Marlborough Downs Space for Nature scheme is in it for the long haul

Written by Tony Millett.

Farmers in the Marlborough Downs Space for Nature group have marked the scheme's fifth anniversary with a pledge to continue their work.

As evidence of this intent to continue, they have launched a new website to give the clearest possible account of their work to people in the Marlborough area.

The scheme - which now covers 25,000 acres - began in 2012 as one of the government's Nature Improvement Areas.  The Marlborough Downs one was unique as it was led by farmers. 

They started with a government grant and once that ran out after three years, they have carried on raising money and funding much of the work themselves.  They do get a grant from Natural England - and farmer members pay a subscription.

Looking ahead, Space for Nature's project manager Jemma Batten believes the commitment is so strong that whatever happens post-Brexit and post-Common Agricultural Policy, it will continue in the long term: "Because we've set this precedent - it's become the accepted way to deliver nature conservation at a landscape scale.  We are the latest thing!"

As well as creating ponds, wildflower meadows and wildlife corridors, the group’s farmer members manage grassland for owls and birds of prey, and offer a full training and events programme for farmers and the wider community.  

The Dawn Chorus Walk The Dawn Chorus Walk Last week eighteen very keen birders met at Bewick Bassett at 5.00am for a dawn chorus walk.  They heard 41 species from goldcrest to buzzard.  As farm member and wildlife photographer David White put it: "It just goes to show that on a conventional arable farm one can still have a wonderful show of birds. It is all about getting the habitat right."

To get the habitat right, as part of their now well-established farmland bird programme, many Marlborough Downs farmers have been growing seed crops that are left un-harvested so birds can help themselves over winter.   More recently they have been supplementing this with grain and bought-in seed to feed the birds just as you would in your garden at home - though on a far bigger scale.

This programme has been co-ordinated by Jemma Batten, the Space for Nature project manager, and Matt Prior of the Wiltshire Ornithological Society, and together the Marlborough Downs farmers have distributed more than 20 tonnes of bird seed in the past year alone.  

Harvesting millet - September 2016Harvesting millet - September 2016Grain (wheat and barley) is produced by the farms, and this is supplemented with a specially purchased high-energy mix that includes sunflower hearts, canary seed, niger, and peanut granules.  Space for Nature project has provided 60 giant feeders to ensure the seed is eaten by the birds and not rats and mice.

This year two of the farmers have gone a step further and experimented with growing crops of millet as winter feed, to save the group the cost of having to buy it in - especially now sterling has taken a post referendum dive.  

The millet grain has been harvested, cleaned, dried and distributed to other farmers participating in the programme.  This work is funded entirely by the farmers, as there are no grants for these crops.  

One of the farmers' key projects has been encouraging the return to the Downs of the tree sparrow. will be checking on the progress of that project very soon.  

You can find out more about the project during Open Farm Sunday at East Farm, Winterbourne Monkton on June 11.   Or you can visit their new website.