A grand day out

29 July 2021 | Posted in Tor Lawrence
A grand day out
Hare © Andy Rouse/2020VISION

By Tor Lawrence

Chief Executive

This month I had the absolute pleasure and honour of a day out with Hugh Passmore, from Applesham Farm near Shoreham and our Grazing Manager Tom. Hugh had asked if I could judge the conservation competition for the West Grinstead Ploughing & Agricultural Society. There were three aspects to this – prizes for the Whole Farm Conservation Policy, the Best Managed Single Feature on a Farm and an overall cup. The cup is awarded at the Society’s annual dinner in October after the results are announced later in the summer.

We spent a fascinating sunny day looking at a range of farms on the South Downs and in the Low Weald and hearing from farmers about what they do for wildlife. All these farmers are looking after animals and growing healthy crops to feed the nation, whilst trying to make a living for their families and their employees – and simultaneously ensuring that wildlife is thriving. One of the farmers summed this up as three imperatives – People, Planet and Profit.

There were lots of interesting views – for example they said that regenerative farming is not new, it is what their grandparents and great grandparents would have done with mixed farming and good crop and livestock rotation. The return of these techniques where it has been lost can have huge benefits in restoring soil health, reducing erosion from run-off and increasing carbon storage. All of them are dealing with extreme weather – drought and heavy rain – and seeing the immediate impact and challenges that the climate crisis is presenting them with. They were clear they cannot wild all their land, even if they wanted to, as crops are needed for food and farmers need to make a living. These farms provide employment for a range of local people – on one farm four generations of the same family have worked on the farm – for an impressive 120 years in total.

It was clear that learning about nature is crucial to all of them – they learn from each other, through their networks and farm clusters, share wildlife insights and get ecologists to give advice through wildlife monitoring and surveys. They said it is vital to know what wildlife they currently have, so they can protect it – and then also to go on and create new habitats or make changes.

They all have good yields, mixed crops and good soils; trying to use little or no insecticide and are cutting down on antibiotics, fungicides and herbicides. One farmer was clear he didn’t want to kill all the insects in dung – that insects are at the centre of everything - and he therefore was using minimal antibiotics and was cutting down on routine treatments for cattle. We learnt how these applications can have serious unintended consequences by killing beneficial invertebrates and having a detrimental knock-on impact for the soil and the whole system.

The farmers are involved in projects with Sussex University to monitor pollinators and research bees; the Sussex Hedgelaying Society, to learn old skills and plant hedgerows, they plant trees; they are working on nitrate reduction measures; they have projects for single species such as Grey Partridge or Turtle Dove. They rotate their crops and have mixed habitats, patchworks and mosaics. They are working with long term visions, over decades. They are all really proud to play their part in Sussex.

We saw wide field margins, pollinator and conservation strips in the fields, entire fields set aside for wildlife, woodland shelter belts, wide margins next to water courses, a fallow plot for Stone Curlew and Lapwing, pollen and nectar plots through fields for Grey Partridges, corners of fields set aside, sediment ponds to ensure filtration before water gets into water courses, herbal leys, wooded shaws, a historic routeway with beautiful verges, a restored dewpond with dragonflies. We saw Hares, orchids and Corn Buntings, the sound of all the Skylarks overhead was immense and there were hoards of Swifts, Swallows and House Martins flying over the fields. We saw a special area or haven which had been created for Turtle Doves, with trail cams set up and a Turtle Dove flying off as we arrived. We saw chalk grassland slopes grazed for one of the biggest colonies of Wall Brown butterflies in Sussex, with a range of butterflies, orchids and apparently a phenomenal 140 species of plants.

We heard about high scoring soils, getting the balance of insects right, healthy crops which have another role in providing cover from predators for ground nesting birds, as well as food for other farmland birds. We heard about an increase in Hares due to careful habitat management, wild bird winter feed plots and supplementary feeding of birds in winter. We were told about grassland which provides summer grazing for cattle and habitat for Snipe. We heard about Purple Emperors, Linnets, Nightingales, breeding Barn Owls, Kingfishers, different species of bats, wet fields full of amphibians such as Frogs and Toads – and saw a Grass Snake bulging after eating a Toad.

One farmer was clear that his role is as a steward, with limited time in his one life to ensure the land was left in better health for future generations. All showed real joy and delight in doing things which benefit wildlife. The passion came through loud and clear from all of them. Another farmer said he enjoyed farming but there was nothing better than seeing Hares or Partridges as he goes round checking the farm.

I loved the day and came away really inspired, but also daunted by the responsibility of deciding on the winners. All these farms were teeming with wildlife and the devotion of every single farmer to what they were doing was clear.

And so who won? You’ll have to go to the Ploughing Match to find out.

Comments

  • Cedric Stone:

    05 Aug 2021 11:54:00

    It is heartening but we all know that the small number of farmers that are interested in repairing the environmental damage done since the 60s are not going to make much difference.
    We need to deintensify farming. That is by government policy. Steps such as banning slurry in 3 years. Taxing non organic fertilizers. Stop tje import of animal feed grade soya bean and maize gluten. Punish water companies and farmers for water course pollution. Simple but effective actions.

  • Jennifer Roycroft:

    05 Aug 2021 12:39:00

    Thanks, really interesting & encouraging. I have 2 small plots of land quite near the bottom of Ditchling Beacon on which I keep horses & I’ve tried to make them as wildlife friendly as possible but I would appreciate some help – is anyone available to help with advice please??
    Thanks again, Jen

    ANSWER: Yes - please have a look here for our general advice on how to manage land for wildlife: https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/what-we-do/landowner-advice

    And do contact our WildCall service if you'd like to know more: [email protected]

  • Christine Dafter:

    05 Aug 2021 13:20:00

    Such an inspiring read Tor.Thank you for the information as a result of your trip to meet Sussex Farmers. My grandfather had a small farm holding. Sheep and chickens alongside growing vegetables which he would sell the the local village back in the mid-1940’s. When you said that regeneration etc is nothing new, I remeber the field margins my granfather had which seemed back then, as quite normal. What is happening today sounds a little like ‘what goes around, comes around’.
    Thank you for this blog, without which many people would fail to realise just how much our farmers are working so hard to re-establish on the land.

  • 05 Aug 2021 13:42:00

    Cedric Stone, how about the persuasive power of the purse? Demand for organic food is dire in the Uk compared to Europe, if people buy cheap food that ‘costs the earth’ they are complicit in the consequences. Depending on government regulation risks exporting the problem to countries with less regulation, and underpaid labour. Changes in shopping preferences gave rise to an increase in free range egg production, demonstrating that the power of positive purchasing is great. As a farmer (and grazier of a SWT reserve) I’d welcome some specific leads as to exactly what food the ‘wildlife world’ wants on their dinner table to yield a perfect Sussex countryside!

  • David Phillips:

    05 Aug 2021 14:52:00

    Agree this article is very encouraging but also agree that nowhere near enough farmers are “on board” when it comes to stopping the widespread and continuing decline of our biodiversity.
    The so called Environment Bill needs to ensure targets are legally binding . Furthermore why cannot all farmers with holdings over 10 ha be required to re wild or plant native trees on 10% of their land as a baseline/ minimum for seeking to claim ANY farming subsidies – after all this is public money.
    But again – well done to all those whose farming methods impressed Tor.

  • Chris Chedzoy:

    05 Aug 2021 14:56:00

    It’s good to hear there are farmers taking actions to bring back wildlife. Well done to them. Hopefully the new government agricultural payment scheme will persuade others to join in. Sadly a farmer in our area has just topped an entire field full of wild flowers at their peak. How does this square with people being asked to plant window boxes to help pollenators.??

  • Julia Dance:

    05 Aug 2021 15:22:00

    Who won? The earth , I believe , dear judges. My gratitude to everyone involved.

  • PHILIP GLYN:

    05 Aug 2021 15:40:00

    Why planting trees? This wasteful and costly process can easily destroy the last pieces of unimproved meadow in Sussex. Natural regeneration in the right site – species poor pasture – is far more successful yet costs virtually nothing. The benefit to the next generation will be immense.

  • Elaine Evans:

    05 Aug 2021 16:45:00

    I’ve been attending the West Grinstead Ploughing Match for many years, although last year’s was cancelled at the last minute, not even on their website. which was a wasted journey. Hopefully this year will take place – well worth a visit.

  • Elaine Parkin:

    06 Aug 2021 13:26:00

    It’s wonderful to see how these farmers are really helping wildlife, but so many more need to be on board. Sadly, many who make a living from the land prove that they really don’t care about wildlife; locally, hedgerows and verges have been razed to the ground for no other reason than getting easier access to fields. Shoppers must stop going for the cheapest option, though not so easy to do when a family lives on or below the poverty line. The government must do more – and how much do they really care, given HS2? People must stop wasting food and everyone can follow the great example set by the farmers mentioned in the blog. Saving wildlife for present and future generations means such actions must, not should, be taken.

  • 07 Aug 2021 09:52:00

    So glad that SWT is engaging with farming, as methods of food production are the most important influence on farmland wildlife. I do beg members to remember that farmers are human beings trying to make a living and have difficult decisions to make. Most of them are good interesting people who know a lot about the countryside and have stories to tell, as our chief exec has experienced. Go to ploughing matches and agricultural shows to meet some! It is sad that some people seem to have an ‘anti’ attitude, perhaps not understanding much about the businesses they are criticising or the reasons for jobs carried out on the land. Social media can be rather antagonistic.

  • Nuya Caramel:

    11 Aug 2021 11:35:00

    Thank you so much to these farmers who are taking on board the responsibility of managing land to provide healthy soils and a healthy environment for wildlife and people.
    The more farmers themselves can show the benefits to other farmers, the more will come on board.
    But we as the consumer have by far the biggest role to play. Buy local and buy organic where possible. It really isn’t as expensive as its made out to be if you do some research. Ok farmers markets and even the supermarket can be extremely pricey, but I get an organic salad and veg box delivered weekly and its very well priced. It even saves me money as I am going to the supermarket a lot less and therefore the opportunity for me to buy processed, packaged food has reduced and I feel it in my purse!

  • Chris Chedzoy:

    14 Aug 2021 15:35:00

    It’s good to hear there are farmers taking actions to bring back wildlife. Well done to them. Hopefully the new government agricultural payment scheme will persuade others to join in. Sadly a farmer in our area has just topped an entire field full of wild flowers at their peak. How does this square with people being asked to plant window boxes to help pollenators.??

Leave a comment