Jordans 10% challenge & Jimmy's Farm

Last week I visited Jimmy’s Farm in Suffolk for the launch of the ‘10% Challenge’, a new campaign by Jordans cereals to get more people encouraging wildlife in their gardens. We are constantly faced with stories about the sad state of British wildlife; bees in crisis, butterflies declining rapidly; birds under threat. Jordans believe part of the problem is that there are not enough havens for such wildlife in our increasingly urbanized landscape. Between now and this time next year, Jordans is aiming for 10,000 gardeners to join the challenge and make at least 10% of their garden space wildlife-friendly. They estimate that, in acres, this space is equivalent to eighteen football pitches. Apparently there are 100,000 acres of garden in the UK; in the long term, Jordans hope that 10% of this would become wildlife-friendly, which is the rather impressive equivalent of 63,291 football pitches. As someone with no grasp of gardening but an earnest sympathy with the plight of bees, I went along to see what the campaign is all about.

Helping to promote the 10% challenge is the lovely Jimmy Doherty, farmer and wildlife expert. Jimmy is an entomologist-turned-farmer who set up his farm in 2003 without any experience or knowledge of the subject (his journey was documented by the BBC 2 series ‘Jimmy’s Farm’), and is now a highly successful ‘celebrity farmer’, if such a term exists. As if to embody this persona, he was wearing jeans and a checked shirt. We were shown a promotion video for the 10% Challenge in which he was also wearing jeans and a checked shirt; he hastily informed us that he does, in fact, own other shirts.

Jordans are already a company concerned about wildlife conservation. Their ‘conservation grade’ farming system, created in 1985, ensures that the farmers growing cereal for the company are very aware of the needs of nature; they are committed to creating better homes for wildlife on the land that they farm. Jordans sources its cereals from 50 farms, extending over Suffolk, Hertfordshire and Hampshire, and they all operate to conservation grade standards; over the last decade Jordans has invested £2 million into preserving the British countryside through premiums paid to farmers.

Of these 50,000 acres of farmland, the 10% devoted to wildlife is a substantial space, and has already been successful in allowing wildlife to prosper: there has been a 41% increase in birds; eight times as many butterflies; thirteen times as many bees; and thirty times as many small mammals such as water voles.

Jimmy Doherty (centre, checked shirt) and Bill Jordan (on Jimmy's left). I'm the one in red - lucky me!
Bill Jordan, co-founder of Jordans Cereals and the Conservation Grade farming system, was present to launch the campaign. Over a breakfast of Jordans cereals (as an avid fan of their products, I was truly enchanted by the huge trestle table boasting – I think – the entire range of Jordans cereals, granola and muesli bars, ready for the tasting), he explained to us the thought process behind the campaign.

“Over the years what we've managed to do with our farmers, which we're quite proud of doing, really, is to get these chaps to take ten per cent of the productive land out of production and create habitats around the farm. One of the reasons why we're getting less wildlife on farms is that we're leaving wildlife less space, so the ten per cent thing is about that percentage that comes out of production to form habitats.”

He stressed the importance of plants such as clover, which attract bees: “We have problems with bees because they haven’t got homes to go to.” Pollen and nectar are also “terribly important – once you’ve got the pollen and the nectar you get the insects and the whole trophic pyramid leading up to the ‘celebrity’ wildlife at the top.” It is this notion – that by caring for the creatures at the base of the ecosystem, you’re also benefiting those further up – that is key to the 10% challenge.

Building habitats for birds is also important at this time of year. “In a few months’ time you’ll look around the countryside and there won’t be much for birds to live on, so our farmers plant millet, wheat, all these sorts of food for birds to keep them going during those important months, so that by the time you get to March and April they’ll be in good breeding nick and be looking healthy.”

“The 10% challenge is all about using that important figure to try and get other people to help out, to get more biodiversity in the countryside. Farmers can look after wildlife in the countryside, but if more people sign up for this challenge we can have more happening in the urban environment as well, which is terribly important to build our biodiversity up. We need it to buffer us from global warming and all those things.”

Bill then introduced Jimmy, an ideal frontman for the campaign. “Jimmy’s done a fantastic job over ten years telling people what food’s about.” Bill’s certainly right there. I remember watching ‘Jimmy’s Food Factory’ on iPlayer over breakfast at university, and then always wishing I hadn’t – by carrying out weird and wonderful experiments, and building a bizarre array of contraptions, he revealed all the disgusting stuff that goes into processed meat, bread and cereal products. It was enough to put you off sliced white for life.

“I visit different producers who all think Jimmy’s a kind of superstar – he tells the story well, he puts it clearly and sensibly. Farmers like him too because he puts their case well; they’re in a tough position and need to be represented well. How do we put the truth in front of the consumers so they can make sensible decisions about the food they buy?”

I finished the last of my bowl of apple and cinnamon granola (delicious), pondered going up for some more before realizing that I had already had one breakfast, and three might be pushing it a bit, and then it was time for Jimmy to talk a little about the 10% challenge.

“What Bill and Jordans have done is fantastic. For a private business to be pushing this forward is great, this is a great way of people doing their bit for conservation. It’s also the lazy gardener’s dream – you can put that ten per cent aside that you find really awkward in the garden, that bit where nothing will grow, and turn it into a positive.”

Jimmy highlighted the importance of conservation. It’s not just about preserving bees and butterflies “for us, because they look nice”, but because “they’re vital to us. We need them more than they need us. They keep the ecosystem going; the more diverse an ecosystem is, the more stable and productive it is, and the more food we can generate to feed our population. Protecting biodiversity is the most important issue facing mankind in the coming 50 years because it’s all about ecosystem functioning and preserving out food.”

“The thing about gardens is they’re untapped resources – in a small patch of vegetation you might have 150 species, a whole plethora of species, and they do so much for the environment. This is a really clever way of looking at our gardens, if you clump them all together, as one huge nature reserve.”

If anyone is in a position to advise on making a space wildlife-friendly, it’s Jimmy. He proceeded to show us round his farm, a beautiful expanse of fields and gardens with a wide array of animal and plant life. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a farm before, at least not since I was tiny and went to petting zoos and the like, so I was thrilled to see all the different areas. It helped that it was a truly beautiful morning, the farm bathed in glorious sunshine, as we walked around the gardens and animal enclosures.

Jimmy first showed us how to make a bee box, the lesser-known cousin of the ubiquitous bird box. I’d never have thought of creating a home for bees in the garden, but suddenly it seemed very silly that I hadn’t, especially as it’s so simple – you just bunch a lot of twigs, sticks and canes (bamboo are good, as they’re hollow in the middle) together with string, and tie the bundle to a tree, or put under a bush or hedge. Brilliant. We were also told how to make a hibernation area – stuff a flowerpot with straw and half-bury it in the garden so creatures can hibernate in it. I quite fancy a hibernation pot of my own for the coming winter.

Next, Jimmy showed us around the vegetable garden, which is used on a daily basis to supply the farm restaurant. There were all sorts of edible plants and herbs growing, but more important was the large, untended patch of vegetation alongside the neat rows of thyme and sage. This weedy patch, Jimmy explained, is a great habitat for wildlife. It was a difficult area of garden, tricky to move the mower around, so Jimmy turned it into a wildlife area. He showed us borage, good for wildlife but also useful for its pretty flowers (see above), which they put in ice cubes in the restaurant (also good for Pimms in the summer, due to its cucumber flavour). Jimmy stressed the importance of plant ‘architecture’ – different heights of plants that will attract different types of wildlife – and also plant diversity – different plants attract different pests (like aphids), and therefore different predators (like ladybirds): “you want various pests that don’t get into huge populations, so you get a great selection of predators.”

“My big passion is insects”, Jimmy informed us (he has a degree in Zoology and a doctorate in Entomology). “When we think of conservation we often think of the superstars – tigers, polar bears, pandas. They’re all great but they are hanging on the coat tails of stag beetles and worms, and so are we.”

“Insects are the engineers of the environment – butterflies feed birds, stag beetles break down wood and cycle the nutrients, flies get rid of carcasses. All these invertebrates are vitally important. Make habitats for them and everything else will follow on. Everything we plant here has a reason – it’s either there for the adults or the young.”

To demonstrate this, we visited ‘Darwin’s Garden’ (see above), home to all sorts of wildlife-enticing plants, as well as a small pond. Ponds, Jimmy explained, are brilliant habitats, even if you just have a barrel sunk in the ground. They attract frogs, toads, newts, as well as insects like pondskaters, and are drinking areas for birds. He also emphasised the importance of having a shallow area in the pond, for two reasons: firstly, in case something like a hedgehog falls in; secondly, the shallow areas heat up more quickly in the sun, so help fish and frogs to regulate their temperatures.

In the corner of Darwin’s garden is, well, a mess. A mess of nettles, various prolific weeds, and some logs. Don’t underestimate the importance of logs for wildlife: if you pile them up and soak them with water, it allows insects to get in and digest the cellulose in the fibres. Apparently that patch of nettles is a hot spot for stag beetles, as well as worms and larvae. “An entomologist’s paradise”, Jimmy remarked.

He drew our attention to some of the butterfly- and bee-friendly plants in Darwin’s garden, like verbena and buddleia. However, these are more for the adults to feed on. “You also need food plants for the larvae – the adults want to breed. For that to happen, with butterflies, it’s about the plants for them to lay their eggs on.” Nettles are a favourite plant for egg-laying butterflies. If you don’t want them running riot in your garden, Jimmy says, you can dig them up and put them all in one pot, so you’re helping the butterflies without risking nasty stings.

We then followed Jimmy through a pen of sheep, past a giant barn full of garrulous turkeys. Eight thousand of them, apparently, with ten acres to roam around in. They made quite an (auditory) impression, and had me thinking about my Christmas dinner. Is that wrong?

Next, a visit to the butterfly house, a tropical environment that is mainly heated by the sun, like a large conservatory. It was hot and humid inside, moisture dripping from the ceiling, robust vegetation everywhere, and the constant movement of fluttering butterflies. There’s a large pond, home to tropical fish like guppies and swordtails. Apparently it’s also home to a resident grass snake. 

Everywhere you looked there was the quivering motion of an airborne butterfly; at one point I glanced over my shoulder to find one sitting there quite happily, which came as a bit of a surprise. The sign on the exit reminded visitors to “check you have no butterflies in your hair or clothing before exiting”.

Jimmy breeds around fifteen different species of butterfly here, all tropical or semi-tropical species. We saw the feeding table: “it looks quite disgusting, but that’s what they want.” It did indeed, piled with rotting fruit oozing sugary syrup. “As the fruit rots all that sugar starts to ferment, and the butterflies suck it up through the proboscis.” Jimmy demonstrated an ingenious feeding device: a small pot taken from the kitchen (“we normally put butter in them”), into which he put a plastic pan scourer soaked in a sugar syrup that acts as a false nectar. You can create something like this in the garden for butterflies.

I’m pretty sure I’ve been inadvertently creating butterfly cafés for the last few years, because every time I find a piece of rotting fruit in the fruit bowl I just chuck it out of the back door. Now I can tell my mum it’s all in the name of conservation, when she moans about rotting fruit scattered over the lawn.

After Jimmy’s illuminating tour and talk, I had a little wander around the farm with my camera. I was instantly captivated by the piglets. There are Essex pigs, Saddlebacks, and Gloucester Old Spots on the farm. I saw the Saddlebacks, named for the distinctive white stripe across their middle. The young piglets were harassing their mother for milk, headbutting her belly and squealing madly, until she eventually gave in, retiring into her little hut and flopping down on the floor with a sigh to be descended upon by her ravenous offspring.

Later I returned to find three of the piglets snuggled up together having a nap. A fourth, clearly keen to be part of the huddle, decided the best way in was simply to jump on top of the other three and worm his way in. There was great porcine protest at his actions; the nap party was quickly dispelled, much – I imagine – to the chagrin of the happy sleepers.

I also saw the very handsome pygmy goats, the beautiful peacocks (which are free to strut around the farm as they please) and some rather mad chickens. I think I also spotted some alpaca on my way out, too. As a city dweller, I was completely charmed by all the animals and the verdant surroundings, and could happily have spent the day wandering around. I also ogled the ripe apples and pears dangling from the trees near the vegetable garden; perhaps they were waiting to be turned into some delicious dessert in the farm café.

This was a really interesting and enjoyable morning, and not only because of the copious quantities of Jordans cereals on offer. I was fascinated by all the statistics and facts about wildlife, and how easy it is to render a space more friendly to birds, bees and butterflies. I may have a go soon at creating my own bee box, though I think I’m already doing my bit for the butterflies by throwing out rotten apples. 

(Admittedly, having cats is not really conducive to butterfly harmony; mine tend to find catching them a highly entertaining game. I knew I shouldn’t have taught them to play catch with rolled up bits of paper.)

I really enjoyed meeting both Jimmy and Bill, too. Bill seemed like such a nice man that I didn’t dare tell him about the time a rogue piece of grit in a box of Jordans muesli broke a piece off my front tooth.

For more information on Jimmy’s Farm, click here. For more information on the Jordans 10% challenge (including their top ten tips for encouraging wildlife, and downloadable guides to everything from building a butterfly café to planting for bees), click here. Thanks to Wild Card for inviting me to this event.