We were very excited to be able to host a talk by Nick Padwick of the Ken Hill Estate in West Norfolk, which has been made famous in recent years as the base for BBC’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch.  The hall filled up quickly with an audience of 76 people eager to hear what he had to say about farming for wildlife.  Ken Hill is rightly famous as being a pioneer in the move away from chemical farming and towards re-generative farming and rewilding.  Nick was an extremely enthusiastic speaker, who was obviously passionate about the farming practices they are developing at Ken Hill and had so much information he wanted to convey he struggled to condense his talk into the allocated time.  He did not focus his talk on the exciting rewilding projects at Ken Hill or being the hosts of Autumnwatch (although he did happen to mention that Michaela Strachen gets changed in their bedroom!), but instead he chose to concentrate solely on the farming methods they are following at Ken Hill.

The first part of his talk focussed on the importance of soil health and how it is essential to encourage healthy microscopic life back into agricultural soil, as much of which has been destroyed by years of pesticide and insecticide use on farmland.  He described in detail the different types of life needed in healthy soils, such as a range of bacteria, nematoid worms etc. much of the detail of which was unfamiliar to myself, and probably most of the audience, but he conveyed it with such passion and conviction that he was able to hold everyone’s attention.

Nick had been a conventional farm manager, working for Co-Operative Farms in the Midlands and said that one of the experiences that had led him to believe chemical farming was wrong, was when after spraying a field with insecticides, he found three dead hares on the track by the field the next day.  Therefore, he welcomed the opportunity to be able to systematically reduce the use of chemicals when he became the Farm Manager at Ken Hill, and still be able to grow crops successfully. He has done this by a careful study of the science of soil health, the specific geology and geography of the land they are farming, an understanding of weather condition and the use of the latest GPS technology. Under conventional farming methods chemicals will be applied routinely to land as a preventative measure, to kill “weeds” and “pests”, and  consequently has an adverse impact on other living organisms.  However, by a careful understanding of their soil health, their specific conditions, the weather etc. they try to grow their crops at the optimum time to avoid pest species and weeds so their crops can grow without the need for any chemicals.  They also attempt to avoid compacting the soil by using modern machinery, which is fitted with GPS accurate to just 2 cms, so the wheels are only going on to the specified areas of soil. They also use a double cropping system where they will grow two crops together, such as spring barley and peas. They do not believe in leaving soil bare and plant cover crops where necessary and also will plant hedges in the centre of large fields to ensure there is habitat for birds and predatory insects to manage potential pest species.

They do all this and still mange to grow crops successfully and return to a profit on the farm.  This is done because, although their crop yields may be somewhat lower, their costs are significantly lower as they are not purchasing expensive chemicals; and the soil is becoming increasingly healthier.  Also, they are not only carbon neutral with their farming methods but also have a negative carbon footprint.  They are still experimenting and learning as they follow a long term plan to develop a fully re-generative farming practice.  Their estate is divided into three sections; the farmland where they grow crops, the re-wilding area on less productive land where they have cattle and pigs foraging and grazing in woodland, and a truly wild area, mainly along the coast where they have scrapes, ponds, and scrubland for wild birds and mammals etc.

This was a truly inspiring talk by Nick Padwick and a rare example of positive news for the natural world, where a farming estate can grow crops for profit and still encourage wildlife and bring back healthy eco-systems.  This report is just what I was able to recall from what was a very informative and fact laden talk by a real practical expert, and there will be a great deal that I have omitted and things that I may have only half understood, so please visit their website for accurate information;


I hope that we may able to make a trip out to Ken Hill next year, either as individuals or maybe as a group outing.

Report by Chair Peter Armitage