'We cannot just pay lip-service to the countryside'

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The Independent Online

When Edward Darling learnt that agricultural practices were killing off wild birds he realised that it was not just a problem, it washis problem.

The result was that for the past 10 years he has invested time and effort – not to mention £50,000 of his own money – establishing wildlife enclaves within his 500-acre farm at Royston, Hertfordshire.

Yesterday he welcomed the prospect of more flexible financial incentives to encourage farmers to take up environmental projects.

"How we run our farms is not just a matter of economic survival, it is also a matter of political survival," he said. "We cannot just pay lip service, saying we care for the countryside, we have got to get on and deliver."

This had been the farm's third metamorphosis since Mr Darling's grandfather bought it in the 1930s.

Under his father, livestock was phased out in favour of intensive arable farming. Then in the early 1990s, Mr Darling read that the number of grey partridges had declined 75 per cent in 20 years – along with other birds such as skylarks, corn buntings and linnets – and decided to survey his own land.

"We realised that actually we were responsible for contributing to the problem rather than it being somebody else's problem," he said.

He followed advice that dramatically altered his farming practices – less fertiliser, leaving stubble throughout the winter and planting more spring crops. It was a disaster.

"It absolutely ruined the financial performance of the farm," he explained. Through trial and error, he began to realise that the solution was to separate the farm into areas devoted either to food production or wildlife care, each area to be managed intensively in its own right.

"Wildlife management is not a question of doing nothing. It needs a lot of effort," he said. "The result is that the numbers of a whole range of species have escalated and it is fabulous. The whole farm is alive."

Along with trebling the number of partridges in as many years – a feat which earned him a conservation award two years ago – he has seen a rise in skylarks and other birds, bees, butterflies and wild flowers, not to mention natural predators.

He welcomed the prospect of environmental schemes to encourage farmers but insisted they would need to be flexible rather than lock someone into a long-term, potentially inappropriate project.

"There are many examples of farmers investing huge amounts of wealth in the countryside," he said. "Those people need to be highlighted."

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