Updated: Jan 23
James and Kelvin German, Rookery Farm, Pidley, Cambs
The German family’s Rookery Farm straddles the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens at Pidley. James recalls some of the changes the family have brought since taking on the 95ha holding:
“The farm was very bare when we first came here in 1970. It was victim of the ‘progressive farming’ techniques that went before, with hedges removed and ditches filled to create big arable fields. Dad got involved with the Parish Council when we were growing up in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s and at this time many trees and hedges were planted along the roadsides from the village towards our farm. These trees are now mature and provide a wooded link along the roadside from Pidley to the golf course and all the way down to us. More planting on the farm was added during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s including a large pond.”
“Countryside Stewardship came as a natural progression for us in 2003, allowing us to develop habitat further and be financially compensated for taking a small amount of land out of arable cropping and into low input grassland. Cattle grazed the grass, straw from the arable fields was used to bed the cattle in winter and FYM returned to the fields. Balanced restored”.
Conservation has been a priority for the family and has brought its own rewards. “Over the years wildlife has increased significantly as the fruits of CSS, HLS and previous work have matured. Notable species that are now regularly seen and directly connected to the habitat here are grass snake, great crested newt, field voles (1000s), kestrel, tawny/barn/little owls and water vole.”
Whilst retaining an arable base, the past 20 years have brought further changes. Successful introduction of public fishing on the farm’s reservoir in 2002 was a benchmark that led to Kelvin and James creating a succession of five further fisheries, a café and tackle shop which have been very popular amongst pleasure and match anglers. In recent years, caravan pitches and holiday lodges have been added to the fishery complex, taking advantage of open views that only the fen edge can offer.
“Whilst we still have a few cattle, our business has now diversified heavily towards fishing and tourism. Our Stewardship options of reedbed creation and arable reversion sit well alongside fishing lakes, holiday lodges and a caravan Certified Location site. Visitors can enjoy the environment and observe nature working in harmony with a commercial business. We always encourage people to look around, walk along the farm tracks and take in what’s here. This is good for them, good for nature and good for our business.”
Significant tree, scrub and hedge planting, predominantly on the clay ‘highlands’, by the farmhouse, barns and fisheries, have drawn in other wildlife including cuckoo, warblers and, until recently, turtle dove. Waterside willows now host muck beetle and the Nationally Scarce red-tipped clearwing.
Many of those trees near the fisheries were planted as part of a mass response from the public, as Kelvin described:
“I spoke to James about how we’d go about the big job of planting 1000+ trees plus shrubs by our first fishery, Rook. On James’ suggestion, we contacted BBC radio to help advertise it as a ‘tree planting party’ at Rookery Farm on the Saturday, with food provided. It went to the nation. We thought we’d be lucky to get much help, but what a mistake! The cars just kept coming with families who wanted to plant trees. The dads were planting, mums and kids were laying out canes and guards and putting the guards around the planted trees. The whole job was done in around two hours! Then came the job of feeding them, we had to make an extra trip to the shops for more food. They sat on bales of straw eating and chatting about what they had just achieved. I remember a mum saying to her little boy, you are having your lunch in a barn – to them, sitting on straw in a cattle shed was something of a treat.”
In addition to the new plantings there’s evidence of past treescapes on the farm. A veteran Huntingdon elm stands elevated on the edge of the wet claylands, a surviving remnant tree that overlooks the farm and the fen beyond. Perhaps 4,000+ years older than the elm, down on the peat fen a giant bog oak lies prostrate, belly deep in water. It was unearthed by the Germans whilst creating a complex of ponds, scrapes and new grassland. They have kept the hulk in situ (now enclosed in a new wetland of sedges and rushes) as a remarkably preserved reminder of the lost, ancient fen.
One of the jewels of the Germans’ conservation work is the undisturbed mosaic of reedbed, open water channels and cattle-grazed, wet grassland. Reverted in 2014 from arable production to a carefully planned design, it’s juxtaposition with the farm’s fisheries and other complementary habitat help it to punch above its 2ha extent in terms of the wildlife it attracts. Bittern, pintails, hobby and sandpipers have been notable visitors, dropping in at Rookery Farm en route to other, larger wetlands. The reedbed’s own assemblage of breeding birds, both migrant and resident, has included oystercatcher, lapwing, little ringed plover, cuckoo, little grebe, reed & sedge warbler. Local recorders are welcomed by the Germans and keep a keen eye on the activity on the reedbed, contributing data from the site to the BTO’s national Wetland Bird Survey.
Recording data from Rookery Farm is important in gauging the role farm wetlands can play in supporting our fenland wildlife and providing a functional link with other sites beyond the holding’s boundary. With the elusive water rail on site this year for the first time - perhaps since the area was drained hundreds of years ago - its unmistakeable pig-like cries will bring an enigmatic soundtrack to the reedbed. It favours cover of dense, established reed, so its presence is a further marker of how far the succession of marginal vegetation has come since the Germans excavated the site seven years ago. “We’d like to maintain and further extend the habitat here. As custodians of the farm, we enjoy the environment ourselves and enjoy sharing it with others. We are fortunate to be able to create an income stream for our business and enhance the local environment at the same time.”
As with many parts of the country, Cambridgeshire’s wildest places have been isolated and fragmented. To be resilient in the future, the remnant fens at Chippenham, Wicken and Woodwalton and the great washes of the Ouse and Nene, benefit greatly from the new habitat creation at their peripheries. But their resilience, for some species at least, is also improved by enhancing connectivity on farmland between them. Where it can be accommodated and nurtured, such as by the Germans at Rookery Farm, there is an important role for new farmland wetlands to function as ‘stepping-stones’ of habitat across the arable fen. The function can benefit species that are simply looking for foraging and refuge on their journey between their primary sites, as well as species that are spilling out from established sites and prospecting for suitable, alternative habitat in which to breed. Where those ‘stepping-stones’ can also bring the public closer to nature and support farm businesses to, surely that is a win-win?