L to R: Professor Nick Sotherton, Director of Research of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Teresa Dent, Chief Executive of GWCT, Dr Victoria Edwards, Chief Executive of the Ernest Cook Trust and Andrew Christie-Miller, Chairman of ECTThe Ernest Cook Trust has joined forces with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust in an innovative project to help farmers work together to nurture wildlife on their farms.

The ‘Farmer Cluster’ concept is designed to encourage groups of farmers to work collectively to protect wildlife not just on individual farms, but across their locality.

The idea has been developed by GWCT in association with Natural England and was piloted successfully resulting in 49 Farmer Clusters across southern England.

Now the Ernest Cook Trust has awarded an exceptional grant to extend the scheme, involving a group of its own tenant farmers on ECT’s Fairford Estate in Gloucestershire.

The funding will allow GWCT to monitor and collect more data from the scheme. Its long-term aim is a strategic partnership with ECT to develop Farmer Clusters into a post-Brexit environmental policy for UK farmland. A national conference will take place at the Royal Geographical Society in London on October 12th.

At a recent launch event for the new partnership organised by ECT in Fairford, Professor Nick Sotherton, GWCT’s Director of Research, said the scheme represents a sustainable, joined-up approach to conservation which puts the farmers in control. (Professor Sotherton is pictured above with, left to right, Teresa Dent, Chief Executive of GWCT, Dr Victoria Edwards, ECT’s Chief Executive and Andrew Christie-Miller, Chairman of ECT).

ECT's Fairford Estate“We need to think about wildlife conservation on a landscape scale, not individual farms,” he said. “I don’t know a farm bird yet that gets to a boundary of a farm and stops – they don’t recognise farm boundaries. They recognise a landscape that has all the resources they need.

“There is currently farm support for environmental improvements, but what’s going to happen after Brexit? We are in a very uncertain future.”

ECT’s Chief Executive Dr Victoria Edwards said: “We are delighted to be working in partnership with the GWCT on this innovative project.

“Collaboration and collective action are going to be so important for farmers in the coming years, and as a land-owning Trust we are keen to do anything we can to encourage this.”

How does the Farmer Cluster idea work? Unlike existing environmental schemes for farms, which are top-down and involve much red tape, GWCT’s scheme is led voluntarily by the farmers themselves.

Red tailed Bumble bee on ButtercupThey decide what wildlife they would like to encourage, and they appoint a lead farmer, choose their own conservation advisor and set their own targets.

In one example, the South Wiltshire Farmland Conservation Project brings together groups of farmers to improve wildlife numbers and habitat on 450 square miles of farmland around Cranborne Chase AONB.

This started as a project to protect vulnerable birds, and widened its remit to include wildlife, as well as protecting soil and water. The scheme will benefit rare butterflies, including the marsh fritillary, as well as 19 species of bumblebee.

The Ernest Cook Trust (ECT), based in Fairford, Gloucestershire, is one of the UK’s leading educational charities, and is rooted in the conservation and management of the countryside. The Trust owns and manages 22,000 acres of landed estates across five counties in England.

ECT actively encourages children and young people to learn from the land through education programmes on its estates, and by giving grants. Each year its Trustees distribute up to £2m to a range of education initiatives.