North Bellshill leads the way in educational visits

A NORTHUMBERLAND farming couple are leading the way in giving young people the chance to find out more about life on a farm.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 20th December 2012, 6:06 am

Helen and John Renner are passionate about showing people the links between farming and the environment at North Bellshill Farm near Belford and they have recently opened a brand new education centre on the farm called ‘The Hedgerow’ with the help of funding from Natural England’s Environmental Stewardship scheme.

The Hedgerow, built by a local builder and employing local tradesmen, was officially opened by Professor David Hill, deputy chair of Natural England last week. Thanks to funding from a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme, one of Natural England’s environmental stewardship schemes, Helen and John have been able to build the new education centre and also offer farm visits free of charge. The centre has been designed and built with access for disability groups very much in mind and will help to open up the Northumberland countryside to a wide range of user groups.

Around 6000 people have already visited the farm over the last seven years improving their knowledge on the role that farmers play in both food production and the protection of the natural environment. With the opening of The Hedgerow, Helen and John are hoping that even more groups will be able to visit the farm in future.

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John said: “Being a new entrant into farming Helen and I have been able to develop a business that combines good environmental care with sound, practical farming running right through the business. As an industry, we need to speak out about what we do to produce wholesome food as well as protect the environment. It’s great for the farm and the industry to be able to show any groups around the farm and to help them appreciate the connection between themselves, their food and the countryside.”

Helen added: “We’re already involved in a number of learning initiatives with local schools such as ‘Let Nature Feed Your Senses’ and we’ve been hosting educational visits at the farm for several years. Natural England’s HLS educational access funding has helped us by supporting these visits so that we can offer them to schools for free. I hope that by opening our new purpose-designed education centre we can welcome even more schools, colleges and other groups encouraging a better knowledge on healthy eating and greater appreciation of the environment in which we live through our work at North Bellshill.”

John and Helen always make time in their busy farming day to meet groups and give visitors a first-hand insight into the work of a farmer. They started farming at Bellshill in 1997 and the 110ha (270 acres) mixed farm is ideal for finding out more about the wide range of food that farmers produce.

Adrian Vass, Natural England north east area manager, added: “It is through the hard work of farmers like John and Helen Renner, participating in environmental stewardship schemes, that we can make a real difference to our land, conserve wildlife and protect natural resources as well as providing access to our many, beautiful farms.

“Opening farms up to groups as an educational resource is a great opportunity for people to experience life on a farm, learn about wildlife, how the land is managed and where their food comes from. These visits can make a real difference, especially for groups who might not otherwise have the chance to visit the countryside or see how a working farm operates.”

Agri-environment schemes, such as HLS, are one of the main providers of outdoor environmental learning for schoolchildren in England, with more than 1,000 farmers currently offering free visits as a result of their participation in the schemes.

The Renners are members of Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) and through LEAF they have made North Bellshill a demonstration farm - one of only 26 in the country. They regularly host visits from various groups from schools to walking for health groups, from University students to vicars. The highest point on the farm is 170m above sea level, and there are some breath taking views over the surrounding countryside.

Stewardship schemes also help with the conservation of wildlife at North Bellshill and the farm boasts a wide range of environmental projects, including hedgerow regeneration, stonewalling and creation of an area of no nitrogen and limited grazing to provide a better balance of wildlife habitats. Grass margins have been established around all fields which act as a buffer preventing spray drift reaching hedge bottoms and also provide feeding grounds for birds, small mammals and insects. Beetle banks divide the larger fields to provide valuable wildlife havens throughout the farm.

Hedges are managed sensitively and cutting is carried out in rotation and outside the nesting season. Grey partridges, barn owls and lapwings are regular visitors to the farm and their habitats are sensitively managed to ensure their continued survival. The farm is also involved in many Catchment Sensitive Farming projects including renovating farm tracks, creation of silt traps and a low cost bio-bed which all add to the greater story of North Bellshill.

To find contact details and book a visit go to