Sensitive farming is leaving valuable legacy

Orchids, grey partridges and corn buntings are thriving on a farm on the South Downs thanks to 25 years of environmentally friendly farming.

Harry Goring of the Wiston Estate was one of the first farmers in the country to sign up to the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) Scheme in 1987, which paid farmers to safeguard and enhance areas of landscape, biodiversity and cultural importance.

The Goring family has owned Wiston Estate, which includes Chanctonbury Ring and surrounding farmland, since 1872.

Harry said: “I was very happy to sign up to the ESA scheme straight away as it reflected the way we wanted to look after the land. I remember seeing clouds of lapwings over the South Downs when I was a boy, and I was keen to do what I could to maintain and restore the landscape and habitats it supports.”

He explained: “We run an 800 hectare mixed farm on the South Downs, with arable land, sheep and cattle. Through the ESA scheme we were able to take steep slopes out of arable cropping and revert them back to traditional chalk grassland. By limiting the amount of fertiliser we use, we’ve been able to provide the right conditions for rare orchids and other species to thrive.”

Farming Minister David Heath said: “Farmers and land managers are the guardians of England’s iconic landscapes. Over the past 25 years agri-environment schemes have played a key role in enabling them and environmental organisations to improve the countryside and look after our wildlife”.

Harry considers it important to maintain a patchwork of habitats to support different wildlife. He explained: “Under the ESA scheme the focus was just on the grassland. Now under our Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme we’ve been able to provide nesting and food sources for various farmland birds. It’s been wonderful to see increased numbers of lapwings, corn buntings and grey partridge.”

The estate land encompasses Chanctonbury Hill SSSI, including ‘Chanctonbury Ring’, an iconic ring of beech trees which walkers, runners, cyclists and horse-riders on the South Downs Way National Trail will recognise. The trees were planted by Harry’s great-great-grandfather in 1760 on the site of an ancient Roman encampment.

Harry commented: “The sides of the hill are quite steep so it is difficult to graze. HLS funding has enabled us to clear the scrub and trees from around the monument to maintain its visual presence in the landscape. By carefully managing the grassland, we’ve also been encouraging butterflies like the Duke of Burgundy back to the area.”

Rick Goring was only nine when his father Harry signed up for the ESA scheme, but he has now taken on the management of the estate from his father. Rick said “The nature of farming has changed over the last 25 years: it is much more intensive than when I was growing up. There is more of an expectation on the land - the drive for higher productivity had meant increased mechanisation and much bigger machinery.”

Rick went on to explain: “One of the challenges facing farmers today is the volatility of grain prices. However, being in a long term agreement with Natural England means we are rewarded with a stable income in return for our commitment to the environment. I can see the results and it is amazingly positive. It is a wonderful legacy to take on and look after for future generations.”