Does your food make the grade for wildlife?

Poppy copyCould chocolate biscuits be guilt-free? Do you think of butterflies, birds and bees when you take a bite of your lunchtime sandwich? Intensive food production comes at a cost to wildlife. Pollinators such as bees are in crisis. Species of farmland birds such as the turtle dove have declined by as much as 95% since the 1970s, but your choices at the check-out can make a difference.

One of the seven principles Cambridge Sustainable Food likes to share is buying local, seasonal and environmentally friendly food. This can benefit wildlife, minimise energy used in food production, transport and storage, and help protect the local economy. With questions about wildlife conservation in mind, writer Jo Sinclair visited the RSPB’s Hope Farm during Open Farm Sunday and found an inspiring example of what is being done to encourage wildlife on high-yield commercial arable farms.

The RSPB acquired Hope Farm near Cambridge in order to study realistic solutions for wildlife-friendly farming. Like 95% of all arable land in England it uses pesticides and fertilisers in its production; the aim is to experiment with reduction of the use of these chemicals, and to create habitat alongside and among the crops.

OpenFarmSundaySign copy Dr. Tony Morris, senior conservation scientist at the RSPB, led the guided walk I joined. We met at the Dutch barn where there were signs of the barn owls that have nested there for six years. Wild flowers overflowed through a five-bar gate. Children crouched to examine jawbones and jewel coloured beetles in owl pellets. A butterfly sipped at an oil seed rape flower as Dr. Morris explained it’s a crop that provides good nectar, but for a very short flowering period. He pointed out the wildflower strips and beetle banks that have been introduced to support insects and birds. Hedgerows and field margins are a vital resource. He told us birds such as reed buntings can successfully nest in the oil seed rape only if they don’t have to travel far to reach a sustainable food source. Early nest success is vital as later nests are destroyed when the crop is treated chemically or mechanically prior to harvest. Timing is everything: food sources of insects in summer and seeds in winter are influenced by crop seeding, chemical administration, ploughing and fallow periods.

RSPBSkylark copy Major brands such as Allisons are choosing to source ingredients such as wheat from farms that adhere to the principles pioneered at Hope Farm. Allisons shows off its credentials with the LEAF Marque logoLinking Environment And Farming is the organisation that coordinates the Open Farm Sunday events and exists to bring together Britain’s most progressive farmers with some of the most innovative and successful food retailers and suppliers. Their approach is built around the whole-farm principles of Integrated Farm Management, which achieves a balance between the best of modern technology and sound traditional methods.

Another logo shoppers can look out for is the Fair To Nature brand whose website challenges consumers to demand that their favourite brands join the scheme!

Now imagine the lark ascending as you bite into your biscuits or sandwiches…