Huntingdonshire farm leading the way in fight against soil erosion


- Credit: Ian Burt

A Huntingdonshire farm that has introduced innovative ways to prevent soil erosion is being used as a model of best practice by countryside campaigners.

A national report, New Model Farming, published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), highlights the work being done at Whitehall Farm, in Broughton, and particular its innovative approach to minimising soil erosion whilst maximising sustainability.

The 988-acre farm is owned by Cambridgeshire County Council and has grade 1 soil rich in organic matter which is prone to wind erosion.

A Nuffield scholarship on soil inspired the farm’s manager Stephen Briggs, to protect this vital asset and at the same time diversify to improve profitability.

In 2009, he inter-planted the existing arable crops with apple trees producing fruit for eating and juicing. Today, the total output of the farm has held steady – but the apples earn more than the regular annual crops. As the trees mature, it is hoped that the crop will become heavier and yet more profitable.

“By diversifying production, the farm is less exposed to fluctuating markets for cereals”, Stephen Brigs said. “The tree-planting should also protect the farm from the risk of extreme weather from climate change.

“The trees act as wind-breaks, sheltering the soil from wind erosion. On a Fen blow day you can see the soil disappearing over the ditch – there are no hedges here. I’d rather keep my own soil than give it to my neighbour.”

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Wildlife is another major beneficiary of Stephen’s approach. The tree line means more of the crops are exposed to beneficial insects such as ground beetles which eat slugs. Farmland birds are flourishing with increased numbers of tree sparrows, reed buntings, yellow hammers, partridge and owls. The farm now has four nest boxes occupied by barn owls producing multiple broods.

Challenges remain. Policy on agro-forestry in England is stuck in an artificial divide between agriculture and forestry. Elsewhere in the UK and Europe farmers are funded to plant trees among crops as part of rural development.

Stephen said, “If we want greener farming in future with better productivity, we could hardly do better than fund agroforestry.”

The Chairman of Cambridgeshire CPRE, Michael Monk agrees, he said: “This new report demonstrates the advantages of farming in England becoming more diverse. A post-Brexit settlement along these lines could give more benefits from the substantial public investment in farming.”