Farming and Science join forces for AONBees!

FARMERS AND SCIENTISTS JOIN FORCES TO EXPLORE THE FUTURE OF POLLINATOR-FRIENDLY FARMING

Representing the faces of farming across Cornwall, 11 enthusiastic and influential Cornish farmers and advisors gathered to discuss the best ways to work in partnership to benefit bees and business. Together with researchers from the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) based in the Penryn campus of the University of Exeter, we explored the motivations, barriers and support needed for pollinator-friendly farming into the future at our focus group on 5th September 2017.

Daphne Wong_P3A8206 1.JPG

BEE-STEWARD is a computer program of virtual bees in digital landscapes developed by researchers at the ESI that can be used to predict the effects of different land management on pollinator survival and pollination rates and is the basis of our Farms for AONBees project. Now, joining forces with farmers and land managers, we are working together to make sure BEE-STEWARD benefits bees and business on the ground. Although BEE-STEWARD focusses on pollinators and more specifically bumblebees and honeybees, management that is good for bees is also good for lots of other farm wildlife.

 

 

 

Motivation

The Government. The Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme can be a huge motivation for farm management, providing governmental guidance, support and funding for practices that look after the environment. However, management on the ground needs to be justified in terms of establishment and maintenance costs and needs to deliver desired results to make sure farmers get involved. Not all farms are eligible for the CS scheme, but this doesn’t mean they’re not aware of food security or that they don’t want to enhance their farmland for nature. This means that there still needs to be direction from the government on how to manage landscapes sustainably for all farms.

Daphne Wong_P3A8280 1.JPG

Healthy farm, healthy business. It’s not all about money as a motivation. It is clear that farmers want a healthy farmed landscape for nature; their farm is their investment in their future and their families’ future. There are opportunities however, for “win wins” for bees and businesses in terms of financial gains from yield increases or CS schemes payments through the application of pollinator-friendly management exploring these “win wins” in partnership could deliver the best benefits for nature and business.

Supermarkets. Supermarkets are a big motivator; getting a contract with a supermarket can be essential for the future of some farm businesses. Some supermarkets will advocate entry into CS schemes for example which could increase the uptake in pollinator-friendly management, but not all farms supply to supermarket; some are too small and instead supply local farm shops and farmers’ markets. Nevertheless, it appears that there is great potential for supermarkets to influence how their suppliers manage their land sustainably.

 

Barriers

Time is money. Many farms already have low profit margins, meaning that dedicating time and land specifically for wildlife can be difficult even if farmers know that space for wildlife is important for the health of their farm. Government incentives such as the CS scheme can be very time consuming especially for small farms where the time spent on the application is not necessarily justified by the potential payments. Every farm is different, and every farmer is different; a blanket approach as we have seen in the past is not appropriate in the future, and therefore management recommendations need to be more bespoke to the individual farm. Methods where we can optimise land by targeting the best areas to grow food and enhance nature with opportunities to save time and money are required.

Supermarkets. Where supermarkets buy their produce from inevitably comes down to price, this enables them to contend with their competitors. However, buying on price alone doesn’t take into consideration the way in which the land has been managed and doesn’t add value to produce that comes from farmland managed sustainably. It is the general consensus that not all supermarkets are recognising, rewarding and awarding farmers that are doing their best for nature. It is clear that supermarkets could be a big motivation in the future for pollinator-friendly farming and therefore it is essential that we effectively engage supermarkets in BEE-STEWARD.

The “unknown”. Many farmers do not know what wildlife they already have on their farms and so require base-line surveys so then bespoke management can be recommended and applied. There is some help available for these types of surveys e.g. Farm and Wildlife Advisory Group and the Wildlife Trust, but not all farms have access to these services and surveys are time consuming. If farmers know what wildlife is on their farm, it can help them in their management decision making and this information can be shared with the businesses and supermarkets that they supply. It is therefore important that we consider how best to gather on-farm wildlife information and collaborate with the right partners, sharing data and ideas.

 

Support needed

Simplify and optimise decision making. It is important to simplify farm management decision making and make sure that any new tools fit with and enhance existing procedures. BEE-STEWARD could be used to compare predictions of different CS scheme options on bee survival and pollination rates and utilise the information that would go into these applications. BEE-STEWARD could be used to identify the best crop (and overwintering crop) type and location, help with rotations and identify the best use of unproductive or “difficult” land e.g. field corners or slopes, all bespoke to the individual farm. There is also a great opportunity for BEE-STEWARD to work with farms on a landscape scale e.g. facilitation areas or farmer clusters to save time and resources and to share best practice through peer-to-peer learning.

Recognise, reward and award. It is clear that the group felt strongly that more support is required from supermarkets to celebrate their farmers who look after nature and share their environmental aims and objectives. Supermarkets have huge influence and can enable farmers to enhance their farmland for wildlife and recognise, reward and award them for their efforts and share this with their customers. Considerable business engagement and campaigning is required, and we have plans to start this in collaboration with the University of Exeter’s Business school, targeting across the “farm-to-fork” supply chain.

Daphne Wong_P3A7994 1.JPG

Challenge public perceptions. Farmers need the support of the public that they are producing food for. This means that it is essential that all the public understand how farm businesses work and how food is produced – not just those already watching farming programs and attending Open Farm Sundays. The public need to be willing to buy British produce made in a way that supports the environment and need to be willing to pay for it. Businesses are an immediate route to this public engagement by celebrating their producers and what they do for the environment. Many food and farming organisations do this e.g. the NFUs “Back British Farming”. Therefore, it is important to work in collaboration with Natural England, Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the National Farmers Union on the BEE-STEWARD project so that we can target public events in partnership. Schools and agricultural colleges offer a route to the next generation of farmers and consumers, making sure that they have the knowledge and skills for wildlife-friendly farming in the future.

 

Taking this forward with BEE-STEWARD

We are planning substantial business engagement to promote BEE-STEWARD and how it can be used to help manage landscapes for bees and business and to celebrate our “Bee-stewards”. There is a great deal of talk about “win wins”, enhancing pollinators whilst increasing profits and there are a few routes to achieve this-

  1. Using BEE-STEWARD recommendations with the aim of increasing yields or year-on-year yield stability, how can we translate more bees into a better business?

  2. Using BEE-STEWARD to make best use of difficult land: What are the easy ways to do so, and can we even save money?

  3. Using BEE-STEWARD as a tool for marketing – celebrating farmers as role models for profitable farms run sustainably and innovatively. This occurs within the farming industry but what about to the wider public?

There are some opportunities highlighted to celebrate pollinator friendly farming-

  1. The next generation of consumers and farmers: Work with schools and agricultural colleges.

  2. Supermarket marketing and public engagement in collaboration with partners such as the NFU, the Wildlife Trusts etc.

  3. Support communities of farmers: Regardless of farm type / size etc, all are running businesses, and need to balance the environment and food production.

We have a great deal of work to do and of course we can’t solve all of the problems with a computer program, but we can work in partnership with scientists, food and farming businesses, supermarkets and the public to make sure we can have a sustainable and profitable farming industry that supports nature and the people that it relies upon.

 

What’s next?

Daphne Wong_P3A8157 1.JPG

We have dates for our next focus group where we will put BEE-STEWARD through its paces, testing it out on real farm maps and management options on 29th and 30th  of November at the ESI on Penryn Campus, 12:00 noon-2:30pm. We also have business engagement events for the winter and spring, dates TBC. For more information on the project and to join one of our focus groups please contact BEE-STEWARD researcher Grace Twiston-Davies on g.twiston-davies@exeter.ac.uk.

 

 

Getting ready to sleep!

Nature needs help to prepare for autumn

Colette Beckham, Cornwall AONB Partnership Manager urges 'paws' for thought. 

I know none of us want to admit it but there comes the time toward mid Sept that we all have to face the fact that the lovely summer is coming to an end as we drift slowly into autumn. Landscapes in the AONB are lovely at this time, as the trees on the Fal, Fowey and Helford turn russet and gold and the moors reflect the brassy tones of the dipping sun.

For our wildlife though, it's a time of preparation for change, as many creatures begin to think about how they're going to get through the cold winter months. This is especially the case for our hibernating creatures and there's loads we can do in our gardens and green spaces to help them survive.

Autumn is the time in the garden when we turn our attention to clearing. Things are a mess and mess will not do! As flowers drop and stems go brown and woody, its engrained within us to clear, to cut back, to tidy. All manner of machinery is brought to bear on the garden, from hedge trimmers, to strimmers, to chippers... even flamethrowers!

Before launching armageddon on the garden, its worth pausing for thought and working out how you might be able to give wildlife a helping hand. Consider leaving some uncut hollow stems through the winter. Spiky balls of gone over Alliums and feathery fronds of Stipa seedheads can maintain winter interest in the garden but can also provide little nooks and crannies for overwintering insects. Leaving evergreens like ivy intact provides shelter for gangs of overwintering ladybirds, giving you the added bonus of an army of aphid eaters, ready to defend your broad beans in the spring!

Credit: Stephen Boulton

Credit: Stephen Boulton

If you must cut down your hollows stems, don't chip them up. They can be usefully refashioned into bug hotels. Cut them into 20cm lengths and bundle them up with string. Lay them in a sunny corner of the garden. Easy! What you've done there is create a whole apartment block - affordable homes for spiders and bees. If you're lucky you might even get to watch one of the industrious Megachile species (leaf cutting bees) building their front door (you won't mind a few holes in leaves of course).

bug hotel.jpg

 

 

If you're feeling really ambitious, you could go all out and build an entire bug city! Old bricks, cut garden canes, straw, upturned plantpots, rolled up corrugated cardboard and bundles of sticks and twigs, encased in a large frame (pallets are ideal) and secured with a wire mesh, will provide a multitude of nooks and crannies (habitat niches to those in the know) for a myriad of insects. The Guinness World Record largest Bug Hotel is located at the WWT, Martin Mere Wetland Centre in Lancashire. The gauntlet has well and truly been thrown! Come on Cornwall!!

Credit: Green and Blue

Credit: Green and Blue

 

For those of you who just really can't abide having a 'DIY' feel to to your garden, there's plenty of examples out there that demonstrate that your can have a beautiful designer garden that's also good for wildlife. Local Cornish company Green and Blue make some amazing and stylish bee houses that would grace any garden! If its inspiration you're after, look no further than Nigel Dunnett's 2013 Chelsea show garden, 'Blue Water Roof Garden'.

 

 

So thats the insects sorted, but what about the bigger animals? Its an unfortunate fact that tidy gardens that are mown and sprayed to within an inch of their lives are veritable green deserts, not capable of supporting much at all really. Given the serious trouble that many of our once common species such as hedgehog are now in, and the major contribution our gardens can make, it may just be time to stop worrying about what the neighbours think. Leave some brambles, unpruned shrubs and long grass for a hedgehog or a family of voles to nest in. Make a hole in your boundary for those hedgepigs to get through. Create those homes for nature and watch your resident slug population fall! As the RSPB are fond of saying - "If you build it, they will come".

Credit: Steve Kidgell

Credit: Steve Kidgell

So what's in it for you?.. Well, you get to spend the autumn with your feet up, not woking so hard and you'll go through the winter with that warm glowing feeling that you're helping to support and are not in any way contributing to the UK being one of the most nature depleted countries in the world (State of Nature Report 2016).

Credit: Jersey Hedgehog Preservation

Credit: Jersey Hedgehog Preservation