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Protecting Wildlife, Protecting Nature: Why Biodiversity is Business as Usual for the Nation’s Fruit Farmers

Protecting Wildlife, Protecting Nature: Why Biodiversity is Business as Usual for the Nation’s Fruit Farmers

Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I

6 min read Partner content

A diverse mix of animals, plants, and microorganisms are part of the healthy ecosystems that provide the air we breathe and the food we eat. A new report sets out the contribution that the UK’s blackcurrant growers are making to ensure that biodiversity is prioritised on their land for generations to come.

Biodiversity is not just about rainforests and far-flung places. It is also about the nature that surrounds us in the UK. And some of the most important stakeholders in protecting that biodiversity are the nation’s fruit farmers.

Now, ahead of COP 15, the UN’s Biodiversity Conference, Suntory Beverage and Food GB&I (SBF GB&I) has published the results from its five-year Farm Stewardship Programme, an initiative that is boosting biodiversity on Ribena blackcurrant farms across the UK. The report shows the positive difference that UK fruit producers are making in protecting and enhancing wildlife across the country.

 Ribena has been a staple for British families for almost a hundred years. And the story behind the well-loved brand is one of UK farmers working in a way that protects natural habitats and promotes biodiversity.

Liz Nieboer, Head of Sustainability and External Affairs at SBF GB&I, believes that major businesses like hers have a responsibility to work in partnership with Britain’s farmers to ensure that nature is protected.

“The way we farm is enormously important in ensuring that nature remains in balance,” she explains. “Our fruit growers are custodians of the land that they farm. How they manage their land has implications for all of us, wherever we live. As a business, SBF GB&I is investing in supporting our farmers to help them work in a way that benefits nature.”

The support that SBF GB&I provides is making a significant difference due to the scale and reach of its activities. Just over 90% of the UK’s blackcurrants are used to make Ribena, from farms that cover 4,000 acres of British countryside stretching from Somerset to Dundee.

“We work across 34 blackcurrant farms in the UK,” Nieboer explains. “The farmers we work with are committed to producing fruit in a way that benefits wildlife and the planet. It is our role to help them achieve this.”

One of those farms belongs to Hugh Boucher in Kent. Local MP Gordon Henderson visited Hugh earlier this year to see at first-hand how growers in his Sittingbourne and Sheppey constituency are putting biodiversity at the heart of their operations.

Gordon Henderson MP pictured during a visit to a blackcurrant grower in his Sittingbourne and Sheppey constituency

“Local biodiversity is not just vital for nature. It is also hugely important for the local communities that I represent,” he tells The House. “When I visited a local farm earlier this year, I was enormously impressed at the steps being taken to protect wildlife at every stage of the growing process. It is a real partnership approach. It shows that if we add specific and tailored support to the local knowledge of farmers then we are able to deliver real benefits for nature.” 

That tailored support is a long-standing element of SBF GB&I’s operating model. In 2004, Ribena put a Six Point Plan in place to protect natural habitats. Recognising that farmers wanted practical help with the delivery of these actions SBF GB&I formed a partnership with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG), a conservation charity that specialises in providing trusted, independent environmental advice to the farming community.

The partnership supports a team of expert advisors who visit growers the length and breadth of the country and work alongside them to implement measures that protect and enhance natural habitats. These include a focus on maintaining and expanding hedgerows, installing birdboxes, and maintaining habitats that provide sources of pollen and nectar for insects.

FWAG project lead Rebecca Mills has been impressed by the difference that British farmers are making.

“Ribena blackcurrant growers have each delivered on the Six Point Plan to bring about positive environmental changes on their farms,” she tells us. “Many growers have gone above and beyond recommendations in the plan. Some of their environmental gains are really remarkable.”

 The benefits of providing practical advice to farmers are set out in SBF GB&I’s new report on the impact of its Farm Stewardship Programme.

The report shows that the Six Point Plan, adopted by all 34 of the farms that grow blackcurrants for Ribena, has over the past five years helped support 13 red list and 15 amber list “Birds of Conservation Concern.” These include increasingly threatened species such as turtledoves, fieldfares, skylarks, grey partridges, and yellowhammers. The approach has also been good news for other native wildlife that are priorities for conservation in the UK, including at least 19 species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

The plan has inspired farmers to install over 2,000 nest boxes across their farms, creating secure homes for 1,172 pairs of nesting birds, such as barn owls and wrens. The nest boxes have also become home to dormice, bees and pipistrelle bats and in fact, at least seven of the UK’s 17 bat species have been recorded on these farms.

SBF GB&I farmers have also sown the equivalent of 116 rugby pitches with specific pollen and nectar seed mixes to encourage pollinating insects, great for wildlife and producing juicy blackcurrants.

One of the largest UK farms used by SBF GB&I is owned by Rowan Marshall in North Perthshire. On a recent visit to the farm, local MP Pete Wishart was impressed by the way that modern farming methods and biodiversity are working hand-in-hand.

“It is fantastic to see local businesses lead the way in farming sustainability, which is helping to ensure the long-term viability of both the environment and industry,” he tells us. “What was abundantly clear was that the protection of local biodiversity is at the heart of operations on the farm, even during the busy harvest season.”

Liz Nieboer is delighted with the impact that local blackcurrant growers like Rowan are making but knows that more work is needed as the agricultural sector adapts to the challenges of a changing climate. This is a challenge that SBF GB&I is making long-term investment to address.

 “Over the last 20 years our business has invested over £2 million in research and created innovations such as climate change-resistant blackcurrants,” she tells The House. “This means that we are not simply providing for the current generation but working hard to safeguard nature for future generations too.”

North Herefordshire MP, Sir Bill Wiggin welcomes the support that SBF GB&I is providing to safeguard the future of the industry.  “I am delighted that SBF GB&I is ensuring the long-term viability of our blackcurrant farms by investing into research and innovation,” he tells us. “People buying and drinking Ribena can be confident that they are doing real good to help ensure rare and even red-listed species have the opportunity to flourish.”

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