Farmers working together in Cumbria to face an uncertain future

Posted: 14th July 2022

Restoration at the landscape scale often involves a wide range of stakeholders – landowners, community members, local business, farmers, people living in the area. It is important that all perspectives are understood, respected and valued to ensure that landscape restoration work is sustainable and equitable. We are delighted to share a guest blog here from Jane Lane, Chair of the Orton Wells Farm Cluster in Cumbria, where an ELP Planning Project has been supported since 2019, and has recently been approved for an in-principle Restoration Landscape grant to scale up their work.  

The following article is written by Jane Lane – Chair Orton Fells Farm Cluster

About the Orton Fells Farm Cluster

Agricultural support is changing and as farmers we need to think how we respond. The Orton Fells Farm Cluster has come together to explore opportunities and shared challenges. The changes in agriculture will be profound and the cluster recognises the need for a broad collaboration around shared interests of sustainability, nature recovery and culture.

The cluster was founded in March 2020. Our first knowledge sharing initiative revolved around a shared interest in our soils and we secured an Innovative Farmers Research Grant to look into issues around soil health across our cluster.  We went on to work closely with Natural England on the Cumbria Local Nature Recovery Strategy Pilot in Cumbria, identifying and highlighting the county’s natural capital, and developing a strategy to restore and connect priority habitats.

Soil health is of particular interest to the Orton Wells Farming Cluster – here is a photo taken from a soil workshop in the area.

We soon realised we needed to better understand our own natural capital, and in order to protect and expand these areas we had to first understand what and where they are.  We knew what we wanted to achieve but struggled to find the necessary skills and advice to put our plans into practice.

Collaboration in practice

In spring 2021 we started to collaborate with the ELP-funded Cumbria project. They provided an ecologist who surveyed each farm and, with the farmer, spent time identifying nature rich areas, as well as places which could be restored, and how we could expand and connect them across the group. This work took place over several months and culminated in a selection of digital maps. These maps are now being used by the cluster to create a nature connectivity plan which will allow us to create a network of wildlife corridors and identify how to strategically grow the group to connect fragmented habitats.

This has been hugely important for the cluster, increasing our wider understanding of how farming and wildlife can sit alongside each other and be mutually beneficial. A well-evidenced connectivity plan will also support the cluster’s aspirations (and future applications) to enter high-level tiers under the new agri-environment scheme (Environment Land Management Schemes – ELMS).  ELMS is likely to play the key role in supporting our aspirations to restore nature and increase the financial resilience of our farm businesses.

Farming is an integral part of the Cumbrian landscape, both economically and culturally. Photo: Patrick Neaves.

In addition to this ecological work, the Cumbria ELP project brought in Nethergill Associates, a specialist farm business consultancy whose expertise and knowledge lies in encouraging a holistic approach to farming – which combines a deeper understanding of costs and their impact on profit margins and the “Maximum Sustainable Output (MSO)”approach. Nethergill worked with all the members of the group individually, looking at the businesses, and spent time with us as a group exploring how we can work together to minimise costs and increase efficiencies, by working with the resources that nature provides. All members of the cluster are keen to continue working with Nethergill to help support their businesses to adjust and become more resilient to the future financial challenges.

Evidenced-based decisions

Navigating an uncertain future will involve some important decisions for us in the farming community. Our collaborative approach with the likes of the Endangered Landscapes Programme has helped to provide us with an evidence-base from which we able to make more informed decisions. The advice, support and encouragement of the Cumbria project as enabled our group to better understand financial vulnerabilities, and work towards moving our businesses to a stronger model which combines agricultural productivity with the nurturing and expansion of natural habitats.  It has been fundamental in what we have been able to achieve so far in adjusting our businesses to succeed in this new environment, and to continue to play a strong and important part in our wider community.

The approach taken in the Cumbria project that is inclusive of all perspectives of communities living in the area reflects the approach of the ELP to respect the different cultural, social and economic values people have for nature. Photo: Dave Morris.

On a personal note, I would say that this collaborative approach has created a strong sense of optimism – which is quite unusual in a group of farmers at the moment! I think it gives everyone a vision of how things might be able to work for them, without giving up farming and by working together.

To learn more about this Planning Project, please visit the Cumbrian Lakes and Dales project page.

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