By Tor Lawrence
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.