Conservation Crops Case Study
Hill Farm, Warwickshire
"While our conservation efforts are important for farm sustainability, they are very gratifying too. We can see the impact we’re having; just knowing that farmland birds are able to flourish here means we are doing something right and we’re excited for it to continue. I’m incredibly grateful to Matt for his expertise.”
- Farmer, Hugh Darbishire
Thanks to the award-winning conservation work carried out by farmer, Hugh Darbishire, on his mixed farm in Warwickshire, multiple farmland bird species are thriving. With the help of Kings technical advisor, Matt Willmott, Hugh is continuing to safeguard valuable habitat, restore natural features and collaborate with neighbouring farmers.
Located in South East Warwickshire, Hill Farm has been in the Darbishire family since 1938. A traditional mixed unit that runs from the escarpment to the vale, the 450 acre holding boasts an impressive array of arable fields, medieval ridges, furrow pastures and mixed habitats; split by the Oxford Canal which meanders through the middle.
With so many different features, the topography of the farm is incredibly diverse and this makes smart land use crucial. “We farm the land that suits commercial agricultural activities,” explains farmer, Hugh Darbishire, “while land that isn’t suitable, or isn’t as productive, is utilised in ways that enhance the surrounding environment.”
Hugh grows a range of arable crops on the most fertile soils, grazes a breeding flock of sheep on the open pastures and incorporates grass leys for horse haylage production. On-farm conservation efforts are significant, with ten percent of Hugh’s arable land and areas which are not well suited to agricultural practices put into environmental schemes.
“We’re lucky to have some very unique characteristics on the farm,” says Hugh. “It’s important that we protect the existing environmental features we have while enhancing more areas, and we need to ensure that anything we do complements the wider farm business.”
Conservation efforts that support a working farm
For several years, Kings technical advisor, Matt Willmott, has worked closely with Hugh to help him realise his conservation objectives. “My journey at Hill Farm began almost two decades ago when I worked for Natural England,” says Matt. “Since taking over the farm in 2010, Hugh has been instrumental to some significant milestones in terms of conservation work and it’s brilliant to work alongside him.”
Prior to Hugh taking over the farm, it had already been in a Countryside Stewardship scheme and seen some great results. “Hugh was always eager to build on what had already been achieved – he is a very forward-thinking farmer and understands the importance of a joined-up, integrated approach when it comes to environmental land management,” says Matt. “Delivering quality habitats and conservation projects are as much of a priority to him as his conventional farm operations; he understands the significance of making each aspect work alongside the other for the best results.”
With help from Matt, Hill Farm has gone on to incorporate a range of options to benefit farm wildlife, particularly vital pollinators and farmland birds. Alongside habitat restoration and maintenance, Hugh delivers nearly 19 hectares of flower rich margins and meadows, nectar flower and wild bird seed mixes, as well as carries out supplementary feeding over winter. The positive impact has been clear to see too, with rare bird species such as snow bunting and song thrushes recorded during farm walks and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Big Farmland Bird Count.
A haven for farmland birds
“Hill Farm is a great example of how to increase the diversity of farmland birds. Hugh’s efforts speak for themselves; hearing the song of rare bird species while on farm is quite extraordinary,” says Matt. In fact, Hugh’s conservation efforts have won him numerous accolades; proof that a stewardship scheme can work hand-in-hand with the wider farm business.
“Hill Farm is now a demonstration farm for Kings,” explains Matt. “This is great for growers who are considering certain agri-environment options or, if they’re already part of a scheme, it’s a great opportunity to share best practice.
“We also hold training days which are particularly useful for new Countryside Stewardship entrants. Having an advocate like Hugh makes a huge difference; he’s actively doing it, sees the benefits outright and can answer questions with the experience he’s gained.”
Many neighbouring farmers in the area are carrying out extensive conservation projects on their farms too, something Matt is thrilled to be supporting. “I’ve helped to action Countryside Stewardship agreements for several local farmers, which has been brilliant,” says Matt. “Together, we’ve essentially developed a South East Warwickshire farmland bird ‘cluster’. It’s a really collaborative approach to farmland bird conservation with some very forward-thinking farmers, and it has the potential to serve as a model for other areas.”
More recently, the farm has been involved in the Open Farm Sunday initiative; a day where the general public are invited to visit farms around the UK to learn more about agriculture. “It’s important for us to show the work undertaken to protect our wider environment. If we don’t look after it, it won’t look after us. Being able to show the general public what we’re doing for wildlife while we farm is important and incredibly rewarding,” says Hugh.
Sharing the benefits
As well as the farm, Hugh’s wife, Emily, also runs a glamping business which benefits greatly from the ongoing stewardship work. Visitors are able to wander the medieval lanes, which Hugh has restored so impressively, while admiring the local wildlife as it thrives. Work continues too, with Matt having already supplied Hugh with the Kings Campaign Mix South, Brassica Mix, Winter Wildlife Holding Cover and Moir Mix to help him meet his wild bird seed requirements for this season.
Speaking of the work, Hugh says, “While our conservation efforts are important for the overall sustainability of the farm, they are very gratifying too. We can see the impact we’re having; just knowing that farmland birds are able to flourish here means we are doing something right and we’re excited for it to continue. I’m incredibly grateful to Matt for his expertise – he has worked with our farm for a very long time, knows what we’re trying to achieve and is helping us get there.”
Matt continues, “Hugh has gotten the whole-farm approach exactly right. You can make meaningful, measurable, yet minimal changes to improve your farm environment and the payback can be huge. It’s great to work with so many other local farmers on their conservation projects too - I feel very lucky to be part of it all.”