The Hillesden Experiment: Delivering profitable farming together with increased wildlife conservation
Hillesden is large farm estate in Buckinghamshire. It’s in many ways typical of lowland farmland in South-Central England and of the agricultural practices involved in running a modern, profitable arable farm. Since 2005, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the Wildlife Farming Company have been running a large experiment at Hillesden to explore the best ways of delivering sustainable food production whilst increasing farmland biodiversity. This has involve taking low-yielding and difficult to farm areas out of food production and replacing them with good quality wildlife habitat. With over ten years of detailed environmental data, Hillesden is a now one of the best studied farms in Britain, and an important source of information on the interactions between farming and the environment.
In 2005-2006 a large number of small areas of land that were unprofitable or difficult to farm (e.g. field margins or corners) were taken out of agricultural production for the creation of dedicated habitats that provide wildlife with a home, food or shelter. These included tussocky grass margins, areas sown with wildflowers and pollen- and nectar-rich plants, and patches sown with mixtures of seed-bearing plants for wild birds. The original experiment ran from 2005-2010 and was the biggest government-funded experiment of its kind, exploring the effects of different level of habitat creation under the then newly launched agri-environment scheme Environmental Stewardship. From 2011-2017 the experiment was redesigned to explore the difference between the Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship schemes. In this phase of the experiment we also compared Hillesden with ‘off-site controls’ – other nearby farms that were similar expect for the level of habitat creation. With these core experiments providing a well-studied landscape with varying levels of habitat creation, Hillesden has also provided an invaluable platform for other experiments, which continue to the present day.
How was the work carried out?
The Wildlife Farming Company advised the farm on which wildlife habitats to sow and how best to look after them. Scientists from UKCEH then monitored a wide range of wildlife and other environmental factors. These included counting birds, butterflies, moths, bees, plants, small mammals and beetles, as well as taking measurements of crop yield, water quality and soil health.
What did we find out?
Many scientific papers and reports have been published based on work carried out at Hillesden. Overall, Hillesden has helped us have a better understanding of how and where to create wildlife habitats for the greatest benefit to wildlife whilst minimising the amount of land taken out of food production. The farm now has many more species of plants and animals than it did in 2005, and we were surprised at just how quickly nature responded to the new habitats the farm created. Here are some of the key findings, to find out more follow the links to the scientific papers.
Supporting Farmland Birds
Helping small mammals
Increasing natural pest control and pollination
Wildlife-friendly farming increases crop yield
Natural flood management and biodiversity
What’s happening now?
Hillesden is currently one of the trial farms for the ASSIST project, including trialling in-field strips to explore how creating habitat within fields can help boost populations of pest-controlling insects in the centre of fields, and reduce the need for pesticides.
The ASSIST project has also set up instruments to investigate effects of drainage and flooding on crop yields across the farm.
The farm have also been creating and managing other habitats for wildlife, including wildflower areas, ponds and scrapes for waders and waterfowl, and nesting platforms for terns. Regular bird ringing takes place on the farm to continue to monitor bird populations.
We would like to thank Mr and Mrs R. Faccenda and the Hillesden farm staff for their ongoing support and cooperation, without whom none of this work could have happened.
Experiments at Hillesden have been funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Natural England, Syngenta, the Insect Pollinators Initiative and the ASSIST project.