The natural world is unpredictable and regularly throws a curve ball at farmers. So, two or more heads are better than one to support each other and decide the best way of managing land.

As well as working closely with CRT staff and Trustees, many of our tenant farmers and farm managers work with their neighbours through Farmer Clusters or exchange advice as members of groups such as the Nature Friendly Farming Network and Pasture-fed Livestock Association (PFLA).

Bere Marsh Farm is an active member of the Mid Stour Valley Farmer Cluster. The Farmer Cluster scheme was initiated by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to enable farmers and land managers to work more cohesively together in their locality, to collectively deliver greater benefits for soil, water and wildlife at a landscape scale. Each cluster is led by a local farmer and a conservation advisor.

The Mid Stour Valley Farmer Cluster was formed in 2020 and now brings together 14 farmers and landowners that manage a total of 3,458 hectares. One of the cluster’s key focus areas is preventing phosphates from animal manure and artificial fertiliser entering the River Stour (supporting the River Stour Phosphorus Reduction Scheme mentioned earlier in this magazine).

Claire Eastham, a dairy farmer and facilitator of the cluster, said: “Our members are taking water samples where the river passes through their land. By having these samples analysed we can monitor the phosphate levels at different points in the river and try to pinpoint what management is affecting phosphate run-off.

“Some members have now arranged muck for straw deals. This is where arable farmers trade straw from their crops for use as animal feed. In return, livestock farmers provide manure from their animals to fertilise crops. This helps to avoid the use of artificial fertilisers, which is good for farmers’ pockets as well as the environment.

“This is what the cluster is all about – getting experts in their field to share knowledge and land management advice and providing a forum where farmers and landowners can share ideas openly and help each other.”

The cluster is also looking at how they can manage habitat to protect priority species including brown hairstreak butterfly, curlew and lapwing.

Claire added: “Our members have all introduced new measures such as planting saplings to fill gaps in hedges, sowing herbal leys as a natural way to add nutrients to soil, and reducing fertiliser use. We are all learning more about our local ecosystems and how it is possible to support them whilst running our businesses and producing food.

“As the only conservation organisation in our cluster, the input of the CRT’s team at Bere Marsh Farm is really helpful.”

On Twyford Farm in West Sussex, tenant farmers Bob Felton and Liz Wallis are members of the Upper Ouse Farmer Cluster. Bob said they find the farm visits and talks from expert speakers arranged by the cluster valuable and they enjoy sharing the knowledge they have gained from many years of running a nature-friendly farm.

Bob said: “We’ve discussed soil carbon monitoring, herbal leys, in-field planting of trees and river catchment-sensitive farming. It’s a useful forum.”

Matthew Elphick, who runs Nutfield Dairy on the CRT’s Brays Farm in Surrey, shares and receives advice through the PFLA. He said: “I went on a PFLA walk about multiple paddock grazing on an organic dairy farm in Kent this summer. Although we were already using a similar grazing management method at Brays, you always pick up interesting information.

“A key takeaway from this visit was that square paddocks (as opposed to rectangular) keep cows more settled, particularly in wet weather. We also met other regenerative farmers with small dairies. One of them visited us at Brays soon after, to see our milking and processing equipment. We hope to visit them as they have a very successful farm shop and market garden.

“There are a lot of people with a great deal of knowledge in the PFLA forum. We help each other out with our different experience and methods.”

Published in The Lark magazine November 2023.

Pictured top: Members of the Mid Stour Valley Farmer Cluster learn about soil composition and how counting earthworms can provide a basic measure of soil health, during a session led by Dr Felicity Crotty, a senior lecturer at the Royal Agricultural University. © Andy Fale