Nature Friendly Farming
Conservation Grade™ is a unique sustainability protocol implemented by farmers in return for a contracted premium price for their crop. Independent scientific trials demonstrate the Conservation Grade approach leads to a significant increase in biodiversity compared to conventional farming systems. The original Conservation Grade standard was developed in 1985 and initiated as a working farmland conservation model.
To comply with the Conservation Grade Protocol, farmers have to satisfy the following key requirements:
- Comply with Conservation Grade production standards
- Hold full membership of an approved Assured Food Standards farm assurance scheme.
- Participate in annual Conservation Grade training programmes.
- Create a whole farm environment plan.
- Commit 10% of the farmed area of their land to a range of managed wildlife habitats
- Pass an annual independent verification / audit of the protocol
- Be members of the Guild of Conservation Grade Producers
Ensuring Biodiversity in the Countryside
Conservation Grade farmers are required to take 10% of their land out of food production to develop a specific range of habitats for wildlife on their farmed land. The habitats must be created and managed in the ratios prescribed to create the optimum conditions to promote biodiversity on the farm. These include:
- 4% Pollen and Nectar; e.g. wildflowers and clover, normally planted in field margins, to provide insect food & habitat.
- 2.0% wild bird food (or 1.5% if ACNR* is adopted); using plants like Quinoa and Fodder Radish that provide seeds for birds in winter and early spring.
- 2% Tussocky and fine grasses; providing shelter for spiders, beetles and small mammals (and food for predators like Barn Owls).
- 0.5% natural regeneration areas (ACNR*) (or 0% if not appropriate); for the encouragement of rare arable annual plants and ground nesting birds.
- 2% land that is a unique feature of the individual farm that can be managed to promote wildlife; for example, hedges, ditches, old barns, ponds or woodland.
The Conservation Grade standard is based on sound applied science designed to arrest and reverse the decline in British farmland biodiversity. Between 1999 and 2003 at the pilot ‘Phase Two’ Conservation Grade farm (Manor Farm, Yorkshire); the Government’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology noted a 41% increase in birds; an eightfold increase in butterflies (with 22 species recorded overall); a thirteenfold increase in bumblebees and a thirtyfold increase in small mammals such as water voles within certain habitats on the farm.
Interface with Government Environmental Stewardship schemes
Conservation Grade habitats are designed to also qualify for entry into the Government’s agri-environmental stewardship (ES) schemes, Entry Level (ELS) and Higher Level (HLS). Specific examples include:
- CG Pollen & Nectar habitats can qualify for EG3 Nectar flower mixture or EF1 Management of field corners
- CG Wild Bird food mix can qualify for EG2 Wild Birds seed mixture
- CG Tussock & fine grass can qualify for EE1-6 Buffer strips
- CG Pollen & Nectar habitats can qualify for HE10 – Floristically enhanced grass margins
- CG Wild Bird food mix can qualify for HF12 Enhanced Wild Bird Seed mix plots
- Hedgerow management within CG Other Habitats can qualify for Options HB11/12 – Management of Hedgerows
However, Conservation Grade farmers are required to exceed the requirements for current Government Environmental Stewardship schemes: For example, under current ELS Option EG3 Nectar flower mixture, the maximum area required is 3% (3ha per 100ha of arable land); whereas Conservation Grade farmers are required to provide 4% of farmed area as Pollen & Nectar habitats. The Conservation Grade protocol also imposes a compulsory structure for habitat placement, instead of a menu of prescribed habitat options. This ensures an appropriate balance of specific habitats on the farm to provide the best support to local biodiversity.
Conservation Grade Expertise
Conservation Grade is overseen by a Board of Directors, which is guided by an independent Technical Advisory Panel consisting of active conservation farmers, and representatives from the agro-industrial sector and academia, including Chris Bean of Agrii and Dr Simon Potts of Reading University.
Conservation Grade’s Executive Director is Tim Nevard, an internationally recognised advisor on ethical and environmental matters, who comes from a farming background. Conservation Grade has its own in-house agronomic expertise provided by Brin Hughes and Shelley Abbott, as well as external consultants, including Peter Thompson (Biodiversity Advisor to The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust), who are actively involved in both implementing and further developing the scheme. As part of this ongoing commitment, Conservation Grade conducts its own trials research programme; a 3 year study was completed in March 2009 looking at the environmental impact and cost of a variety of seed mixes, as well as their optimum location on the farm and new projects begain in September 2009 designed to develop sustainable, multi-purpose farmland wildlife crops.
Finally, and most importantly, the farmers themselves represent a unique repository of knowledge and expertise with many of them having over 20 years experience of growing to Conservation Grade standards and all of them members of either ELS or HLS, as well as other environmental stewardship schemes.