ENVIRONMENTAL farmers' cooperatives now cover 2.9 per cent of England's farmed area - and they are expanding in the south west.

The Environmental Farmers Group (EFG), Peakland Environmental Farmers (PEF) and Swaledale & Wensleydale Environmental Farmers (SWEF) now represent 469 land managers. 

The original EFG was launched by farmers in Hampshire and Wiltshire last year, and now the group is set to expand to West Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Isle of Wight and West Sussex. 

These farmer-led organisations have three shared objectives: carbon neutrality; biodiversity recovery and cleaner rivers. They offer assurance to investors through professional support and commercial expertise provided by Natural Capital Advisory and their partnership with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).

South West Farmer: Locations of Environmental Farmer Cooperatives. Image: GWCTLocations of Environmental Farmer Cooperatives. Image: GWCT (Image: Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust)

Teresa Dent CBE, GWCT chief executive, said: “These new cooperatives are mobilising the sector to achieve nature recovery on the 72% of England which is farmed. Though many nature reserves are wonderful places, it will not be possible to reverse wildlife decline on those alone, as they cover only 8%.

"By proving it is possible to combine profitable agriculture with thriving biodiversity on a grand scale, this model can show that farmers are not the problem, but the essential solution to hitting the Government’s environmental targets. As the 2030 deadline for delivery fast approaches, it’s more important than ever to seize the opportunity of investing in the EFGs.”

The agricultural sector is set to lose £2billion in annual payments when the Basic Payment Scheme ends in 2027. And so the groups aim to support farming communities to meet and beat government environmental targets. 

Chair of the EFG and Wiltshire arable farmer, Rob Shepherd, said: "The EFG has already agreed nutrient mitigation projects with developers and we are currently working with NCA in four catchments to deliver over 15 nutrient trades, and 9 Biodiversity Net Gain trades worth around £27m in environmental improvements.

"Our equalisation structure means all farmers in the group benefit every time we make a trade. We are currently creating catchment-wide conservation plans, which will identify landscape-scale habitat enhancement. The sheer scale of EFG means there are plenty of opportunities for buyers and investors to support a wide range of exciting initiatives that will make a real difference.”

Many farmers involved are environmental pioneers. An example in the south west is the Wyle Farmer Cluster in Wiltshire. They have developed their own water quality testing complete with a fully equipped lab in a disused stable and they are helping roll out reliable, systematic river sampling to other clusters within the EFG.

South West Farmer: The River Avon Chalk Stream. Image: GWCTThe River Avon Chalk Stream. Image: GWCT (Image: Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust)

Joe Edwards manages the Middleton Estate, which has restored its three-mile stretch of the River Test. 

“We set out to recover the river combining a wide range of measures," he said.

"The result was when we tested the water for 300 chemicals, it showed it’s cleaner when it leaves Middleton than when it enters. There are many farmers on the Test and other rivers who are interested in implementing similar management and I believe the EFG’s conservation plan, led by GWCT Chief Exec Teresa Dent, has the potential to roll this out across the county and beyond.”