Northumberland farmer in line for environmental award

North Northumberland farmer Tom Comber, of Elwick, has made his farm a safe haven for endangered birdlife

Tom Comber on his land at Elwick Farm near Belford in North Northumberland
Tom Comber on his land at Elwick Farm near Belford in North Northumberland

A farmer who runs a mixed enterprise on the north Northumberland coast is in the running for an environmental award.

Tom Comber will find out next week whether he is the overall winner of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s prestigious Tye Trophy Awards, given to those who integrate conservation work in a commercial farming environment.

Tom and his wife Susan have farmed at Elwick, near Belford, since 2007, taking over from her parents Robin and Ros Reay. Elwick Farm has been in the Reay family since 1924.

It is a traditional 550-acre mixed farm with 300 acres of foreshore land opposite Holy Island. Livestock are 450 breeding commercial sheep, predominately Texel cross and Lleyn ewes, and 250 beef cattle finishers, the majority of them Charolais and Limousin cross steers bought in at a year old.

Seventy acres are given over to encourage geese, with a further 40 acres as habitat for breeding waders.

Tom has been working with Natural England, which already had a lease on the foreshore, since 2012, taking advantage of their Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes.

He said: “Natural England wanted us to go into the high-level scheme; the light-bellied Brent geese (which are on the amber list of endangered species) was the main driver and they had a lease on the foreshore. It came to an end as I came down here; now the foreshore is under a management agreement – it has had a wildfowling ban on the foreshore at our end of the bay which is like a reserve. The north end still has wildfowling tickets available. This is one of the target areas for Natural England to have the HLS for the geese and the birdlife.

“We were doing some things before but have now utilised the HLS scheme to help benefit more conservation work, mainly around the birdlife. The foreshore land is actually within the Lindisfarne nature reserve and we have these light-bellied Brent geese that come every winter.

“They come to Lindisfarne and a place in Denmark which I think are the only two places in the world where they live. When the food source is gone on the foreshore, they tend to come on to the farmland. We’re clearing the livestock off the grass for the winter months to enable the geese to come on to graze the grass.

“We have about 70 acres dedicated to that in the winter and there’s another 38 acres which we have dedicated to breeding waders coming on in the winter and early spring. We get a lot of curlews, skylarks, yellow wagtails, house sparrows, all sorts - we have a guy who comes regularly and does counts which have shown there are 115 species on the farm with another 40 species that live on the foreshore and they’re not double-counted.

“Of the ones on the farm there are 16 which are on the red list of conservation concern, like yellowhammer, grey partridge and lapwings. We get thousands of lapwings in the winter. The more common-type waders are black-tailed godwit and four or five different types of sandpipers, redshanks and greenshanks.”

There are six holiday cottages on the farm, run by Mr and Mrs Reay. Their existence has led to slight tension with Natural England, as Tom explained.

“We have a hide put in as part of our agreement with Natural England and try to encourage the people renting the holiday cottages to go down to the shore. Natural England wants as few people as possible to go down there. There is a footpath and you can walk right round the foreshore and we said, ‘Look, these people really want to be able to go,’ so they have now said it is fine.

“We have a working relationship with Natural England. It’s quite nice to have that niche thing, to show the people who want to come and stay here that they can go down and see the birds.”

The environmental work has also benefited the farming side of the business, with shelter belts created.

Tom explained: “We’ve planted 4,000 metres of hedges, about half of which is new hedges put in where there have never been hedges before, and the other half is some old spindly thorn we’ve coppiced and replanted with a range of hawthorn, blackthorn, guelder rose, dog rose, hazel, a bit of beech, apple.

“One of the key drivers for me is the hedge planting because we’re very exposed to the North Sea and the north wind so one of the benefits will be shelter belts. That’s why we’ve gone down the hedging route and also because Natural England doesn’t want us to plant more trees, they want open landscape for the geese. But the hedges break the wind for the livestock because we lamb outside at the end of April and can really benefit from more shelter.

“We’ve put in grass margins, some wildflower margins along the watercourses, what they call wild bird mixture for winter seeds for birds. It’s early stages yet for these, they’re only in their first year and we need to cut them regularly to stop the weedy grass, the thistles and that coming.”

“We only started the HLS scheme in summer 2012 and because it was such a wet horrible summer, it was only last summer that we planted these margins so it will be next year that hopefully we have an abundance of plants for the insects, that’s the idea – the insect life for young chicks.

“From a crop point of view, hopefully the margins will encourage more insects and more predators – we need predators, like ladybirds, to eat the aphids and the other little bugs that can damage the crops. We have 300 acres ploughed up with wheat, barley and oilseed rape and also grow a few turnips every year

“We have winter and spring barley, really so we’re not all winter cropping, and have some land that is overwintered stubble. That is used a lot by the birds, the lapwings seem to like that a lot, it’s very popular for them. Where we have the grassland for the waders, there are splash pools and the lapwings tend to use those during the day and come to that stubbly land at night to roost. I’ve seen more than 1,000 fly over the top of me and come in and roost there at times.”

Sons William, 15, and Jamie, 13, help out when they are home from school – “They are very much involved,” said Tom – and he also has a couple of self-employed workers while the arable work is done by a neighbour on a contract basis.

Tom will discover on Wednesday at the Great Yorkshire Show whether he is the overall winner of the Tye Trophy Awards, run as a practical way of encouraging other farmers to adopt similar practices. The competition is open to farms across the North of England, and Tom will be up against the other regional winners. They are:

East Yorkshire – Tim Sellers of Carr House Farm, Foston on the Wolds, Driffield. A fifth-generation 480-acre farm set at the foot of the Yorkshire Wolds. Organic since 1999, the farm supplies an on-farm enterprise, Side Oven Bakery. Spelt wheat is grown and processed for bread making, plus organic apples, elderflowers and soft fruit are grown. Environmental stewardship has encouraged a wide range of animals and birds to thrive alongside agricultural activity.

North Yorkshire – Richard Bramley of Manor Farm, Kelfield near York. A 550-acre arable farm, with milling wheat, malting barley, potatoes, sugar beet and oilseed rape. His approach is to achieve the best from the land and crops with minimum input and with conservation as an integral factor of his farming. Sharing lessons learned with others is a key part of his farming approach. Conservation activity includes habitats for birds such as skylarks and yellow wagtails.

Tyne Tees– Chris, Liz and Harry Hodgson of Piercebridge Farm, Piercebridge, Darlington. A tenanted organic grassland farm belonging to Raby Estates which has been run by the Hodgson family since 1964. Their lamb, beef and outdoor unit pork supplies their farm shop which now employs 14 people. Much of the land has been reclaimed from former gravel quarries and the Country Stewardship Scheme has helped with a programme of hedge planting.

West and South Yorkshire: John Key of Garfield House Farm, Midhopestones, Stocksbridge. John has a 240-acre grassland farm of which a good proportion is classified less favoured and severely disadvantaged. He has pedigree Suffolk sheep which he shows, and also suckler cows. Conservation work includes specific grazing areas used to encourage nesting lapwings and waders and small ponds to encourage insect life. A small wind turbine and solar panels help provide power to the farmhouse and office.

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