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AgricultureA Living Countryside

A Living Countryside

People have become detached from wildlife and where their food comes from, says Robin Page, the founder and chairman of the Countryside Restoration Trust. Robin reveals plans to make the CRT’s Dorset farms part of its long term aim to “re-attach” people to the land.

THE “Dorset dream” of the Countryside Restoration Trust, to reconnect people with the natural world and the source of their food, is coming true with two farms, in the Marshwood Vale and on the eastern side off the Blackmore Vale.
The trust already owns the idyllic Babers Farm in the Marshwood Vale, bought as a memorial to co-founder, artist Gordon Beningfield. With the recent acquisition of Bere Marsh Farm, the trust now owns nearly 250 acres of wildlife-rich Dorset landscape and farmland.
The plan is for the 92-acre Bere Marsh Farm, on the banks of the river Stour, to become a countryside education and visitor centre where people will learn about wildlife and sustainable farming, and will be able to sample and buy food produced on the farm—milk, cheese, fruit and more.
In the Marshwood Vale, the trust has recently acquired 40 acres of higher land above the existing 100 acres at Babers Farm, opening up amazing views across the vale.
The Countryside Restoration Trust was founded in 1993 by wildlife artist Gordon Beningfield and Robin Page, the writer, farmer and former presenter of the BBC’s One Man and His Dog sheepdog trials programme. Robin and Gordon had a vision of sustainable farming, where people not only discover the natural world but also learn where their food comes from. Their aim with the trust was to create “a working countryside using sensitive and sympathetic farming practices that encourage and protect wildlife and produce high-quality food.”
Beningfield, who died in 1998, loved Dorset and was a huge fan of Thomas Hardy’s writing. Babers Farm, which Robin describes as “a beautiful place of peace and tranquillity,” was bought by the Trust as a memorial to the much-loved artist. It was not a conventional working farm, but rather a pristine area of unspoiled fields and wildlife-rich meadows, woods and hedges, with barn owls, song thrushes, orchids and many butterflies and other insects.
The acquisition of Bere Marsh Farm, by the Stour near Shillingstone, has fulfilled the charity’s “Dorset dream” of a flagship property to demonstrate its philosophy that thriving wildlife is essential to good farming.
Estate manager Elaine Spencer-White says the aim is “to restore it to a small-scale, organic, mixed farm, producing food on site, to be sold direct from the farm.” For many years, Bere Marsh was owned by Angela Hughes, who played a leading role in Dorset Wildlife Trust and farmed organically all her life.
Elaine, who founded and for many years ran Somerset’s successful Levels and Moors markets and Levels Best food brand, is leading the project to make Bere Marsh Farm a showcase of the CRT’s commitment to sustainable, traditional farming methods, flourishing flora and fauna, habitat restoration, and an education programme focused around the importance of food provenance.
Robin says the two Dorset farms “bring together everything we believe in while remembering Gordon and his devotion to the countryside.”
He believes that many people “have become completely detached from where their food comes from and from wildlife and what wildlife needs.” At Bere Marsh Farm, the trust will produce good food and create a home for wildlife. “We hope we will re-attach people,” he says.
Babers Farm offers a different approach. Robin sees it as a place of retreat, “where people can enjoy great peace and beauty, with the wildlife, the roe deer, the barn owls and the swallows, the butterflies and the orchids.”
The Countryside Restoration Trust’s aims are very different from rewilding: “We want to show that our farms produce good food and good wildlife,” says Robin. “Rewilding downplays the importance of small farms and farmers and shepherds. We want to show how much of our food can be produced in Britain.”
The CRT’s initial aim was to buy intensively farmed land with declining wildlife numbers and restore it to create a living countryside. These aims have broadened to include purchasing farmland and woodland where traditional farming methods, wildlife habitat and biodiversity are under threat.
Actress Dame Judi Dench became the CRT’s patron in its silver jubilee year, 2018; last year, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the food writer, broadcaster and campaigner who founded River Cottage, originally in West Dorset (now in East Devon), became the food and farming patron.
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