Michael is pioneering the way to safeguard wildlife in the Fens through region’s biggest conservation project

Cambs farmland wildlife project flourishes with CLA member's help.Left: Simon Tonkin and Michael Sly with the Nature of Farming Award Michael won in 2013; Cambs farmland wildlife project flourishes with CLA member's help.Left: Simon Tonkin and Michael Sly with the Nature of Farming Award Michael won in 2013;

Tuesday, April 1, 2014
2:58 PM

One of the region’s biggest conservation projects, the Thorney Bird Friendly Zone has seen local farmers come together in an attempt to safeguard wildlife in the Cambridgeshire Fens.

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Cambs farmland wildlife project flourishes with CLA member's help. Simon Tonkin and Michael Sly take a look at the wildlife on Park Farm.Cambs farmland wildlife project flourishes with CLA member's help. Simon Tonkin and Michael Sly take a look at the wildlife on Park Farm.

It’s a unique project that has seen growers in the area responsible for around 4,000-plus hectares of arable farmland, handing over somewhere between three and 10 percent to nature.

Leading the way is CLA member Michael Sly, who farms 1600 hectares over three businesses, growing wheat, sugar beet, marrowfat peas, oil seed rape, mustard for Colman’s, and field beans. His family have farmed in and around the Thorney area of for around 300 years and he has a special appreciation of the area, which now takes in the local environment too.

“As I’ve got older and more aware and more conscious of things, I’ve become more interested in the area’s wildlife,” he said.

“I’ve always been aware of what’s been around here and that the Fens are a unique and special place.”

Cambs farmland wildlife project flourishes with CLA member's help. short-eared owl takes flight.Cambs farmland wildlife project flourishes with CLA member's help. short-eared owl takes flight.

It was at an Agricultural Training Association meeting that Mr Sly met with the RSPB’s Senior Conservation Adviser in the eastern region, Simon Tonkin. They had a conversation regarding the conservation of wildlife and the idea to create a Farmland Bird Friendly Zone blossomed from there.

“Michael has given us contacts for other farmers and helped by leading the way and being one of the first to bring it all together,” said Mr Tonkin. “Michael’s farm is really the hub of the work we can demonstrate over the wider landscape.”

Those who have joined the Zone consider wildlife to be part of their business, and try to cater for its needs, just as they would a crop of wheat. They have selected key Entry Level and Higher Level Environmental Stewardship Scheme (ELS and HLS) land management options, such as unharvested crops to feed birds over the winter, fallow areas, and skylark plots providing safe nesting sites and feeding areas for many birds.

They have also added winter seed mixes to feed the birds through the coldest months of the year, and added nectar-rich flowers to land – crucial for insects and for a healthy ecosystem.

It is two years since project began and the Zone has seen more farmers getting involved and more land devoted to wildlife. It’s not just bird life that has increased, but insects, frogs, shrews and voles too. Training sessions have been arranged with farmers in the Zone in order to build awareness of the wildlife they have invited on to their land, and allow them to recognise tell tale signs of life on their land.

Mr Tonkin said: “What we can say is that from casual monitoring from some of the farms, such as Michael’s, we have seen a four-fold increase in the number of occupied territories of corn bunting. We have seen an increase in grey partridge, sky larks, reed bunting, linnet, and turtle dove, as well as lapwing.

“When you bring conservationists and farmers together, it shows that they can make a real difference.”

“I think, ultimately, farming businesses are the custodians of the land for future generations and the future of the nation. We have a responsibility and a duty to the countryside, it’s not about maximising and forcing land for all it’s worth to the last inch for today, we still need to be growing food and providing habitat in another 50, 100 and 250 years time.”

If you want to know more about Farmland Bird Friendly Zones contact Simon Tonkin at simon.tonkin@rspb.org.uk or call 01603 697586. Alternatively, visit www.rspb.org.uk

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