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Tips On Photographing Farmland From 2020VISION

2020VISION photographer Niall Benvie talks about the UK's farmland and shares tips on how to photograph it.

|  Landscape and Travel
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Spring flowers and oil seed rape, Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire
Spring flowers and oil seed rape, Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire © Chris Gomersall/2020VISION.

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With over 75% of the UK’s land used for agriculture, what happens on farmland clearly has an impact on the wider environment. Niall Benvie describes how the restoration of good wildlife habitat needn’t compromise efficient food production.

While many people find it difficult to answer the question, “Why do we need a saltmarsh (or bog, or moorland)?” most are clearer about the value of farmland: it’s somewhere to grow food. Indeed, Britain produces about 60% of the food it consumes, a percentage that may increase as the issue of food security creeps up the political agenda. In the post-war period there have been wide fluctuations in agricultural policy from drives to maximise production by turning the countryside into a factory floor to a host of agri-environment schemes, some of which actually took fertile land out of production, albeit temporarily.

Today, with a growing international demand for commodities such as wheat it would be easy to think that we are about to lapse into another period of hedgerow removal and field expansion to meet that demand. But farming, and some of the attitudes that prevailed in the past, has changed. Many of the newer generation of farmers are more open to the idea that it may be possible to be practise sympathetic management for wildlife without seriously compromising the efficiency of the operation. And crucially, the funding mechanisms have been introduced that no longer make habitat enhancement an act of altruism.

bee pollinating flower, Hope Farm
Bee pollinating flower, Hope Farm. © Chris Gomersall/2020VISION.

There has been a change in political thinking too and now, in order to qualify for the Single Payment - the principal non-production linked subsidy paid by the EU - the farmer is obliged to demonstrate high standards of environmental, as well as agricultural, care. Entry and Higher level Stewardship Schemes are the main vehicles by which farmers in the UK are given further incentives to improve their farms for wildlife. And in England, the English Woodland Grant Scheme provides recompense for farmers who want to convert fields to forests.

These payments rarely match the return per hectare that can be earned from an arable crop so farmers, understandably, often put down their poorest land or that most prone to flooding to “environmental enhancement”. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: when the political pressure grows at some point in the future - as it may well do - to exploit ever corner of farmland we have, those that are not only marginal, but also forested may be more trouble than it’s worth to clear and drain. Such places act as vital corridors through which wildlife can pass from one farm to a woodland to another farm to a wetland, just as hedgerows do. Connectivity, rather than the simple extent of habitat, is what matters to many farmland species, and that needn’t have a large impact on production.

Sometimes, though, a little generosity is called for, such as leaving “conservation headlands.” While some farmers still see merit in spraying and fertilising right to the very edge of a cereal crop others are willing to leave an unsprayed margin to provide a summer home to a wide range of insects and the broad leaved weeds they need. This has benefits for the many birds, such as partridges, that feed on caterpillars and provides an environment where the predators of crop pests - such as ladybirds - can thrive. Where these headlands are contiguous with hedgebanks and rough grassland where insects overwinter, the benefits are compounded.

corn bunting singing in field of oil seed rape
Corn Bunting singing in field of oil seed rape.  © Chris Gomersall/2020VISION.

On its Hope Farm property in Cambridgeshire the RSPB has been working for over a decade now to demonstrate that profitable arable farming and habitat enhancement need not be mutually exclusive. “Sky lark plots”, for example, are small areas (around 24 square metres) that are left unsown in the middle of cereal crops where the birds can find food for their chicks. Even two of these per hectare greatly increases the attractiveness of large cereal fields to skylarks and their implementation is now covered by payments in the Entry Level Scheme. As well as improving the nesting habitat for a variety of birds, the RSPB has also addressed the need to conserve insect-rich habitats and provide a winter seed supply. This it has achieved by trimming hedges only once every three years - which increases the annual berry crop - , leaving some land fallow and not ploughing some of the stubble until spring time. It is important too to avoid artificial fertiliser and sprays from drifting into the vegetation at field margins as this can diminish diversity by depressing soil life and encouraging coarse weeds at the expense of finer species.

Analysis of the Hope Farm experiment has shown that enrollment on the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme and implementation of its objectives has made economic sense for the unit as well as delivering benefits to the wildlife there. Indeed, farmers in several parts of the country have expressed the view that without these payments, or the ones for Higher Level/ Tragetted Stewardship, it would not be feasible to farm sustainably. And a great many more have settled into their roles as wildlife managers as well as food producers.

brown hare running across arable field
Brown Hare running across arable field.  © Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION.

The reaction of shock then, to recent plans by the EU to withdraw funding for these schemes, is unsurprising. Both the conservation community and farmers who have acted in good faith to improve their farms for wildlife see this as a major backward step. Should this funding be reduced to the point that wildlife friendly farming is no longer affordable, then perhaps we can after all expect a return to a bleaker countryside as the demand for food grows and only the dampest most marginal - but now wooded - corners are left untouched.

2020VISION for more information.

Farmland Photo Tips:

Ask a farmer to gain access to their land
  • "Cultivate" a local farmer to gain access to his farm for photography. If he is conservation-minded and you are respectful to the place as a working environment you’ll probably have no difficulty. If access by the public is restricted you’ll also have a better chance of your hide and feeders being left alone.

Look at buildings and machinery
  • Don’t be afraid to including buildings and machinery as part of the composition: they are part of your subject’s environment - and may even provide it.
Look out for birds
  • Farms with horses often have a dung midden. The insects this hosts are attractive to many birds and a midden may be a good place to set up a hide- you’ll not smell the dung after a while.
Find cover
  • You may be able to make use of ditches to provide cover for low angle shots of hares and roosting herons.

Watch for birds
  • Spilt grain fed to livestock attracts many small birds to a steading: watch out for places that the birds come not only to feed but to drink as well. A modern steading with a concrete yard will not have puddles so you may be able to attract birds by providing a drink and bathing spot.

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