the landscape for thousands of years; there’s no reason why we shouldn’t continue to do this but in a sensitive way, not only for our own benefit but for the protection of our natural environment and its wildlife too.