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Our Farm

Farming for wildlife

When you want to make small changes, do things differently.  When you want to make big changes, see things differently.  Or so an esoteric old-timer told his young farming neighbour.  As we began to think about long term plans for our farm, our understanding of sustainable agriculture made us see the countryside around us in a new light. 

 

British wildlife is vanishing, not because we paved paradise, as only 6% of the UK is built on (but complete respect for Joni Mitchell). Our wildlife is disappearing, because it is barely able to cling on to the scraps left behind by modern farming practises. By maintaining grassland for one or two species like the dairy cow and woolly ewe, by ploughing in monocultures for animal feed, by spraying the land with an ever increasing cocktail of chemicals, there is little life left in our fields.  Viewed through the prism of biodiveristy, modern British farms are effectively rural deserts with a couple of species growing where there use to be hundreds flourishing.  We are determined to ensure that our farm is full of life.

 

Thirty years of organic stewardship has gifted our farm with maturing woodland and wildflower rich meadows.  But we can do more to encourage and protect biodiversity, so we have changed the way our farm is grazed in order to create more opportunities for different plants and animals to thrive.

Biodiversity needs change, a dynamic environment that gives new species opportunities to thrive, a push and pull between creation and destruction.  We don't simply want to conserve, we want to regenerate our landscape.  Rewilding, as some people call it, is not about giving up our rural spaces, moving out and letting nature take over.  It's about allowing natural processes to take place, and mimicking those processes which are no longer possible. 

pasture for live fed soil association or
 
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If we removed ourselves and our livestock from farms, woodland would quickly cover the pastures.  This would see biodiversity actually decrease. The greatest biodiversity exists not in woodland with its light-stealing canopy, but in wooded pastures, in wetlands teeming with insects, in wildflower meadows with its variety of grasses and flowers.  The greatest diversity exists in the habitats considered marginal by modern farming methods, therefore it is these marginal habitats we want to see at the heart of our farm.
 
To create and maintain biodiversity, to farm for wildlife, help comes from an unlikely source - cattle. Plants have always been nibbled, crushed, torn, decimated and distributed by animals. Lightly grazing the farm with cattle creates this flux between plant growth and animal disturbance. A small herd of native breed cattle ensure that our species-rich grasslands are not entirely swallowed up by advancing woodland, but their relatively low grazing numbers also allows for the woodlands to billow out into the pastures.

Our cattle have the freedom of the farm, so that their roaming brings biodiversity from one part to another.  Their freedom allows them to graze exactly what they need and when, to ensure they are as healthy as possible, negating the need for routine antibiotics and medicines.  And they will only ever graze on pasture, relying only on what the farm can produce rather than carbon-heavy imported grains. Finally by keeping them outside even in the winter when they are usually brought into barns to feed them either hay or grain, the cattle provide a mildly destructive force which helps create opportunities for new plants to take hold in the spring.

 

So to make big changes to the way we farm, we've started to see things differently.

Take this mole hill.  To most farmers (and gardeners), moles are pests and a problem that needs solving.  But when looking through a different lens, molehills are a sign of healthy soils and an abundance of worms.  Moreover this little hill of bare earth is a potential foothold for new plant life.  One that might start small with wildflowers or humble grasses, but might one day lead to a mighty oak, alive with insects tucked into every nook and cranny, a vital food source for multitudes of birds and other wildlife, and a safe haven for the next generations.

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For more information on regenerative agriculture, the importance of grassland in the UK, and for general hope in finding solutions for the global agricultural industry, here a few suggestions.

The Carbon Fields by Graham Harvey

Growing a Revolution by David R. Montgomery

Rebirding by Benedict MacDonald