Wiltshire magazine meets award-winning sustainable farmer Henry Edmunds at Cholderton

PUBLISHED: 12:10 08 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:36 20 February 2013

Henry Edmunds

Henry Edmunds

Meet the winner of the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming award, and finalist for BBC's Farmer of the Year award

Henrys passion

Meet the winner of the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming award, and finalist for BBCs Farmer of the Year award

Words: Morwenna Griffiths
Pictures: Vivienne Brett

Henry Edmundss heartfelt commitment to sustainable farming which conserves and encourages wildlife won him the 2012 RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award. What is refreshing about Henrys farming at the Cholderton Estate is that hes trying to work with the grain of nature rather than against it, describes Patrick Cashman, RSPB Wiltshire Site Manager. Henrys passionate conviction for ecologically sensitive farming electrifies the phone line: I have witnessed the degradation of the landscape for over 30 years: birds disappearing, butterflies lost, ancient grasslands ploughed up... I wanted my farming policies to reverse those trends.

Over 75% of the UKs landscape is farmed. The RSPB views farmers as critical ambassadors of wildlife-friendly land management. The award, in partnership with Plantlife and Butterfly Conservation, raises public and governmental awareness to the invaluable work farmers already do. Hopefully, it will also inspire others to balance their commercial businesses with the enhancement of Britains wildlife.

Covering 1,600ha, Cholderton Estate is located on the south east edge of Salisbury Plain and the whole place is planned out to benefit wildlife, Henry explains. In 2001 the farm was certified organic, a practice Henry champions, Im a committed organic farmer and Im quite convinced that theres far more wildlife on organic farms than on conventional farms.

I have witnessed the degradation of the landscape for over 30 years

The farms organic status means it is run on an arable rotation of grass, legumes lays (edible fruit or seed of plants that bear pods) and cereals. Legumes include red and white clover and rare sainfoin (member of the pea family, bright pink flower). They are imperative to organic farming as they naturally add nitrogen back into the soil. Legumes also attract a range of bees, insects, butterflies and moths. An astounding number of species at Cholderton are UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species, including hornet robber-fly, dingy skipper and small blue. Henrys farm follows a cyclical, integrated process. He employs mixed farming, critical to the overall health of a farming environment. His livestock generates manure, manure feeds the crops, and the crops feed the animals. These crops also attract insects, which attract birds and other wildlife. Everything is interconnected and depends upon the health and well-being of each component. Henrys farm is almost a mini utopia, demonstrating how mans relationship with nature should be.

Critically, Henry doesnt use any form of what he calls ruddy pesticides; no spraying at all, no form of weed control. We rely on vigorous plants and crops that are grown just on animal manure. His aversion to chemicals came early when, aged 16, he discovered a pair of dead barn owls on the Estate, killed by ingesting rat poison. Today barn owls thrive at Cholderton. Henrys organic farming includes ungrazed field margins providing vital corridors for field voles, an owls favourite treat.

On a sustainability index, Cholderton Estate ranks highly. Only milk, meat and wool are sold off site. Henry believes its all about striking a balance between highly competitive agriculture and the preservation of the countryside. He laughs: I dont make pots of money and theres no secret nest egg but whats the use of money if you have nothing else, no vibrant countryside?

In 2005, Henry teamed up with the RSPB by entering into a Wildlife Enhancement Agreement whose objectives aimed to increase the area of chalk grassland and the population of farmland birds. Aided by Natural England Stewardship Schemes, Henry has strived to restore chalk downland for the last 25 years. A keen botanist, he annually collects and sows by hand wildflower seeds onto the sites. The joy of collecting seeds is that you learn where the best places for the plants to grow are. These reinstated chalk downlands have attracted back the chalk hill blue and the Adonis blue butterflies.

The RSPB has advised Henry how best to support farmland birds in rapid decline across the UK. Techniques include planting wild bird seed strips, allowing hedgerows to mature naturally for nesting, and the uncultivated field margins that are home to many invertebrates, a rich food source for birds. Linnets, yellowhammers and corn buntings all now enjoy Choldertons larder.

His most beloved bird is the red listed lapwing, nearly wiped out during the 1980s. Henry has done much to encourage these birds, ploughing rough, fallow ground in January and allowing the weeds and thistles to grow freely imperative for the lapwings to hide their chicks. During the incubation period he also erects a predator fence around the site. Henry beams, this year from six pairs we fledged 16-18 chicks, despite the appalling weather.

To do without wildlife is not an option, Henry continues. We have a responsibility to maintain wildlife in this country. We cant just sacrifice it to the altar of greater, commercial yields. We need to step back a pace, look sensibly at organic farming and try to build an agriculture which is more sustainable and better for the landscape in the long run.

However, Henry admitted to me that sometimes he feels like a voice in the wilderness. But if his efforts spur even one land manager to pause and rethink whether organic farming could work for them, or to contact the RSPB for advice, then our fabled green and pleasant land has hope for the future, for wildlife and for people.

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