A Wiltshire farmer, Ashton Hawker, of Gardner’s Farm near Chippenham, has beaten five regional finalists to win the coveted Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West’s regional Barn Owl Competition, which celebrates those farmers that go the extra mile to produce food sustainably and conserve farmland wildlife.

On Wednesday 6th December 2017, FWAG SouthWest members, advisers and friends gathered at the Corn Barn, Cullompton, Devon to recognise and celebrate the environmental merits of the 6 finalists of the regional Barn Owl Award for 2017.

Gary Rumbold, FWAG SW General Manager, believes it is important to celebrate good farm environmental management, and led the award presentations by saying “We must recognise the valuable work that many farmers do to protect wildlife, communities and the health of our soil and water. All our finalists uphold a commitment to sustainable agricultural practices and the continued protection of wildlife. It is a lifetime commitment deserving of celebration.”

Ashton Hawker was presented with the Barn Owl Trophy by FWAG SW Chair of Trustee’s, Robert Jackson, and the lead judge, Richard Belding, in recognition of his fantastic conservation work at Gardners Farm, near Chippenham. Gardners Farm is a large farm, mainly geared to support a 400-head dairy herd supplying milk to Waitrose. The judges were very impressed with the commitment shown by the Hawkers to improve the opportunities for wildlife, on a farm that could very easily be run more intensively. Of note is their Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement that was entered into 3 years ago with a strong farmland bird theme. Options include 60ha of overwintered stubble and 14ha of wild bird seed mixes plus supplementary winter feeding of birds. There are nearly 30ha of wildflower enhanced margins, as well as pollen and nectar mixes targeted at increasing pollinator numbers. An area is managed specifically for barn owls, in the creation of tussocky grassland for small mammals, the barn owl’s favourite prey. The farm provides two fallow plots for lapwing and other ground nesting birds, plus 200 skylark plots.

Gardners Farm excels in many additional areas though; slug pellets have not been used here for 5 years, a 100kw solar unit has been installed on the roof of the dairy reducing the electricity bill by 50%, rainwater is harvested for washing down, straw is used for bedding and the farm attracts many swifts and swallows during the summer, no doubt attracted by the 10 farm ponds which have been carefully restored. All this has led to an observed increase in yellowhammers, linnets, skylarks, corn buntings and other songbirds, plus an amazing number of hares. The judges were particularly impressed with the 65ha of mixed woodland bought in 2010, which has seen a considerable amount of work from Ashton in the removal of many conifers to favour broadleaved species, as well as opening up tracks. A wood cabin has been built to host meetings and the local primary school visits once a week for outdoor education and nature lessons.

Ashton Hawker, on winning the award said, “This has come as a real shock. I didn’t expect to win against such stiff competition. We have a great team here and it’s a testament to their hard work that year on year we are seeing significant increases in birds, hares and wildlife running happily alongside the Dairy, Beef and Corn enterprises. It is a great honour to bring home the Barn Owl Trophy to Wiltshire and it will have pride of place on the mantelpiece.”

Ashton beat finalist from across the South West including; Peppercorn Farm in Somerset with Charlie and Gill Ainge, Waterhay Farm in Gloucestershire with Richard and Andrew Rumming, Paradise and Holt Lodge Farms in Dorset with Oliver Burge, Dennings Down Farm in Devon with Hamish Benough and Lesquite Farm in Cornwall with Tom Tolputt.

The FWAG SW regional and county competitions open again in January 2018, so take a look here if you are interested in nominating yourself or perhaps another farmer for one of the FWAG SW competitions.