Enchanting. That was the word that summed up my visit to Greys one sun-bathed evening this week. I arrived slightly harried and uptight after a long, hot day – but left revived and smiling.
The 200ha (500 acre) farm of Edward and Annie Darling sits perched atop Therfield Heath, at a point where Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire meet.
You get a sense this farm is like no other, even as you make your way down the tree-lined drive, with its patchwork of grass borders – it feels like you are about to visit a garden. And in many ways you are.
For the focus here is managing the land so it looks good and, more importantly, so that it is good for wildlife. The aim is to encourage the widest range and number of insects, birds, mammals and plants, to call this place home.
The results speak for themselves – 70 species of bird already seen this year and 15 more expected to arrive before December. These include grey partridge and corn bunting, both on the ‘Red List’ of threatened species. In my brief visit I saw three grey partridge families with many chicks each, and at least one corn bunting sitting and singing in a hedgerow tree.
Production or wildlife?
Edward farms 60% of the farm commercially growing lucerne and fescue crops that are cut and conserved by contractors; sold as high-quality fodder for horses and zoos. The rest is intensively managed for ecology.
The farm is effectively ‘gardened’ – with close cut grass pathways, bordered by shrubberies and copses and hand-cut hedges of differing heights, with a proportion always allowed to flower and fruit. There are 40km of lovingly tended field margins, including a spectacular ten-year-old, six metre-wide herb-rich border that would rival the best in any RHS garden! And as a result the land is alive with insects, butterflies, birds and mammals, many of them rare.
“While encouraging wildlife is our passion, we are realists,” Edward admits. “People need to eat and we can’t all farm this way.
“But I do feel there is a place – county-wide, for some farmers who are particularly interested, to intensively manage it for wildlife, while those only interested in crop production can be left to do just that.
“Is current environmental policy on the right track? Should farmers with no interest in ecology be forced to do a little bit here and there? Better surely for those in the right place with the right motivation to concentrate on it?
“However, anyone operating at the highest level needs rewarding properly. At the moment, for every £1 of public money I invest in wildlife management here, I put a similar amount in myself, and we work hard to achieve the ecological output.
“I don’t make as much profit as I could if I farmed this land conventionally, but I gain incredible personal pleasure from walking around the farm, and knowing that here at least, I am reversing the decline in wildlife numbers.”
Edward’s ‘day’ job at the moment is as chief executive of Redlist Revival, an independent charity he set up two years ago to help restore disappearing species in the UK. His work includes researching the revival process, identifying high value sites and devising a standardised recording scheme, so farmers can find out whether the measures they are taking now are having the desired effect.
In one corner of the farm, on the brow of the escarpment sits a unique half-hectare of grass, looking today as our grandparents, and parents would remember – not ploughed since the 1930s.
Consisting of an outer and inner square ‘framework’, with central ‘panes’ and mown-short pathways in between, this area is packed full of magical plants; currently including knapweed, field scabious, lady’s bedstraw, plantain, rock roses, hemp nettle, yellow rattle and upright brome grass – to name but a few.
This area is teeming with insects and butterflies – one survey counted 147 butterflies along one 100 metre transect – one third of which were rare, including the Chalkhill Blue – of which I saw many despite the windy conditions.
This hasn’t happened by chance – but is due to Edward’s diligent and intelligent management – cutting areas at different times of the year, and in a different order, providing a diversity of plant structure which allows species not only to survive, but to flourish. Management intensive this may be – but the results are so worthwhile. It was a real privilege to visit them.