A New Partnership for Sustainable Land Management

The John Ray Initiative (JRI), the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), and the Soil Association are partnering to find ways to support one of the largest landholders in the UK transition to more sustainable land management through FAB farming.

FABulous Farmers is an EU Interreg-funded project designed to support farmers in the transition to more agri-ecological practices on their farms. It aims to minimise reliance on external inputs, like chemical fertilisers and pesticides, by encouraging the use of circular-system methods and interventions that increase the farm’s Functional AgroBiodiversity (FAB). These targeted measures aid the whole-system approach to enhance biodiversity and organic resource use in and around the field, improving pollination, pest management, and soil and water quality on farmland.

FAB measures can include:

  • Attracting beneficial pest-eating insects by planting strips of wildflowers in the same fields as cereal crops, reducing pesticide use as there is less pest and disease threat.
  • Implementing rotational cropping, cover cropping, or converting to reduced tillage land preparation, because these have a beneficial effect on soil quality, reduce the impact of weeds and improve production yield.
  • Introducing agroforestry or restoring hedgerows as shelterbelts into the farm system can support animal welfare and protect crops, improving resilience and even product yield, while proving a diversified income from fruit, nuts or wood products.

The project assists farmers in identifying and adopting relevant FAB-methods specifically for their farm. As part of their outreach and networking the UKCEH, along with the Soil Association, initiated a conversation with the John Ray Initiative (JRI) to engage faith-based organisations with implementing FAB measures and agro-ecological farming practices.

Faith-based organisations are major stakeholders regarding land in the UK and globally. For example, there are more than 16,000 Church of England churches and many historically had land associated with them (known as glebe land). This is now managed by their dioceses, accounting for a large farmed land area in the UK. There are also more than 20,000 church burial grounds in England and Wales, mostly managed locally. Moreover, the Church Commissioners (who administer the land assets of the Church of England) manage a large estate portfolio that includes farmland and forestry, and are one of the ten largest land-holders in the UK. With the recent commitment by the Church of England to target 2030 for net zero carbon, an ambitious programme of change in food and environmental management is required to tackle the modern environmental crisis. To achieve this a range of agri-environmental measures will be required that are impactful for our climate, financially viable for the farm business, and align with the principles of these faith-based organisations.

Sustainable land management is vital in this effort. For example, Defra’s 2009 report, ‘Safeguarding our Soils – A Strategy for England’ calculated that ‘a 1% loss of soil carbon would be equivalent to the UK’s annual fossil fuel emissions.’ Hence, one can see immediately that much hard work on energy-saving devices can be undermined rapidly if we do not protect environmental resources. Moreover, it is estimated that managing 2-3% of a farm’s land for nature, often the unproductive field corners or boundaries, can have a significant benefit for nature and the wider-farm system. For example, by carefully choosing a wildflower mix, it can attract the right insects to control pests, reducing reliance on pesticides, while supporting pollinators.

The conversation has begun. Staff from UKCEH and the Soil Association are actively engaging with faith-based organisations through the links with JRI, including Caring for God’s Acre, the Church of England and the Church in Wales, to explore opportunities to develop a blueprint for impactful change through an evidence-based approach to more sustainable food production with environmental benefit. Working together there is genuine opportunity to support continued improvement in large areas of farmland for the benefit of carbon capture, biodiversity, and sustainable farm production.

In the UK FAB Farmer organisations include UKCEH working alongside Welsh Government; the Soil Association working alongside the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit; and the National Trust. The project is currently focusing on pilot regions in England and Wales.

For more information contact Alan Radbourne, UKCEH (aradbourne@ceh.ac.uk)

Or Kate Still, Soil Association (KStill@soilassociation.org)

Or Martin Hodson, JRI (martin.hodson@jri.org.uk)