We’ve just spent the best part of 18 months trying to buy a farm in Herefordshire – Bury Farm SSSI. This is a spectacular place and probably the most important single area of lowland meadows and pastures (a priority habitat) left in England – the farm is about 70ha and nearly half of that is really lovely wildflower meadows, with some fantastic downland and orchards to boot. We successfully raised £1.7M to fund the purchase and management of the site, but in the end the owners decided not to sell to us. Naturally this was very sad for us, but that’s life. At least the farm is still in very sympathetic hands (after all the owner had resisted the temptation to plough up all his wonderful meadows and grow potatoes) and it’s a SSSI, so that gives some protection.
Now just last week another important area of meadows in Herefordshire is on the market, a farm called The Birches, near Kington. Here’s the agent’s website. This farm is much smaller than Bury Farm – 25ha. But there are some lovely meadows and some other very interesting features, including ancient hedgerows, kettle-hole ponds and what looked to me like drumlins, this being a postglacial landscape. The meadows include one of Herefordshire’s last populations of Frog orchid, a rapidly disappearing grassland species. There’s also plenty of that really good unimproved grassland indicator Dyer’s-greenweed, a few green-winged orchids, and plenty of other nice plants. The owner has looked after these meadows really well, and they were in Countryside Stewardship for 10 years, though not recently.
The farm’s up for sale, including farmhouse, outbuildings and cottage. No price is suggested by the agent, they are just waiting for offers I expect.
One out of 14 fields at The Birches is a Local Wildlife Site; the other 13 fields (many of them unimproved grassland) are entirely unprotected. It would be the work of a couple of days to plough them all up and grow potatoes on them. It is without question that if these meadows are sold to an unsympathetic owner they would be under immediate and dire threat of destruction. What’s to be done?
There’s been a flurry of emails between Hereford Nature Trust, Plantlife and ourselves. The site is well known as a good site for lowland meadows, which are now vanishingly rare outside nature reserves and SSSIs. Can we buy it, can any NGO buy it?
Buying land these days is a complicated business, as we found when we worked on our Bury Farm proposal. Long gone are the days when it was possible to easily raise funds to purchase land just to save it. Nowadays funders such as HLF want to see a well-developed rounded project, which includes community involvement, learning opportunities and so on as well as conservation.
Should we buy it? Shouldn’t we be in a position now in this country where good quality grassland habitats do not need to be bought by charities in order to safeguard their future? Are these not some of our most special places? Are they not on a par with mediaeval churches, tithe barns, neolithic stone circles, or art by Turner or Constable (or Hockney!).
There are ways to ensure the meadows at The Birches are protected – they could be notified as SSSI for example. I’m exploring this possibility with Natural England. The other way to protect meadows such as these from intensive agriculture is the EIA (Agriculture) Regulations. I have blogged about these many times before – in theory they should protect any semi-natural areas from the effects of intensive agriculture. In practice, as we have shown, they are mostly ineffective. One reason they don’t work is that landowners are unaware of the value of wildlife-rich grasslands, and we are trying to remedy this by advocating a much more comprehensive grassland inventory, up to the quality of the ancient woodland inventory. We are getting somewhere with this argument but it’s a long way off still.
It would help landowners know what they had, if sale particulars included such details, and perhaps pointed out that the land would be subject to the EIA (Agriculture) Regulations. The particulars for The Birches just states the land is “permanent pasture”, which means absolutely nothing, other than it isnt arable land. There is not even any mention of the Local Wildlife Site.
No doubt this will progress quite quickly and I will keep you posted as to what happens.