Pride In Place
Working for landscape-scale change
Framework is supporting the exponential growth of biodiversity conservation impacts through Advanced Farmer Clusters.
Central to the project’s landscape-scale approach is stakeholder collaboration and this involves farm advisors.
We caught up with Clare Buckerfield, Farm Environment Advisor at FWAG, UK, to hear about her work on the project and her thoughts on empowering farmers to better value biodiversity.
Q. I'm going to start by just asking you to introduce yourself: who you are, where you work, and a bit about why you do what you do if that's not too philosophical!
I'm a Farm Environment Adviser and I work for a charity called Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West or FWAG as we're known to the farmers. And I work in Dorset and I have done for, come this spring, twenty years and so I’ve been here a while - got my feet under the table, I think, fair and square!
And why do I do it? Well, I grew up on a small sheep farm in a neighbouring county, Somerset. So that very much, I suppose, fostered my interest in farming and in agriculture. And then I had a big passion for animals as a child, and I actually wanted to be a farm animal vet. I grew up living and breathing James Herriot when All Creatures Great And Small was on the telly! But it wasn't to be and so…
I ended up doing biology and then discovering ecology really at university and realising that was that was the thing for me. And when I finished university, I just wanted to do something that combined the two things I cared most about, which was farming and the environment in its broadest sense.
I stumbled across FWAG and set my sights on that. I was very lucky to get a position in Devon FWAG and work as a trainee for just under a year. I'd learnt the tricks of the trade from a couple of very experienced advisors in Devon. So when the opportunity came up a year later, I moved across to Dorset and I've been here ever since and I love it. So yeah, that's how I ended up doing what I do!
Q. Fab! So what does that look like day to day?
So sadly, I have to say that increasingly it's looking more like my computer and my keyboard than it did 20 years ago! But I still do probably spend about half of my time out on farms, either I'm there as an advisor and helping them look at something they want to look at in relation to the environment on their farm or undertaking field work to survey the farm. Maybe that's a habitat survey, which is what I really like to do. But increasingly, as the focus is shifting to our rivers and water and soil quality, it’s also undertaking what we call Wet Weather Surveys.
So looking at farms when it's really pouring with rain and helping to identify where there might be issues [eg.pollution and erosion]. Then I can then go back and work alongside the farmer to address these and help them improve the river environment and the soil on the farm.
But we’re very much now looking more for where the habitat management and habitat creation can also help deliver something else - whether that's better soils, better water quality or indeed carbon storage. The phrase that we use all the time is multi-benefit.
And then the other part of my job, I'm afraid, is the the paperwork comes with it!
Q. Thinking of paperwork… we've been talking to some people who are coming at this from more the data end of things. What happens to the data that you generate or the material that comes out of surveys and so on? Does that eventually become accessible to the farmers? Where does all that data flow into?
So it very much depends on what we're doing it for at that time. Data might end up going to the local record centre, the Dorset Environmental Records Centre, through something called Living Record or, if it's a project, to whoever's collaborating with us on that data for the project. So with the Framework project survey data will go to the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, who we're working with. And then they will be compiling it and sending it on from that. But yeah…
I'm always very conscious of trying to feed information back to the farmer, either specific to their farm or the outcome of their survey, If we're actually looking at a wider scale. A criticism that's been levelled at people doing jobs similar to me in the past is you come here, you have a look and then I don't know what you found!
Q. So when you're working with farmers what would you say the best part of your job is?
Well, the best part of my job is working with the farmers! That's the thing that really motivates me and I enjoy and working with them - no two farmers are the same. And I like getting to know them and building a working relationship with them over the years. A lot of farms I've been working on for nearly 20 years and I've really enjoyed seeing things change on those farms. You get a bit of a proud feeling sometimes when you're driving past somewhere and you look across and you see something - maybe it's some trees have been planted or a hedge has gone in, or you can see they're doing some cover crops, something different that's better [for biodiversity] and seeing that change for the better it's quite motivating and that's what it's all about, really, for me is making things happen on the ground. I recognise the importance of the data collection to help us measure the impact of that change. But, for me, the enjoyment comes from seeing that change in the landscape because I live where I work and so I see it every day!
Q. One of the things Framework is interested in is what you're describing, where lots of local changes can add up to landscape-scale change.
Do you feel there's enough support for people inhabiting roles like yours in these landscapes?
I mean, there is support but it's often quite hard to access and you can spend an awful lot of time trying to access resources to fund this sort of role which would be better spent doing the job! And I don't think enough value is placed on the role that advisors play and the importance of continuity and keeping people in post. The trouble with projects is they have a lifetime. They finish but the farmers and the farms are still there. And if that person can still be there who’s working with those farmers, so much the better! And it is trying to find ways to keep that continuity. Obviously, people move on and people's lives change, but there are a lot of people who move on because the job runs out rather than anything else and I think that would be good to address.
Q. What would you say the benefits are of having experienced people interfacing between scientists and farmers, and having some of that continuity?
I think it comes down to trust. Farmers gradually build up a trust in an individual and and therefore it strengthens the power of that advice because it's coming from somebody you trust, you know that they are giving it to you in good faith not just because the project or the the the person grant funding it has asked you to come out and provide that advice! And farmers are often quite traditional people and community is important to them, so if it is somebody they know is part of their community, it adds strength, I think, to engagement with them.
And also you can draw their attention to somebody else up the road that they might not know who’s done something similar that has or hasn't worked. So you can reference things locally, which really helps and even if they've heard your name, even if they've not met you, they're more likely to be more honest and forthcoming with you when you start working with them.
Q. Do you find current categorisations of farming fit for purpose?
We've spoken to a few Framework folks who say, going forward, it would be helpful for sustainability if we looked at things from an ecological perspective even more.
For example, regularly categorising farming in terms of its agroecosystems and geography rather than type of agricultural practice…
Definitely! I agree, and in recent years in England, we've moved through a sort of drive to look at water quality. We've moved much more into thinking about catchments and sub catchments. So yeah, definitely. I think so…
People often identify more with their neighbours than with somebody else just because they happen to also be a sheep farmer but they’re miles away! I find that it’s often easier to sort of coalesce around a water body. But that's just one way you can categorise a landscape…
Q. That's really interesting! So thinking about different ways of catagorising things and different perspectives… what would you say the most difficult aspects of your job are?
For me, and I'm developing a theme I can sense that! For me, it's the paperwork, it's the bureaucracy, which I find the biggest blocker. It blocks innovation and the changes that farmers and their advisors are trying to make happen a lot of the time. And it just doesn't seem to move as quickly as the ideas. And it also can create fear, I think, amongst farmers - a worry that they're going to do something wrong or they're not doing the right thing. Sometimes when you're not sure, the easiest thing is to just carry on doing the thing you were doing rather than innovating and changing.
Change is supported through agri environment schemes. And so at the moment the Countryside Stewardship Scheme understandably has its rules! It has its requirements, the things you should and shouldn't do. But there is a shift in philosophy now in the last couple of years, thankfully, to try and reduce that burden. But - sometimes it's as simple as just the tone of things. When you start reading words like breach, when all somebody is done is had their field parcel reduced by a tiny, tiny amount of a few square metres. It just doesn't inspire people to try new things and innovate and experiment by themselves because they're inevitably worried that that's going to impact on what they said they were going to do or what they should do.
If farmers are in an agri environment scheme, there is the ability to apply for what we call a derogation to change something. But there's a form that has to be filled in and signed off and these things take time. Farmers, they're responding to weather, they're responding to a little chance thing that's come by and they don't necessarily have time to wait for that process to play out. So opportunities get missed and things don't happen.
Q. So how unhelpful is it getting bogged down in this granularity?
I took part in a trial for the new environmental land management schemes, which are going to gradually be rolled out over the next few years. It was a very small element of the trial but what we would do is ask farmers who manage areas of unimproved species rich grassland, ‘if you were to write your own management prescription under a new scheme, what would it look like?’
I'm not kidding you, what it would have said for 95% of the farmers we asked was 'graze the grassland'. That is the only message that they take away from the four pages of management prescription, and I don't kid you, some of them have them four pages long for each field. That's the bit they take away because they graze when there's grass, they don't graze when the grass is gone. And it's no more complicated than that for them. And so, yes, definitely it could be hugely simplified by focussing on what it is they're trying to achieve
We should trust them as people have been managing that site far better than any adviser and trust them to gradually work out how to achieve [a sustainable outcome] And if it doesn't seem quite right, talk about what they've done and why it might not work and perhaps give them some ideas of things they could try.
The solutions are there. We're starting to to really understand them and more and more farmers care. That's really important, they do care and they're really interested and given the chance they're leading the way with things where they’re in situations where they can do that. And we need to give them the space to do it. But we need to give them the structure too because not everybody is an innovator. There are leaders and there are followers everywhere aren't there?
So there needs to be the space for the the radicals to come up with the new best way to do things and then the structure needs to move quickly behind it so that other people can can get on board and have the guidance they need.
And the new Environmental Land Management Scheme I think has, certainly, got some elements to it that can help with a lot of what we've talked about but it mustn't get bogged down in paperwork and form filling, and it mustn't be so rigid that it puts people off. There's a danger of that, I think - to ‘tick the box’ for something, you have to do this, this and this. Whereas, actually somebody could still tick that box but they might want to do it slightly differently and it has to give them the flexibility to do that in order for us to do things at scale.
Q. This might be me being losing my sense of journalistic balance a bit and becoming biased for a second! But it strikes me that it took years for regulation to catch up with some of the very damaging impacts of, in other ways, beneficial chemical inputs and management tools and so on.
It's interesting to me that it took ages for regulation to catch up with those aspects of farming. And yet, right from the get-go, there's a lot of scrutiny of eco schemes and a lot of scrutiny of greener methods. Is that a fair summary or is that me losing my balance?
No, I would agree! It is heavily scrutinised and a lot of it in recent years has been, 'have you got enough of this thing that we're paying you for?’ So a lot of measuring... but not really so much looking at whether an area is doing a good job, an okay job or a terrible job of the thing it's meant to be doing! And surely that's more important than whether it's 0.1 of a hectare too small, which is sometimes what we're talking about!
I'm not talking about the people who are flouting the schemes rules. All those people - everybody would agree - every good farmer would agree, those people need to be found and dealt with appropriately. But most farmers are doing the best they can and they might have misunderstood something. Their ruler might measure things slightly differently to the RPA's ruler. But it doesn't merit this scrutiny and chasing of repayments - that's what's led to this sort of fear factor that I alluded to at the beginning of our conversation as well and stops people trying stuff. How do we learn? We try stuff. Don't wait! That's how we learn. We get it wrong!
Q. So what’s the biggest hurdle for most farmers to adopting more biodiversity-sensitive or sustaining practices?
The principal hurdle to a farmer is finance. I just think back to a farmer in my [Framework] cluster, at a workshop get together we had in the summer [of 2021] when we were looking at habitats for pollinators. One cluster member had done some fantastic flower-rich margins and plots on their farm. We were looking at them and I was talking to him and he said, the thing is, he said - ‘I can see where I am (he's a very good traditional farmer), I can see where I need to be but I cannot see how I get from here to there without going bankrupt!’.
And that, for me, really summed it up! I think for so many people, whether they're young and trying to get into the industry or whether they're that little longer in the tooth and maybe sort of looking at what who they're passing things on to, who's going to come in after them. Maybe nobody is!
But wherever they are in that, I think a lot of them get it. They just can't get there. At the moment, we don't have the support framework right for them. I was touching on this actually at another event with the [Framework project] and a thought that went through my mind was…
with farmers transitioning into organic farming they have raw conversion payments for a couple of years. Could we not have some sort of agri ecological transition scheme where farmers work out - like you do with organic conversion - how they’re going to make conventional to [sustainable / biodiversity-sensitive] work?
In that case, you know, you say - this is how I'm going to do it and it's going to take me this long. This is what it's going to cost me during that transition phase where I have to invest in new kit, where I have to accept maybe a drop in yield for a few years whilst everything readjusts and I start to rebuild the soil.
So, for that period of time you help me with this level of support. And that in turn helps the consumer in the shop because they won't feel the difference. Food prices should be helped to stabilise for them in the long run.
Q.You’ve read my mind because one of the questions I have here is about your experience of the Organic-Conventional paradigm ending or becoming blurred.
Is this something you think about?
Not directly, but I think it is becoming increasingly blurred. And I've always sort of, with my work, been very quick to try and drill down with organic clients as to what works, what doesn't work and advocate. Because stuff that works well for organic farmers can work well for non-organic farmers. And I'm always quick to sort of advocate those things to conventional farmers. I think everybody's on a sort of a spectrum, aren't they? And it doesn't suddenly become more organic the fact you've got the bit of paper says as much. I've got a lot of clients who are organic but they're not registered organic.
Q.The closest thing we have to a call-in game on the podcast is asking people where they place themselves within the land sharing vs sparing debate. Or the related extensive vs intensive debate… I think we may be able to guess your perspective!
Yes! I think it's about land sharing and incorporating biodiversity into all farms and raising the bar for everybody while recognising that there are areas where full scale habitat management and habitat restoration is important.
But at the end of the day [areas of restoration] are still nature reserves. However big they are, they need to be connected and they have to cross farmland to do that and so that farmland needs to be permeable to wildlife. I mean, we work alongside the local Wildlife Trust and they're doing some great work on their own reserves and also trying now to expand from those reserves, and they're really valuable areas I'm not knocking that at all - but…
if we want to see change at scale which we do, we have to do it on farmland and therefore, we have to grow food at the same time as growing wildlife for want of a better expression! And the two can go hand in hand, we’re increasingly see more examples of that.
I suppose to me a key thing is, I think there was a perception by the sort of wider conservation movement when It first started out, farming was seen as part of the problem. And I think now finally, everybody or nearly everybody is coming around to the realisation that actually farming is not only part of the solution but is almost the solution to a lot of the the the issues we are tackling at local and a global scale.
And I find that quite exciting! And that shift in thinking, that goes alongside a shift from a very top-down approach to a much more bottom-up approach which is what these landscape scale clusters are really trying to do and are really great at. And I think broadening out the benefits that farming can bring, it's not just about biodiversity, it's about soils, water, carbon and good food. Never forget that at the end of the day, farmers are food producers. And if we're talking about ecosystem services, natural capital, all of that, then producing healthy food in a way that's good for the environment has to be one of those those assets that we're measuring, I would strongly advocate.
Q. That brings us perfectly to your activity within Framework, which is working towards those goals. What are you undertaking for the project on the ground?
OK, so it's brilliant, actually!
[Framework] has given me opportunities… So the cluster where I'm working has 19 farmers in the cluster, at least half of them I already knew and had worked with them in one respect or another in the past. And so I've had the opportunity on the project to visit all the farms to start mapping the existing habitats. And we're now starting to think about what changes they can make over the next few years of Framework to better manage those habitats, better link up those habitats and provide more habitat.
But also where they've got habitat, to create better habitat for the species that they're particularly interested in targeting. And I stress that point because it is very much led by them. And what motivates and interests them as a group rather than what anybody's telling them they should be interested in or motivated by.
Q. Is it ever a surprise to farmers who haven't thought in this way, the power they have over what our countryside looks like and what lives there? What biodiversity is there? Do you ever see anyone have a moment where they think, wow, actually, I'm being asked here what species exist on my land? Does that ever happen?
I think you do have those light bulb moments, where you can see something clicks. But I don't know that I've ever felt that they really realise how much influence they can have over biodiversity and the environment on their little piece of it. I suppose we're all guilty of that. [The current reality] is so familiar it starts to get taken for granted very quickly, doesn't it? Maybe that's what it is.
Q. Yes, it's kind of like a bigger version of the consumer challenges we all face, I guess.
Yeah. But it's interesting… so, brown hair, which is a sort of iconic English countryside species, aren't they? I mean they're two-a-penny really in the cluster, particularly at the eastern side of the cluster. But there was a local person who has got some sort of Brown Hair Action Group. I don't know what it’s exactly called. And they were very concerned that there weren't very many hairs and they'd only found sort of a handful of records. And, you know, it was met with amusement by my group when that was reported in! Because we see that there's a lot of brown hair. But I think they didn't realise - because they take them for granted, because they see them everyday, how special [those sightings] might be to somebody living in one of the villages that isn't out immersed in it all the time.
One of the species that we're particularly focussed on in the cluster are Barn Owl and so the GWCT scientists have helped put up some extra nest boxes and also they're being monitored. And there is a great level of interest, definitely from the farmers in the group, with regard to that project and how it's going. So there's some nest cams in some of the boxes and they've got some tags that are tracking some of the barn owls as well.
Q. We actually caught up with that initiative for one of the previous blogs!
Thanks so much Clare for sharing your perspectives and activities with the project.
Thank you, that was good therapy!
Conversation edited for clarity and format. Interview by Theodore Simmons.
Published by project knowledge exchange and communications partner Taskscape.
Hear more from Clare on the project-sponsored podcast. Long-form blogs like this one derived from material collected for the podcast are going to be published monthly, from February 2022, in line with the project communications plan.
Have an additional blog or news bulletin to share via this channel? We’d love to release it! Get in touch on the CKP, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org