Co. Down man Philip Bell has been selected as Northern Ireland’s most wildlife friendly farmer at the Farming Life and Danske Bank Awards.

This is the fourth year that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Northern Ireland (RSPB NI) has sponsored the wildlife friendly farmer of the year award. Over 300 people attended the event at the La Mon Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast recently on Thursday evening, October 19.

Bell, who is from Ballynahinch, was presented with the wellie boot trophy. The adjudicators acknowledged his passion for wildlife and farming and his demonstration that they can both thrive, side-by-side. Since 2013, he has been working with conservation advisors from RSPB NI, who have encouraged him to incorporate conservation measures into his farm management.

Bell has a number of Irish Moiled cattle and a small suckler herd. He has planted extensive wild bird cover, creating a food source that sustains farmland birds in winter.

His hedgerows, the judges noted, are well-managed and he has also planted a native woodland. One of the ongoing projects on the farm is reverting a rye grass field to a species-rich meadow.

Bell was ‘highly commended’ in the category last year. This year he pipped runners-up Tom and Patricia Gilbert from Ballylagan organic farm in Straid, Co. Antrim, to take the top prize.

Since 2013, Bell has had two bird surveys undertaken by trained RSPB volunteers on the farm. These surveys have shown the presence of priority species such as: reed buntings; linnets; grasshopper warblers; and house sparrows. In three years, the number of species recorded on the farm has increased from 30 to 32, with a rise in the number of linnets and reed buntings making their home there.

One of 17 accolades handed out on the night, the wildlife friendly farmer award recognises those farmers who engage in maintenance and restoration or creation of specific habitats on the farm, resulting in conservation measures that benefit wildlife. The farmers also demonstrate why farmland biodiversity is so important to them.

Claire Barnett, conservation team leader for RSPB NI, said that all the farmers who applied had done amazing things for nature. “We are delighted that Philip, who goes the extra mile to help wildlife thrive on his land, has been recognised,” she said.

“I think I speak for all the judges when I say that we were incredibly impressed with both farms, and choosing the winner was extremely difficult.

Philip is not only genuinely interested in wildlife, his work is representative of a huge number of farms across Northern Ireland, and he is also a great advocate for producing space for wildlife on a working farm.

“We are looking forward to working even more closely with Northern Ireland’s farmers to ensure that nature has a home in our countryside,” she said.