Posted 11th Sep 2015
We discover how one family’s passion for the natural world has led to feeding birds on a spectacular scale
In 1992, after 10 years of recording bird sightings, Nicholas Watts’ hobby became part of his work and, in the following years, shaped the direction of his farm business.
Nicholas Watts (pictured far left) is a fourth-generation farmer who has been working the land at Vine House Farm in Deeping St Nicholas since he was a boy. His passion for birds defines his particular method of wildlife-friendly farming, which has led to an MBE and many other awards. Now, his daughter Lucy and son-in-law Robert help with the bird-food business and 2,500 acre farm.
Nicholas has notebooks dating back over 50 years with records of the birds he's spotted out and about in his local area. He’s been keeping detailed maps of which birds are breeding where on the family farm and surrounding area since 1982. As his records have grown, he's noticed some worrying trends, including an alarming decline in skylarks and corn buntings.
In an effort to address this decline, Nicholas began experimenting with different farming methods and opening his farm up so other people could also witness the birds feeding on his land. This led to the development of what is now one of the UK’s most successful wild birdseed businesses, as well as ventures into conservation and organic farming.
Vine House Farm is managed in an environmentally-sensitive way which makes it incredibly rich in wildlife, home to numerous birds and insects and glittering with rich pond and plant life. Fields are bordered by weed margins, hedgerow and woodland, dykes are respected as vital wildlife homes and there are ponds, nest boxes and bird feeders dotted throughout.
'I just like to see a lot of birds, so I try and run my farm in a way that means there are lots of them about – it makes it a more enjoyable place to be,' says Nicholas.
In October last year (2014), Nicholas had 13 pairs of barn owls nesting on his farm with most having a second brood, rearing 87 young. He said: 'It was the best year for barn owls in living memory.
'Through the conservation work we've undertaken, Vine House Farm is seeing increases in local bird populations which may be static or declining nationally.'
In the last 20 years, barn owl and whitethroat numbers on Vine House Farm have quadrupled. During the same period tree sparrows and lapwings have increased ten-fold.
Impressed by their conservation prowess, The Wildlife Trusts work in happy partnership with the Watts family. Established in 2007, this partnership sees five per cent of all bird food sales donated to Vine House Farm customers’ local Wildlife Trust, all around the UK. This month, Vine House Farm’s support of The Wildlife Trusts’ work to protect and restore areas for wildlife has reached the £1 million mark. These funds are vital in helping to restore nature and in inspiring people everywhere to experience wildlife first-hand.
Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, explains: 'We are delighted to have reached this milestone, thanks to a wonderful partnership with Vine House Farm. We are grateful to everyone who feeds the birds in their garden, not only does it bring us joy but it makes a genuine difference to the success of the UK’s bird populations. And Vine House Farm birdseed adds that bit more by supporting a wildlife-friendly farmer and the wider work of The Wildlife Trusts.
'Put together, the UK’s gardens cover a great land mass but still more of our land is in the hands of landowners and farmers. Those who work to help wildlife thrive can make a massive difference. And Nicholas Watts does just that, channelling an astounding amount of passion and commitment in his work. He and his family are an inspiration. By dedicating his life to conserving wildlife, Nicholas is leading the way in wildlife-friendly farming.
'The future of wildlife in the UK depends on us all taking responsibility in any way we can – whether by feeding the birds or by farming with wildlife in mind.'
You can encourage more wildlife to your garden by bringing in more water and seeds – like Nicholas, but on a much smaller scale.
Grow your own birdseed
Resist the urge to tidy and leave seed heads for birds to feast on. There's something beautiful about the skeletal shape of plants that have gone to seed. In winter, fallen fruit and berries are loved by hungry birds. Try planting poppies, sunflowers, teasels and thistle.
Dig a pond
Ponds are a wonderful, wildlife-friendly addition to any garden or allotment. Emulate Vine House Farm's love of water and construct one in yours. You can download a free guide to building a pond from The Wildlife Trusts’ website http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-gardening/how-to-get-started
Find out more about www.vinehousefarm.co.uk where there is also an online shop selling bird food, wildlife homes and gifts.
Did you know?
- Vine House Farm has now raised £1m for The Wildlife Trusts through sales royalties.
- In the last 15 years, Vine House Farm has grown 87 million sunflowers.
- In 2011, Nicholas Watts MBE won the top prize in the ‘Oscars’ of conservation awards for the second time, a first in the Silver Lapwing Awards history. Nicholas was presented with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group’s (FWAG’s) Silver Lapwing Trophy and a cheque for £1,000 at a ceremony held at the House of Commons.
- Since 2007, Vine House Farm has grown enough seed (13,000 tonnes) to fill 26 million garden feeders.
- Nicholas was awarded an MBE in 2006 for his wildlife conservation work and wildlife-friendly management of his farm.
Images courtesy of Nicholas Watts, ChrisTaylorPhotography.com