• Dr Niamh McHugh

From Barns to Boxes

Updated: Aug 15

Framework's English Cluster is collaborating with a project increasing habitat for barn owls, we caught up with Dr Niamh McHugh at GWCT to ways new clusters can build momentum and regional relationships.





Framework is supporting the exponential growth of biodiversity conservation impacts through Advanced Farmer Clusters.


Central to the project’s landscape-scale approach is stakeholder collaboration and one way for new clusters to build momentum and relationships is to collaborate with regional and national initiatives with shared aims.

We caught up with Dr Niamh McHugh, at The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, UK, to hear about how their newly established Framework cluster is doing and the initiatives it is tapping into.


Cranborne Chase is a nationally designated AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and covers 380 square miles of countryside, overlapping the boundaries of Wiltshire, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset.


Cranborne Chase Farmer Cluster, UK | Image: Jodie Case, GWCT




Q. Has it been hard establishing a new farmer cluster during COVID?


I think we've been quite lucky because the cluster we're working with, Cranborne Chase, had already made their first steps to becoming a cluster before we came along. They had already selected their facilitator. They just didn't have their funding at that point. So I think they're quite excited to be involved and actually get to see, scientifically, if the cluster approach works in the UK and across Europe.

Q. For many, the pandemic has been a personal and professional point of reflection. This reflection on values and practices has also occurred across different sectors, and even societies. Do you think it’s happening within farming and could it benefit the project?


That's an interesting question! I think in the U.K., the whole concept [of farmer clusters] has already taken off quite well. So there's already, I think, over one hundred and fifty clusters across the U.K. But yeah, there could be situations where it's encouraging more people to get together. Maybe people have missed the social contact and covid might encourage people to work together. It will be interesting to see what happens in northern England as there are not as many clusters there. I think one of the key benefits of clusters that farmers often talk about is working together with your neighbour and actually learning from their experiences. And also they get opportunities to work with volunteers that are really interested in the environment. So there's an opportunity for people to learn from each other.

I mean we're in a very lucky situation that we're being granted permission to do surveys on farmland, it's not like this barren landscape that people always talk about.

There are a lot of interesting species that you can see by accessing it. So, yes, I think there are benefits for everyone!


Q. Tell us a bit about your place in things…


I'm a senior scientist at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, UK, and I specialise in farmland birds. I did my PhD on family bird breeding success and the influence of agri-environment schemes on that. And since then I've worked on a whole range of other taxis [species]. So I've done work with different bees and also bats and again, in relation to agri-environment schemes. That's kind of how my interest in farming clusters grew.

A lot of the time the studies we've been involved in look at the farm scale and so, for me, it's been really interesting to be involved in this project where we can look across a much broader landscape.


Cranborne Chase | Image: Jodie Case, GWCT


Q. One of the things about that landscape-scale view is maximising impacts through cluster collaborations with like-minded initiatives and funding sources. Could you tell us a bit about a recent initiative Cranborne Chase is involved in, protecting Barn Owl populations?



So I am an ornithologist and a lot of the time my work involves birds, but also a lot of my spare time involves birds! And so before the Owl Box initiative was recently set up, myself and several colleagues and volunteers were already monitoring Barn Owls on some of these clusters. We were looking for a way to push that forward a bit more to showcase the work that the volunteers were doing and also make it more scientifically valuable. Through the intiative, we also really want to showcase what farmers are doing and use Barn Owls as a flagship species to get the general public interested. So now we have a Barn Owl cam [camera] so everyone can actually see what's being done on this farmland. So we're hopeful that after this kind of initial push that we've had with the funding, that we will be able to continue with the help of the extra volunteers that we've gained as well.




The Owl Box initiatives barn owl cam | Image: Jodie Case, GWCT



Q. Do you have any tips for those involved with clusters seeking new participants and regional relationships?


I feel like we're quite lucky because like I said, it's already kind of taken off here. So the Farmers are really leading the way at this stage… but I find the best approach is just to be honest, if you don't know something, I think that's OK. We're all here to learn off each other. So, yeah, if I had a question about farming practices, I would just ask the farmers, you know! So I suppose, in my opinion, that will be the best way to go rather than just appear like you're coming in, you know everything and you're going to tell all the farmers what to do.


Q. Yes, many of the project’s impacts will be developed by pioneering farmers and their communities after receiving guidance and resources. With that in mind, where can we keep up with the Cranborne Chase Cluster’s activities?


So people can visit the UK Farmer Cluster website which has links to many Farmer Cluster social media pages.


And the Cranborne Chase Farmer Cluster has a Twitter page @FarmerCluster.


Q. Thanks for your time, Niamh, and for reaching out about the work the Cranborne Chase Cluster is engaged in.


It’s great for us to hear from a project-funded cluster and share live evidence of conservation and collaboration, particularly when it’s so photogenic.



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