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New demonstration site to provide valuable educational resource

The creation of a new HLS demonstration site in the Cotswolds will provide a valuable learning tool for university students and local growers involved or interested in a stewardship agreement or greening options.

A range of environmental and game cover seed has been drilled in a single field at the Royal Agricultural University’s Harnhill Farm near Cirencester in Gloucestershire, including flower grass mixtures, pollen and nectar mixtures and a range of wild bird seed mixtures. The seed, worth around £700, has been donated by Kings and essentially replicates an HLS agreement in one field, demonstrating a range of options in a ‘one stop shop’.

Academic staff are delighted at the addition of the site which will be used as a teaching aid for all the agricultural and land management courses, as well as the research and monitoring opportunities it will bring when the new academic year begins this autumn.

Tony Norris, farm manager at the RAU, explains, “Students will be studying the general agronomy of a range of varieties and looking at the issues the crops face. We view growing HLS cover crops as intense an operation as growing a crop of wheat or rape, with a big focus on the timeliness of operations and inputs.”

Collaboration between the RAU, Kings and Natural England has made the site possible.

As well as providing the seed, Kings’ manager Richard Barnes and technical advisors Marc Bull and Lee Ward also assisted the RAU with the planning of the 5.5 hectare field to determine the best mixtures to plant, including standard prescriptions as well as Kings special mixtures, such as Moir Mix and Campaign Mix. The Kings team will continue to provide technical advice and support at no cost as part of the ongoing arrangement.

Natural England advisor Neil Harris has also given valuable support to the project.

“Neil has worked closely with us since the inception of our HLS scheme,” says Tony. “He’s an excellent advisor and is very enthusiastic about this project.”

Neil describes the chosen field as ‘perfect’ for the job. “This particular field is divided up into a number of options that are critical to deliver benefits for farmland birds,” he explains. “As well as improving bird numbers, it’s a very visual tool and a great way to show farmers what they can do for a range of farmland birds and other wildlife in the wider countryside.”

Tony also has a longstanding relationship with Kings, “We’ve dealt with Kings for a number of years; they have been supplying us with seed since we got involved with HLS and we’re now in year five. We very much value their knowledge and expertise.”

Having become familiar with the land through this HLS work, Richard and Neil identified the field, adjacent to the A419, as an ideal location for a demonstration site due to its easy access and visibility from the road.

“It’s in a very prominent position so we’ll be showing it off to its best advantage,” says Tony. “The footfall on farm is quite diverse here, including local farmer groups, dignitaries and politicians as well as the students, so the field will certainly be made good use of.”

Richard explains, “There will always be something new to look at so it will be a really useful resource for everyone. There are perennial and annual crops at the site, so it will be ever-changing as it evolves and develops over time.”

Richard anticipates that the crops will provide a useful resource to students, teaching staff and local growers, hosting university open days and events run by Natural England and Kings as well as helping with students’ work. It’s hoped that the university’s active alumni, which includes Richard and Lee who attended RAU in the 1990s, will make use of the site too. The first visitors are expected later this year to see the crops as they enter the winter.

The new site will complement Harnhill Rural Innovation Centre, the RAU’s nearby teaching facility at Harnhill Farm which includes a number of lecture theatres. Future events will begin with presentations and discussions at the centre to set the scene before travelling to the plots to see the theory put into practice.

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