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Conservation - a wildlife haven on the North Wessex Downs

PUBLISHED: 09:56 16 August 2019 | UPDATED: 09:56 16 August 2019

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On a previously desolate part of the North Wessex Downs, Konrad Goess-Saurau has created a wildlife paradise, writes Joe Dimbleby

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Konrad Goess-Saurau farms 2,000 acres of Wiltshire downland on the edge of Marlborough. Over 30 years, he has transformed an intensive arable farm into an award-winning combination of profitable agricultural business and wildlife haven, with 500 acres devoted to conservation. Since he bought Temple Farm estate in 1985, he has planted more than 23 miles of hedges and 1 million trees. To put this in perspective, the government pledged at the 2015 general election to plant 11 million trees across the whole of the UK by 2020 and so far has managed 2.5 million.

Growing up on an estate in Austria, the traditional hunting culture played a strong part in Konrad's upbringing, instilling a love of wildlife and a conservation instinct. He has built a traditional Austrian-style chapel containing memorials to family members in a tranquil spot tucked into a slope on the farm. On the back wall is a beautiful painting depicting the animals of both the Austrian mountains and the Marlborough Downs.

The reintroduction of wildlife is in the family tradition. Konrad said: "In the 1950s, my grandfather reintroduced the ibex to Austria after it had been wiped out through hunting. If you don't recreate the habitat, you miss out on the delight of happening upon nature, unexpectedly coming upon a deer or a bird; these encounters are magical."

Konrad started his transformation of the farm as soon as he arrived, but it was a gradual process: "When I first came it was desolate and so windy I didn't get out of the car. There was nothing you'd expect from an English estate, not so much as a mouse. The land had been owned by English Farms, a business set up to maximise agricultural production after World War II by ploughing up the Wiltshire Downs; prior to that, it had been largely grazed."

The first aim was to create a pheasant shoot with an emphasis on wildlife habitat. Konrad asked GWCT advisor Ian McCall, who had helped his brother in Austria, to work on the project alongside current chief executive Teresa Dent. He said: "The GWCT is very important. They are the first port of call on what to plant where, which cover crop mixes to use and how to manage game birds."

Ian planned new covers and planting to windproof the few existing ones with shrubs round the edges. Hedges were put in consisting of two parallel rows of trees a couple of yards apart, creating a tunnel for the pheasants to move between drives. Other conservation measures on the estate include a mix of areas of long grass and grazing by rare breed White Park cattle. Some of the higher ground was sown with traditional grasses and left to revert to scrub, and the gorse and wildflowers have returned. Much of this is designated as an SSSI due to several prehistoric standing stones dating back to 5,000 BC.

Konrad explained: "There was no grand plan and anyone embarking on a big project who says they got it right from the start is lying. What's extraordinary is how little there was before and how much has returned."

The creation of nine traditional, clay-lined dew ponds attracted wildfowl and the area now boasts breeding populations of threatened birds including corn bunting, stone curlew, grey partridge and visiting short-eared owls, all of which had previously disappeared. Temple Farm's headkeeper Phil Holborrow said: "The RSPB were impressed when they counted 115 lapwings in addition to stone curlews, skylarks, yellowhammers, turtle doves and tree sparrows."

Konrad is keen to prove that it's possible to make a profit in agriculture and still leave space for nature. The farm has abandoned conservation headlands, those areas in the field which are not sprayed, as they were struggling with the build up of weeds. Instead, they decided to plant wild bird mixes where they had previously had headlands and keep them completely separate.

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Much of the 25% that's not in production is on steep banks that would be very difficult to farm, and taking the field margins out of production does not mean the farm is no longer profitable, even if revenue is reduced. Konrad explained: "If you want to spend the whole summer in St-Tropez, you might need to farm right up to the field edge, but if you are happy to spend some of it in England, then why not create a long grass margin that is good for wildlife and nice to walk on?"

The farm is only viable if you include the agri-environment schemes, which help cover multiple costs including tree planting and maintenance and the drilling of annual cover crops. Konrad is keen that taxpayers should get value for money from environmental subsidies. Though he welcomes Defra secretary of state Michael Gove's recent proposals to switch grants to environmental measures post-Brexit, he is concerned that the dual outcomes of high-quality food production and more wildlife must be achieved. "If you can no longer make a profit farming, there is a risk you will stop producing food and simply plant the whole farm with trees. Then what has the nation achieved?"

At the same time, he would also like to see a more flexible approach from government agencies and one which rewards results. He explained: "On one occasion, I planted a 140-acre wood on a 3x3m basis to ensure even growth. When we had finished, they wouldn't give us the last 10% of the grant because it wasn't planted 2x3m."

There are plenty of footpaths through the estate from which walkers can enjoy the wildlife, but Konrad thinks it is important to have some parts of the farm where not even he or his keeper go. He said: "95% of people are happy with sticking to footpaths, and avoiding disturbance is key to conservation. We encourage visits from local schools and universities, but the right to roam anywhere would be damaging. Imagine people with dogs wandering everywhere during the songbird breeding season. I put this to the RSPB, which was pushing for greater access to private land at the time. I suggested we work together to create the Swindon bird watching club. I offered to put up a hide on every pond on the farm and set up a website for bookings. We could then charge birdwatchers a subscription and split it between us. Sadly, the idea didn't catch on."

The Temple Farm shoot releases 6,000 pheasants and 6,000 partridges, and shoots only cock birds in order to encourage the wild pheasant population. This method has clearly worked with over 50 clutches counted last year. Predator control is a key element in Temple's success story and the work of headkeeper Phil Holborrow keeping rats, foxes, rabbits, corvids, weasels, stoats and grey squirrels under control is essential to songbird survival. Every year, five or six roe bucks are culled to manage the population and Konrad's cousins come over from Austria to help.

"When I was a child in Austria, we had many gamekeepers and their work revolved around maintaining a healthy deer population and conserving the surrounding nature," Konrad said. "Since we were small, we went deer stalking with our parents; my mother loved deer and all wildlife. These days, some modern foresters see roe deer as a pest, but it is the most beautiful animal and if a few trees get nibbled, that's nature. A forest without deer is a dead forest."

Recognition for Temple Farm's remarkable transformation came in 2010 when it was chosen to launch Natural England's South-West Farmland Bird Initiative (SWFBI), due to the abundance of key species on the estate. In 2012, along with 41 other farms on the Marlborough Downs, the estate was listed as one of only 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIA) in the country and in November 2013 it won gold in the Purdey Awards for Game and Conservation.

Konrad shows no sign of slowing down the tree planting and more holm oaks are planned for the slopes on the estate. He believes that to achieve conservation success you have to have a passion for it. He said: "It's no good just doing it for the money. You have to see conservation as rewarding in its own right and genuinely want to see the wildlife return."


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GWCT Research in Practice - Getting NIA status

Teresa Dent CBE, CEO GWCT: "The history behind the Marlborough Downs, and the Temple Estate, becoming the only farmer-led Nature Improvement Area (NIA) is an interesting one. GWCT, along with LEAF and FWAG, became concerned with negative publicity about agri-environment schemes (AES); in particular the perception the farmers only went into them for the money and that they were not committed to conservation outcomes. This portrayal jarred fundamentally with our understanding of the farmers we knew and worked with. Even if it was a reality in some cases, we felt the situation could be changed if AES were less top-down and less prescriptive. Let's face it, many were 'sold' to farmers on the basis that they would get paid if they entered.

The nagging must have worked, because when NIAs were launched in July 2011, I was asked by a senior Defra official to find a group of farmers who would be prepared to do an NIA. I appealed to a farmers' discussion group I am a member of, and two farmers bravely put in group applications. Only one was successful and so the Marlborough Downs NIA was created.

Temple Estate, and the conservation work Konrad had done there, served as a nucleus for the NIA, but that should not detract from the fact that many of his neighbouring farmers were also extremely good conservationists. GWCT was delighted to help the farmers access the NIA funding, usually reserved for mainstream conservation charities and other bodies such as National Parks. It is difficult for individual farmers, or even groups of farmers, to access Government, HLF or EU funds beyond AES. GWCT has been pleased to help on four occasions in recent years: NIA funding for the Marlborough Downs' farmers; the Wales Nature fund for Welsh moor owners; Welsh Sustainable Management Scheme funding for the same moor owners; and most recently helping Curlew Country in Shropshire access Heritage Lottery Funds. GWCT receives the vast bulk of its support and income from farmers and other land managers; it is nice to be able to support them in return."

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Farm Facts

* Location: Wiltshire

* Type of farming: Arable

* Acreage: 2,000

* Percentage in conservation: 25

* Funding grants: HLS, Forestry Commission, NIA, SWFBI, North Wessex

* Downs AONB

* Conservation measures: Six metre strips, cover crops (wild birdseed mixes) woodland management, hedge and tree planting, pond creation, long grass and extensive grazing areas.

* Wildlife Highlights: Turtle dove, Stone curlew, Yellowhammer, Corn bunting, Lapwing, Skylark, Grey partridge, Short-eared owl, Tree sparrow, Brown hare

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