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Suffolk FWAG, 41 Years on

The origins of Suffolk FWAG go back to Willie Kerr’s farm in Letheringham in 1973 when John Trist, Tony Hillman and Gordon Clarke joined Willie Kerr to found the organisation. Subsequently Willie Kerr presented a cup, which is today still awarded annually to the Suffolk farmer best combining conservation with an economic agricultural business.

Another farmer who was involved at Suffolk FWAG’s inception was John Slater. He was the Suffolk presenter for Anglia Televisions’ Farming Diary and gave FWAG credibility in its early years. In 1977 Gordon Clarke became Chairman supported by 3 retired and amateur specialists – Dr Ray Hall, John Digby and Gwen Dyke. Gwen was a remarkable lady who gave many farmers an amazing insight into the history of their farms and her friends still hold a memorial supper in her honour every year.

In 1980 John Wilson took over the Chair. His farm at Ixworth Thorpe won the national Silver Lapwing award for conservation. Bayer, through our great supporter, Carole Ferguson, sponsored Suffolk FWAG for £1500 a year. At this time Suffolk FWAG had 85 members paying £15 per year and the farm walks attracted over 100 guests. These farmer members were considered “oddballs” for retaining hedges, planting trees and maintaining habitats. Ironically, they are now used as examples of how to farm well! During this time, similar activities were going on in Norfolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. Area meetings were held to co-ordinate progress. By 1984, Suffolk FWAG had set up the “Council” as a debating forum to discuss topical issues and, in fact, re-align opinions. This Council still meets 3 times a year.

Bernard Tickner, through his links with Greene King, sponsored the Farm Walks and John Holmes took over the Chair in 1985. As Suffolk FWAG’s work gained momentum, it was necessary to recruit a full-time adviser. Juliet Hawkins was appointed to promote the conservation message as well as meeting head on the arguments of critics, who thought that farmers were doing very little to maintain the environment. Since the early days, it has always been the principal of Suffolk FWAG that commitment to the environment runs parallel with economic reality.

A free office in the MAFF buildings in Bury St Edmunds soon followed and Philip Gibson took over as FWAG secretary. A rapid increase in activity meant that much time and effort had to put into fundraising and a great debt is owed to the many organisations and individuals who have provided support over the years.

Andrew Fane followed John as Chairman and a wildlife area on the Suffolk Showground was established. Secretarial help with membership (Maggie Lawrence) and accounts (Sue Fullman) was introduced to make more time available for advice and a second adviser, Alison Lea, was appointed in 1990. David Barker took over the Chair and recruited Tango Bolton, who replaced Juliet when she decided to become a mother! Tango introduced whole farm plans, which became nationally known as Landwise reports and used modern technology to record the development of environmental features. Suffolk FWAG led a crusade to allow headland set-aside resulting in a BBC2 documentary “Green Veins in the Countryside”. This left National FWAG trailing in our wake!

In 1993, John Cousins of Flowton followed David as Chairman and Brenda Rafe became the first Development Officer. She organised both Suffolk and Regional FWAG conferences as well as specialist workshops and other events. Adam Gretton replaced Alison Lea in 1995 and helped organise a highly successful conference on farmland birds. The membership increased to 300 members and 50 trade members and John Horsman’s farm at Cratfield won the Silver Lapwing Award.

Jonathan Paul replaced John in 1996. His death in 1998 was a great loss to the county of Suffolk. Our Vice-Chairman Roy Goodwin appointed Dan Houseago who replaced Tango who was promoted by national FWAG to become a regional manager. Dan was instrumental in developing contracts with Suffolk County Council farms and Landfill operators. Also Countryside Stewardship became a significant part of agricultural policy and increased the advisers’ workload.

Dan left to work for the National Trust and Chris Hainsworth replaced him as our second adviser. Both Adam and Chris left to join the FRCA, followed shortly after by Brenda Rafe. Roy Goodwin travelled almost daily to the office and kept Suffolk FWAG afloat. Juliet Hawkins helped with advisory visits and Nicky Watts with membership and accounts. Two excellent advisers, Tim Schofield and Peter Burston, were eventually recruited and Caroline Blew (our jewel in the crown) became the new development officer. However, Roy could not relax as the spring of 2001 brought us FMD. As restrictions lifted, the advisers increased the number of countryside stewardship applications across the county and the number of visits. Peter Burston reluctantly decided to move to Norfolk FWAG for personal reasons at the end of that year and Phil Watson joined the team. In 2003 FWAG was under the Chairmanship of the inimitable Philip Hope-Cobbold who kindly allowed us the use of Glemham Hall for many of our fundraising events.

Robert Rous (Dennington Hall Farms) replaced Philip, and helped prevent FWAG being absorbed into the NFU, when it once again, had financial difficulties. John Pawsey from Shimpling was eventually persuaded to become Chairman after 8 years as Vice Chairman in 2007, followed by Glenn Buckingham, from Helmingham Hall Farms in 2010. Robert Middleditch from Wrentham became Chairman in 2014.

Suffolk FWAG now has 6 members of staff - Tim Schofield, Diane Ling, Stephen Podd, Dora Nichols, Brenda Williamson and Caroline Blew are all working hard to keep Suffolk FWAG as the well-respected organisation it has been since 1973. It has had a major impact upon the Suffolk countryside and has made the county a better place for future generations.

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