AR Wilson Ltd, based at Manor Farm in East Winch, near King’s Lynn, is the holder of the Ian MacNicol Memorial Trophy, a farm conservation prize awarded by Norfolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group).
The farm hosted a celebratory tour to show other farmers how its natural resources are managed – and how this effort is integrated into commercial food-growing ventures.
Farm director Robert McNeil Wilson described it as a “diverse and productive agricultural system within a flourishing and active environment”.
“This is a commercial farm, so it needs to be ‘food first’, but in a friendly environment,” he said. “The conservation wraps around it.”
The 600 hectares of land is mainly light soil, making it difficult to grow the wheat and barley which are a staple across much of East Anglia.
Instead, the business has invested in water resources which now underpin both its commercial operations and its wildlife.
There are 20 hectares of water on the farm, from purpose-built reservoirs to ponds, lakes and disued quarries.
And after “continuous investment” in infrastucture since the 1960s, every field is now connected to an underground irrigation main, and the farm holds irrigation licences totalling 107 million gallons for borehole, winter storage and groundwater abstraction.
This has opened the door for an “interesting and diverse cropping system where the cereals are the break crop in the rotation”.
Potatoes, carrots, parsnips, tulips and strawberry and raspberry plants are all grown by producers who share the farm’s eco-friendly ethos of improving soil health by reducing chemicals, planting cover crops and reducing tillage where possible.
There is also livestock on the farm, creating another vital natural resource to improve the underground environment – by boosting organic matter in the soil.
“We have an outdoor herd of pigs which North Farm Livestock [based near Holt] have with us, and the pigs give us a supply of pig muck, so we have been able to enjoy using that in the rotation, leading us toward regerative agriculture,” said Mr McNeil Wilson.
“As well as the pigs, Sarah Juggins has her herd of outwintered Wagyu cattle which rotate around the farm on temporary grass, and then we have sheep that come and go, grazing cover crops and various environmental areas at appropriate times of year.”
The farm holds three environmental stewardship agreements, with 90ha of land currently devoted to features including woodland, wildflowers and grass margins, along with rotational areas of pollen, nectar and wild bird seed mixes.
During the last 20 years, it has also planted 7km of hedges and 11ha of trees, as well as putting up 160 bird boxes.
“These schemes, together with the various sources of water, have changed the landscape, improved the environmental quality of the farm and seen a vast increase in widlife,” said Mr McNeil Wilson.
He added that he will be applying to convert the three existing stewardship schemes on the farm into a single Countryside Stewardship agreement later this year.
“I see that as a much more holistic way of managing the environment on the farm,” he said.
One of the best examples of nature regeneration on the farm is at the so-called “Swan Lake” – a former gravel extraction site which was quarried until 2019.
It is now a picturesque reed-fringed lake, surrounded by flower meadows, woodland and areas of wild bird seed mixture, funded through a Countryside Stewardship scheme.
“We’re really pleased with how it developed, and being able to graze it with sheep has helped it to develop,” said Mr McNeil Wilson.