At this year’s Farming Life awards, brothers James and David Bonnar from the Glenwherry area of the Antrim plateau, were named Nature Friendly Farmers of the Year.

The award, which was sponsored by the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), shone a light on their work making space for nature on the land they manage across a 620ac farm.

It marked them out as champions of wildlife and of new ways of working which address both the nature and climate emergency. 

Bonnar brothers

James and David have worked with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Northern Ireland to give nature a home on their working land for over ten years, and with the organisation’s support, are now coming to the end of their first five-year agreement as part of the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs’ (DAERA) Environmental Farming Scheme.

The better practices the scheme supports James and David to put in place, such as scrape creation, rush cutting and balanced herd management, are all integral to maintaining balance on their farm, and provide vital habitats and ideal breeding conditions for iconic and threatened bird species such as curlew and hen harrier. 

Reflecting on their victory, James said that winning the award came as a shock after meeting some of the other finalists and hearing about the good work they were carrying out on their farms to preserve and regenerate nature and habitats. 

“This award means a lot to us; it lets us know that the work we are doing is being appreciated by others and hopefully shows the general public that farmers are doing what they can to preserve nature on their farms,” he said.

“We are advised on the EFS (Environmental Farming Scheme) by Katie Gibb and her team from RSPB NI. They work very hard to support us, are so informative, and always steer us in the right direction,” James said.

“This past year has to be the most memorable with multiple curlew chicks hatching and fledging on the farm. We are looking forward to another successful season again next year.” 

RSPB NI supports over 400 farmers across Northern Ireland to advise and support on the government-funded options available to help maintain and improve important habitats for threatened species, including farmland birds.

It also helps to ensure that implementation and compensation as part of the DAERA EFS is accessible, manageable, and rewarding for not just the Northern Ireland farming community, but also for nature. 

Katie Gibb, conservation officer, RSPB NI, said that it had been such a pleasure working with James and David over the years.

“Their passion for nature and wildlife is key not only to their winning this award, but also to the balance and sustainability of their farm,” she said.

“Their enthusiasm for wildlife and dedication to farming make them an integral and valuable part of the EFS Group Option at Glenwherry, where they serve as an exemplar to new entrants to the scheme.” 

Nature Friendly Farming Network

The Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), which sponsored the award, is a farmer-led initiative that operates across the UK.

Run by farmers for farmers, it raises the profile of farming sustainably, wildlife-friendly practices and supports and champions farmers who are striving hard for nature on their working land. 

Phil Carson, NFFN NI sustainable farming lead, said that James and David had demonstrated that nature is not an optional add-on, but a core element of a thriving farm business.

“They have shown that climate action and biodiversity recovery are key elements in supporting food production and that each of these goals can be met together,” he said.

“We were blown away by their dedication to sustainable land management and the impressive results they have achieved over recent years.

Looking forward, James and David believe agri-environment schemes should be made stronger and more available to help farmers to deliver more for nature and climate, as well as enabling more organisations like RSPB NI to lend advice on nature-friendly farming. 

“Over the years we have adapted the farm and the way we manage the land. It has had great results for both our business and nature and hopefully the way we leave the farm can be enjoyed and be profitable for generations to come,” said James.