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Fourth-generation farmer Ben Butler is adamant that it is possible to balance pursuing a passion for the environment with running a successful business.
Ben Butler took over as director of 1000-acre Manor Farm in Avebury, Wiltshire from his father in 2014 and has inherited Robin’s long-standing interest in adopting nature-friendly farming practices.
Signing up to the Woodland Trust’s MOREhedges scheme in the spring of 2021 has helped Ben on both fronts. The planting took place over the Christmas period and he is delighted with the results.
The farm, which has been in the Butler family since 1937, is a mix of around 750 acres of arable and 250 acres of grassland. In total Ben has around 2,000 acres across various sites.
They raise about 100 head of beef cattle, graze around 140 ewe lambs and, on the arable side, rotate wheat, winter barley, spring barley, oilseed rape and some spring beans and spring linseed.
Combining a working farm and making the finances work while doing their bit for wildlife and conservation remains “hugely important”.
But while the challenge is one Ben and his father have long embraced, there has been an added complication.
Manor Farm is on a World Heritage site and home to the largest Neolithic henge monument in Britain, meaning it’s a hugely popular tourist attraction and “very challenging to run a business”.
Ben said “Avebury has the famous stone circle and we are in the same World Heritage site as Stonehenge. We receive 350,000 visitors a year, and this is just a normal village so that is a quite a lot of pressure. We have footpaths in nearly every field on the farm. Tourists are here 365 days a year.”
“Trying to achieve planning permission or basically dig a hole without someone looking over your shoulder is difficult.”
Ben and Robin started to get heavily involved in the conservation and stewardship side in about 2000.
Ben added “Should we be producing food or giving up farmland to wildlife? That’s a good and topical question. I actually think you can do both and I think we have been doing it successfully.”
“Certainly since we entered we have successfully – and the data shows it – been producing foods and farming on a good scale, but around the edge of fields you don’t have to farm right up to the fenceline any more. There is a place for wildlife.
“Wildlife is a benefit to what we do. The public want to see it. It’s good for the image of the industry and it’s good for the environment.
“There has been no detraction by planting up hedges. And what we have been doing by planting around the edges of fields, I am only seeing the benefits.”
Robin and Ben’s nature-friendly farming practices have already seen an increase in farmland birds and flora and fauna.
“That includes six-metre margins around a lot of arable fields, beetle banks, hedgerows. We do a lot of shallow cultivation,” Ben explained. “A lot of ground has archaeological features underneath so we don’t cultivate below four inches.
“Windmill Hill, where the sheep graze is quite ancient chalk grassland and has some interesting flora and fauna up there so we only graze the sheep from late August through to May and then we take the sheep off to allow the flowers to have a bit of time without grazing.”
A lot of Manor Farm was hedged in the 50s and 60s and Ben wanted to return it to its former state.
“Talking to the older generations they recall boundaries of fields being hedged and we felt it would be nice to put it back,” he added.
“We planted the maximum 250m of hedges that the MOREhedges scheme allows, with 50 common oak trees, a prescribed mix of blackthorn, crab apple, dogwood, dog rose, field maple and hazel.”
The planting will increase shelter and improve corridors for wildlife. It’s a subject close to Ben’s heart.
“Farmers in the area worked out that birds, bees, hedgehogs don’t know the boundaries of your farm so you have actually got to do it on a larger landscape scale and work together.
“We do extensive feeding of farmland birds and try to link up margins and corridors so our farms are linked for the benefit of wildlife. We do extensive winter bird feeding and we have regular bird counts.
“We’ve had really good success with an increase in farmland bird numbers here and not only on our farm but as a group so what you see on the news about the declines on farmland birds is the polar opposite of what we see here.”
Lloyds Bank and the Woodland Trust are working in partnership to support farmers to transition to a low carbon future. Our partnership enables the Woodland Trust to provide partial funding for planting 0.5 hectares or more of new woodland or more than 100 metres of new hedging as part of our MOREwoods and MOREhedges scheme, helping farmers to transition to a low carbon future.
Ben was first made aware of this by his Lloyds Bank Relationship Manager and was full of praise for how “user-friendly” the process was from start to finish – from the initial chat to planting.
“The Woodland Trust is very well respected, and I was happy with the stock I was getting,” Ben said. “It was important that it was UK-based. I was confident and comfortable about the longevity and traceability and what was going to be planted.
“It had all been properly spiralled, caned and tree sheltered. The guy planting was experienced and I couldn’t fault any of the materials, plants or the process. It was great. I wouldn’t have a second thought about going back to the Woodland Trust.”
Being involved in the MOREhedges scheme also has a lovely link to the past.
“My dad recalls with pride hedges he planted in the early 80s when he came to the farm which are now coming up nicely,” Ben explained. “Farming in the next five to 10 years will be challenging with government policy and many different things going on in the industry.
“It will be an interesting and challenging time but hopefully I will continue to run a good business and create a future for my children here, and maybe one – or more of them – might want to take over.”
Ben says he’s fully aware that he may not see the full benefits of the scheme, but wants to leave a legacy and would love his children to reap the rewards.
Harry, 8 Tom, 6 and Emilia, 4 all show an interest in the farm, the environment – and the wildlife. “They certainly like the animals,” Ben said with a beaming smile, adding that – whatever his children decide as a career – looking into the future was “an important and responsible thing to do.”