Robert Law

Herts farmer a ‘true advocate for wildlife’

Congratulations to Hertfordshire farmer Robert Law for winning the FWAG East Farm Conservation Award 2016. Robert had some stiff competition from three other deserving finalists from across the region, however, his ‘enthusiastic approach’ and the long term commitment he has made to environmental schemes on his chalkland farm won out.

Katie Hilton, Robert’s FWAG East adviser, said, “‘Robert is a true advocate of wildlife farming and this is evident in the wide range of Stewardship options to be found across his farm, from sensitively grazed chalk grassland slopes to large swathes of pollinator and farmland bird crops’.

Robert first embraced Countryside Stewardship in 1997 when he took a comprehensive approach to protecting his environmental assets at Thrift Farm with features such as tussocky buffer strips, pollen and nectar habitat and hedgerow restoration. Crucially, this early scheme not only addressed the arable landscape, but also sought to protect and expand the sensitive chalk grassland escarpments that form a distinctive part of the farm.

As part of this early scheme Robert agreed to implement sheep grazing on the steep slopes of the existing grassland, and he also reverted some adjoining areas from arable land to grassland to create new, linking habitat. Today, the steep scarp slopes of Coombe Bottom and Wing Hall Banks are recognised as key chalk grassland sites, with the sheep grazing helping to maintain a careful balance by allowing the finer grasses and wildflowers to grow whilst preventing the dominance of tussocky grasses and scrub. Robert is also involved in a grazing project at Therfield Heath SSSI, which adjoins Thrift Farm, and maintains a flock of Dorset sheep especially for the job of grazing this large tract of species-rich chalk grassland.

Over the past 20 years Robert has continued to build upon his environmental schemes to a point where more than 10% of his farmland is now interwoven with wildlife habitat of varying kinds. The open, rolling chalk landscape of north Hertfordshire is important for species such as corn bunting, grey partridge, turtle dove and brown hare, and the arable options Robert selected under Higher Level Stewardship are intended to provide a good blend of the requirements of these key species. The corn bunting, for example, favours nesting in grassy field margins away from hedges, and with good access to seeds and insect-rich habitat. At Thrift Farm a good network of flower-rich field margins link up with blocks of pollen and nectar rich habitat and wild bird seed mixes. This variety, along with the unusually diverse mixed farming rotation, means that key species are well catered for year-round.

Although a comprehensive programme of hedgerow planting and restoration has taken place over the past 20 years, Robert has been careful to maintain the open character of the chalkland on parts of the farm where corn bunting habitat is known to be the most critical. It is vital to keep some field boundaries un-hedged, and good examples of this can be seen at Rectory Farm and Chrishall Grange.

Robert believes that communication with the public plays an important part of his role in farming, and the farm’s CEVAS status means that it can host a variety of groups throughout the year using purpose-built indoor facilities.

Robert will now join a shortlist of three farmers from across East Anglia, one of whom will go forward for the national FWAG Silver Lapwing Award. Find out more about Robert’s farming enterprises here.

The runners-up for the FWAG East Farm Conservation Award 2016 were:

Trumpington Farm Company, Cambs

‘TFC have transformed 30ha of arable land along the River Cam into a remarkable wetland attracting lapwing and snipe, cleverly designed to be seen and enjoyed by walkers on Grantchester Meadows without allowing for disturbance’

Elizabeth Ranelagh, FWAG East

Kit Speakman Farms Ltd, Essex

‘Kit’s infectious energy has turned an arable farm into multiple enterprises, including offices and business units, small scale solar to power the farm and cricket bat willows along the River Blackwater.  Cattle and sheep graze legume and herb rich leys and farming for wildlife goes hand in hand with commercial cropping and the shoot.’

Rebecca Inman, FWAG East

John Sheard Farms Ltd, Beds

‘Paul’s farm showed what can be achieved through a long term commitment to enhancing the landscape and protecting natural habitats from the impacts of modern farming methods.’

Rebecca Inman, FWAG East

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FWAG East is part of the FWAG Association: FWAG East CIC is a limited company registered in England. Registered No: 08776388. Thanks to Chris Loades for images: