Ploughing his own furrow for nature recovery

James Wilson is a third generation farmer at Waren Farm, Ingodlisthorpe. His grandfather bought the farm for the princely sum of £8 an acre, buying an initial 500 acres. James has since bought parcels of land – at a slightly higher price – so that the entire farm now comprises 700 acres.

‘The reality is, in many ways, I am doing exactly the same cropping as my father did. We grow predominantly malting barley because that is the crop that does so well on our chalky soils. We also grow wheat and sugar beet. The only really change between now and when I took over the farm 30 years ago is that we used to grow peas but we have dropped those and instead I rent land out to grow potatoes.

In terms of yield, James says, the cereals still produce the same yield per acre as they have done for the past three decades. The difference lies within his sugar beet crops which have seen yields improve by up to 50 per cent. This he attributes to better seeds and effective use of fungicides.

 When it comes to farming practices, not a lot has changed there either, although James is keen to point out that he never says never when it comes to challenging the status quo.

 ‘I still plough. That doesn’t mean I am not interested in min till or regenerative farming, it is simply that I have the equipment to plough and I think it is a failsafe way to maximise a crop. So I still plough, roll, fertilise and spray much as we have done for thirty years.’ 

James spent nearly 20 years in the army before returning to the family farm. The life experiences gained away from the farm have undoubtedly contributed towards his ability to see things from many perspectives. His decision – taken well in advance of many other farmers and landowners – to move his farm into Higher Level Stewardship schemes underpin his ability to see things from another angle.

While cropping on the farm hasn’t changed over James’ time in charge, the focus on biodiversity and creating natural environments certainly has.

‘There were no agri-environmental schemes 30 years ago,’ he says , ‘but I enjoy the conservation side of farming and I like seeing the wildlife so I joined the earliest Countryside Stewardship scheme and then 14 years ago I upgraded to the Higher Level Stewardship agreement. I’m now looking to go into a Higher Tier agreement, starting in 14 months time. 

Over time, Waren Farm and its insects, birds and mammals have enjoyed an increasing number of trees, hedgerows, pollen and nectar wildflower areas, plus a bird reserve and a flooded meadow. By moving his farm into Higher Tier conservation, James has taken his farm to a level of biodiversity enhancement that many other farmers and landowners are unwilling or unable to achieve.

James says the initial agri-environment and woodland schemes were the vehicles that enabled him to do these things. Most recently he received financial aid to instal a wind pump which has been critical to successfully flood the fields that are now home to a multitude of species.  

‘We might have done some of those things without the government schemes and grant schemes, but the reality is that to take the land out of production without funding of some sort would have been impossible.’

 Talking about the flooded grassland in more detail, James explains that the fields are close to The Wash, which is home to millions of wading birds. Until a hundred years ago, the fields would have been grazing marshes but during the two world wars farms were pressured to bring such land into agricultural cropping. Creaks and channels were filled in and the land was drained. However, the quality of the land was poor and often prone to flooding so it was an easy decision to take that particular parcel of land out of production and hand it over to nature.

The results of James’ conservation work are easy to see all over the farm. The bird reserve attracts, amongst others, Avocets, Red Shank and Plover. There are orchids growing, grass snakes live in areas that would previously have been hostile.

Reading this, it is easy to classify James Wilson as a conservation zealot. In fact that is far from the whole picture. A pragmatist through and through, he points out that a growing population needs to be fed and putting too much land down to conservation will be a threat to national food security.

‘The cost of food is increasing. Every year we are chopping down Brazilian and Malaysian forests for global food production. We have to make sure we are not exporting our food production industry to other countries. There has to be a balance.’ 

With the farm hitting both its targets: high quality food production and nature enhancement and recovery, there is every sign that James has found a very successful formula for nature friendly farming. And, as nature thrives across his land, it is with the merest hint of pride that this unassuming farmer says: ’You can’t put a value on this. Not a financial value anyway. The value to me is the enhancement of the wildlife on the farm.’