How the Trust is working with the Isle of Wight’s farmers to help them manage their land for wildlife and remain profitable.

The Isle of Wight is England’s largest offshore Island and one of the richest counties for wildlife in the south east of England. This is in no small part due to the way the Island’s farmers have recognised the value of their land for wildlife and managed it sympathetically.

Despite the pressures of modern life and the big changes in the agricultural industry after the second world war, farmers on the Island have largely resisted more intense agricultural practices. Within the south east region the county holds the greatest number of Countryside Stewardship Schemes by area. The scheme was launched in 1990 by the national government to encourage farmers to reduce chemical inputs and intensive management.

Unlike on the neighbouring mainland, there has been no widespread hedge removal or pollution. This in turn has led to the conservation of much of the farmland wildlife including skylarks, yellowhammers, brown hares and cornflowers.

Reforms in the Common Agricultural Policy means that money to pay farmers for the production of food will now be paid for sympathetic management of the land and the introduction of environmental enhancements. But while wildlife will benefit, the Island’s farmers could see their productivity reduced, hitting their profits.

It is a concern, but the Trust is taking a lead role in helping the farmers adjust to the new rules. The Wight Wildlife Partnership was established to promote wildlife conservation on the Island and fully supports measures aimed at conserving and enhancing the Island’s natural heritage and landscape. With funding from Leader+ and English Nature, the Trust launched the Isle of Wight Living Landscapes Project in April 2004 to help farmers become aware of the grant aid available to them and help them maximise their farming activities to help wildlife and the environment.

The Project team has visited over 100 farm businesses in the last three years to discuss different grant schemes, help fill in forms and provide advice on the ecology of the wildlife we want to conserve.

To further help the farmers, another part of the Wildlife Trust’s Isle of Wight team will be looking at other Islands in Europe, to see how they are coping with the new CAP reforms whilst sharing similar problems in isolation, increased transport costs and lack of processing and marketing facilities.

The Island’s wildlife and landscape is special. Half of the land surface is designated as AONB and one tenth is a designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It is a national stronghold for red squirrels, dormice, water voles and Bechstein’s bats; it is one of the last places in Britain you can find Glanville fritillary butterflies, reddish buff moth, wood calamint, field cowwheat and Martin’s Ramping fumitory.

The Island’s coastline is one of the most spectacular and wildlife-rich in southern England with both soft and hard cliffs and sheltered harbours. And the Island has no wild deer, grey squirrels or mink, which means native species thrive in woodlands and rivers.

All this is in no small part due to the sympathetic management of the countryside by the great majority of landowners. The Wight Wildlife Partnership is committed to helping them as they help wildlife to help itself.

Two-thirds of the Island is undeveloped and remains countryside, managed by a wide variety of individuals, partnerships, co-operatives and organisations.

How the Isle of Wight is farmed

Traditionally the Island was split into three regions dominated by the chalk ridge which runs from the Needles in the west to Culver Down in the east. North of this ridge are heavy clays which supported beef and dairy farming and created a landscape of small pastures, hedgerows and woodlands.

The chalk grassland – the downs – was managed by sheep grazing, a tradition going back to medieval times and the wool trade centred in mainland Winchester.

To the south of the chalk the lighter sandy soils allowed arable farming with large fields and more intensive agriculture. Recently the number of dairy herds has declined on the Island and horses have replaced cattle in many grazed landscapes.

What’s going to change?

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme, launched in 1990 by the national government, encouraged farmers to reduce chemical inputs and intensive management to conserve wildlife and the landscape. The nationwide success of this scheme led to the launch in March 2005 of the new Entry Level Stewardship Scheme. All farmers are eligible to payments from government if they carry out wildlife-friendly management including cutting hedges less frequently, reducing or stopping chemical inputs and providing undisturbed areas for food and shelter for insects, birds and mammals.

These measures have been brought about by a change in direction which reforms the Common Agricultural Policy. Money to pay for the production of food is now redirected to the management of land and environmental enhancements.

How will this benefit wildlife?

These measures will mean that birds like skylark, yellowhammer, grey partridge and corn bunting will find food and shelter at all times of the year; insects such as bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies will thrive, allowing pollination and feeding on crop pests; dormice will find corridors through hedgerows to travel and feed and water voles will find a wide variety of food in unpolluted ditches.

If these measures are adopted by a wide range of farmers across the Island then the landscape in 20 years time may not have changed greatly at a glance but the thicker hedgerows, grassy field margins and wet pastures will become far richer in both common and rare Island wildlife.

How it will impact on livelihoods?

As a result the number of animals or the amount of crops on any one field will be reduced. The reduction in the profitability of farming was already hitting smaller farms before the advent of this scheme and many farmers will be happy to adopt these measures if their income does not fall further.

However the stark reality is that many farmers now supplement their farming income with other activities either through diversification, such as tourism or manufacturing businesses, or by having other jobs. This will have a knock on effect on the sympathetic management of the land as profits from one activity may well be required to keep the farming side going and this may cause financial problems in the long term.