William Hepworth-Smith of Astley Farms near Fakenham was named the winner of the 2013 Ian MacNicol Memorial Trophy on Tuesday 19 November, for an outstanding contribution to nature conservation on farmland. The event was hosted by Farm Conservation at the offices of Anglia Farmers, in Honingham Thorpe near Norwich, and sponsored by Birketts LLP.

The 1,200 acre farm has been converted to organic farming and includes a diverse range of crops as well as grazing for cattle and sheep. 6m margins surround all Astley Farms’ fields, enhancing the network of hedges and buffering water courses from potential run off. The estate has embarked on a hedge restoration project, gradually coppicing and gapping up tall out grown hedges.

Astley Farms works closely with the public and local community, in addition to providing permissive footpaths, the farm actively encourages school visits, participates in Open Farm Sunday and the Let Nature Feed your Senses project.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the estate is Swanton Novers Woods SSSI and NNR. 150 acres is under a management agreement with Natural England and holds nationally rare bryophytes, lichens and plants. The area forms one of the most important groups of woods in the country, with an exceptional range of woodland stand-types.

Astley Farms have set up a farm shop – Back to the Garden, near Holt – selling farm produce and serving it in an excellent cafe/restaurant. This has been a real success story.

The three other finalists at the awards were highly commended and the judges commented that the competition was extremely closely run. These were James Chapman of Chapman Farms, Rollesby, Matthew Skinner of CD Skinner, Itteringham and the Raveningham Estate, which was entered as a joint application by the estate manager, Jake Fiennes, to include all its tenant farms.

Chapman Farms, Rollesby is 500ha, comprising of 331ha of arable land, 113ha of woodland managed for conservation and shooting and 64ha of former ESA marshes, which are managed under ELS. New hedges, beetle banks and margins have been established voluntarily. Permissive paths are granted to the parish council and tours are given to local school groups. Rides have been opened up in alder carr to create butterfly, bat and dragonfly corridors. Local buildings have been restored using local reed and hazel and a granary has been converted into Broadland Country Sports – a one-stop-shop selling clothing, outdoor and equestrian equipment.

CD Skinner is a 230ha partnership of farms between Foxley, Twyford and Itteringham, comprising of 188ha arable land and 40ha of grassland. Former ESA grassland is managed under an HLS option and the farm’s beef herd has been increased as a result of entering the stewardship scheme. Land at risk of erosion has been converted to grassland and wild bird seed mixtures support flocks of hundreds of finches in the winter months. The site of St Nicholas Chapel, which was destroyed in the 14thC, has been taken out of production and fenced.

The 2,500ha Raveningham Estate includes 1,800ha of arable land, 500ha of grassland and 200ha of woodland. Ancient semi-natural woodland is divided up into coups and managed as traditional coppice with standards, and rides have been opened up to benefit flora and butterflies. Elsewhere, 40km of hedges have been planted to cater for specific butterfly and bird species, and supplementary feeding is carried out to keep farmland birds fed throughout the year. Scrapes and pools have been created on the marshes near Reedham to provide an exceptional nesting habitat for a wide variety of waders and wildfowl. The estate has also built up a herd of Norfolk horn sheep and Sussex cattle to manage areas of grassland and parkland.

The awards evening opened with a thought provoking speech by Richard Powell OBE. As the chair of Wild Anglia, he discussed how the new organisation is working to change the way we think about and value the natural environment in Norfolk and Suffolk.