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The Martin Down Farmer Cluster was formed in the Cranborne Chase area of Dorset and Hampshire in 2016 and is one of three Farmer Clusters surrounding Martin Down National Nature Reserve. Together, this ‘supercluster’ cradles the nature reserve, covering an area of 236 km2.
43 farmers across the three clusters have united in their aim to protect and enhance the iconic and threatened wildlife of Martin Down. Their priorities include turtle dove, hedgehogs, harvest mice, arable flora, bumblebees, soil organic matter and chalk downland links.
Jess Brooks, the GWCT Biodiversity Advisor who facilitates the Martin Down Farmer Cluster, joined the project in January 2017 and since then has set about designing and deploying a long-term wildlife-monitoring effort to track the cluster’s progress. All 11 farmer members have participated in the monitoring, aided by local residents, skilled volunteers, farm staff and family, and placement students. Over 4,200 species records per year have been submitted to biodiversity recording centres and this work is hoped to continue long into the future. Doing this has really accelerated the farmers’ learning and enthusiasm, as well as informing conservation plans.
Thanks to this monitoring, new nesting sites have been found for high-profile declining species such as turtle dove, and new colonies of rare butterflies such as small blue have been identified. Most of the 11 farms have been newly recognised as of County or National Importance for arable flora. While there were previously no records in the cluster area, harvest mouse nests have been found on every farm. Corn buntings were only formally recorded on the nature reserve prior to 2017, but surveys revealed 75 territories on surrounding farmland.
Farmers are participating in a range of conservation actions, by entering Countryside Stewardship or maintaining their HLS agreements, and some are even making wildlife habitat by dipping into their own pockets.
We are proud to have achieved the following since January 2017:
- Increased the amount of wild pollinator habitat on arable land by 50%
- Doubled the number of ponds suitable for turtle dove
- Improved hedgehog education in four villages
- Created grey partridge habitat on 600ha of the cluster area
- Created 185 acres of brand new grass and flower margins, wild bird seed plots, cultivated margins for arable flora, arable reversions and pollen & nectar mixes
- 9 out of 11 farmers now running Larsen traps to reduce magpie predation pressure on turtle doves
- Supplementary feeding for birds in winter now taking place on all farms by feeder and/or hand broadcast
Training and events
Alongside the farmers quarterly meetings, Jess organises training events as part of the cluster activities. Farmers decide what topics they would like to learn about. Some of these are open to the neighbouring clusters too. Recent events include:
- Bat talk & walk
- Tour of the chairman’s farm and its new stewardship habitats
- Dawn chorus walk
- Christmas quiz for farmers, locals and survey volunteers
- A bird supplementary feeding workshop
- Soil research and earthworm workshop
- Tour of a grey partridge restoration project
- Farm insect walk as part of Bees’ Needs Week
Residents in the Martin Down area have taken an interest in the project, such as joining the farmers in a landscape-scale hedgehog footprint tunnel survey and adopting butterfly transects after training with Jess. The Martin Down Farmer Cluster has a ‘Friends’ group, which anyone living within the cluster area can join subject to farmer approval. These local people can attend farmland wildlife events, get updates on the conservation activities in their area, and participate in surveys.
In 2018 the cluster trialled a Wildlife Calendar that was created from photos taken by Jess and the farmers, keepers and locals. The calendar was stocked in local shops and proceeds went towards the restoration of a turtle dove pond on Martin Down.
The farmers are keen to engage with the wider public and visitors, so we have created a unique poster for each farm to show what they are doing for their local environment and what can be seen on the farm.
The Martin Down supercluster has hosted several visits for government officials and large landowners, to share with them our experience of landscape-scale conservation. Jess represents the Martin Down supercluster at the Southern England Regional Facilitators Group, which was set up in 2017 to enable the Farmer Clusters in southern England to network; share experiences, ideas and advice.