Cluster farming in the South Downs

30 November 2018

Bruce Fowkes, farming officer from the South Downs National Park Authority looks at exciting farming groups taking place in the National Park.

Farmer Groups or Clusters are a relatively new initiative, but already there are over one hundred across England.  The concept is a simple one; farmers, land managers and local partners work together across the landscape to improve and enhance the environment, or put another way, work together to achieve more than they can do on their own.  It is very much a bottom up approach, with direction and focus coming from the members themselves who often appoint a trusted advisor to run and coordinate their group. 

There are six such groups within the South Downs National Park; the Eastern South Downs Farmers Group, Arun to Adur Farmers Group, Rother Valley Farmers Group, South Downs Farmers Group, Selborne Landscape Partnership and the Winchester Downs Farm Cluster.  They range in size from just under 5,000ha to over 30,000ha and have anywhere between 10 and 40 members.  Each group has a number of targets and objectives relevant to their local landscape, and a series of projects that help to deliver them.

Arun to Adur farming group open day

Arun to Adur farming group open day. Photo credit: South Downs National Park Authority.

Given the varied landscape of the South Downs National Park, these projects are many and varied including:

  • Farmland bird recovery – improving conditions for species such as lapwing, grey partridge and barn owl
  • Habitat restoration and connectivity – such as linking and expanding areas of nationally important chalk grassland
  • Resource protection projects – working with water companies to find practical ways to improve river and groundwater quality, reducing the need for water to be cleaned before we drink it
  • Public engagement – farm open days, signage along public rights of way and social media, explaining the role farmers play in caring for and manging the landscape and producing quality food

To maximise the delivery of these and other projects, the Farm Groups and Clusters work in partnership with a range of local organisations and experts including the South Downs National Park Authority, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Natural England, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation, National Farmers Union and Water Companies.  It really is a collaborative approach where knowledge and ideas are shared to maximise environmental delivery.

South Downs farming group on grey patridge training

The South Downs Farmers Group on a grey patridge training day.  Photo credit: South Downs National Park Authority.

Since the formation of Farm Groups and Clusters within the South Downs National Park we have seen a big increase in coordinated landscape scale projects.  Although still in the early stages, we are already starting to see some great progress.  Highlights include:

  • Successful Farm Open Days for the public attended by over 600 people
  • Duke of Burgundy butterfly expanding its range due to habitat connectivity and improvements
  • A greater understanding of the distribution of previously under-recorded species such as harvest mice
  • Creation of new priority habitats such as chalk grassland
  • Lapwing breeding productivity surveys that can be used to inform on-going habitat improvements
  • Pollinator ‘health-checks’ leading to the creation and enhancement of flower rich habitats across the landscape

Eastern South Downs Farming Group on farmland birds training

These are just some of the things that are being delivered, with lots more plans and ideas in the pipeline.  This new approach is gaining a lot of momentum, and we see Farm Groups and Clusters as an important part of environmental delivery as we prepare for a UK Agriculture Strategy as we leave the EU.  The longest running groups have only been in existence for 3-4 years, and we expect to see much more from them in the future as they continue to grow and develop. 

Eastern South Downs Farming group on farmland birds training. Photo credit: South Downs National Park Authority.

by Bruce Fowkes,

Farming Officer at the South Downs National Park Authority

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