We went to meet Marian and David Harding of Court Lodge Farm on Pevensey Levels.
David and Marian run an organic dairy farm which they aim to manage in as "nature-friendly" a way as possible. Their freshwater ditches, woodland and reclaimed seabed area host a great deal of wildlife including Marsh Harriers, Lapwing, Water Rail, marshland leeches, Ramshorn Snail and the rare Fen Raft Spider. Their herd is made up of 150 British Friesian and Ayrshire cattle and the farm comprises 424 acres of sandstone topland as well as free-draining marshland, including 127 acres rented from Sussex Wildlife Trust (grazing our Pevensey Levels Nature Reserve). Some areas of their land have SSSI and RAMSAR status. The farm is a business member of Sussex Wildlife Trust, and David has also been a trust member for over 50 years (he joined after enquiring about the ID of a Hawk Moth he found in his moth trap).
Fen Raft Spider © Dr Helen Smith
Tell me a bit about your farming background
David: I was brought up on a mixed farm that became a dairy farm at Bodle Street near here in the early 50s. After my father died suddenly, my brother and I ran it together. 10 years later, with a lot of help from my family, I had the opportunity to take on this farm. It's good to look after the same land for a long time and see the consequences of your actions - Capability Brown had such great vision. It was later generations that benefited from it and he understood that.
I first met Marian whilst being followed by some Barnacle goslings I'd been given as a leaving present after a summer job at The Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge in 1977. Frankly, she wasn't impressed. But we met again at university and got married in 1979. We have two children, Clare and Peter. Clare lives in the middle of the farm now.
Marian: I did a Masters in Landscape Ecology Design and Management and used to advise farmers. I was also involved with FWAG (the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group)
Both: We've learnt a lot from each other over the years.
The farm became officially organic when the market for organic dairy produce developed. We sell milk to an organic co-operative, and make yogurt and yogurt drinks on the farm.
We are trying to be a productive farm AND farm in an environmentally-friendly way, and the current market for organic milk is challenging.
It's interesting to look at landscapes in the context of what business is going on on them - people need to link landscapes with food. The government does not seem interested in organics and unfortunately does not link landscape with food. Caring for the soil and the land we manage is woven into everything that we do.
Why did you choose the breed of cattle in your herd?
We chose British Friesians because they are hardier than Holstein and good for milk from grass.
What is your favourite part of the working day and why?
Marian: evening, especially a calm one, when everyone has gone home, the cows are milked and quietly grazing. I can stop, think and enjoy.
David: It used to be early morning when I was doing the milking (5am and 2.30-3pm). Now I don't, we have a full time herdsman, I like the evenings too. You can hear if ever the cows are in distress from here though.
What are the greatest challenges?
The weather, same as all farmers, but arguably even more so for organic farmers, because we don't have the crutch of sprays or fertilisers to make rapid changes.
More of our time is spent on office work than people might realise. Organising things on-line. There's a lot of certification involved with making yoghurt. Inspections. Food Standards
What did you eat for breakfast today?
Cereal with yoghurt and mulberries from the garden.
Have you been to visit the new Rye Harbour Discovery Centre?
Yes we have. We thought it was good. We loved the picture windows and the fact that you're elevated. It was a bit like being in a hide! We also liked, from the far side of the reserve, it blends in so well.
Watch this video about the farm and its surroundings.