Conservation farming

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to visit Birches Farm, England’s newest Site of Special Scientific Interest (or SSSI) and a fantastic nascent project for the Herefordshire Nature Trust.

The farm, just across the English border a few miles south of Kington in north Herefordshire, is a traditionally managed 60 acre mosaic of wildlife habitats, managed by the same family for over 100 years.

meadowWildflower rich grasslands, alive with pollinating insects, intermingle with areas of rough grazing, these providing hunting ground for kestrels and barn owls. Ancient field boundary hedges remain, unaltered since at least 1845 (as shown by the relevant tithe map), and as a result wonderful species rich sanctuaries for small mammals and birds. Mature oaks, themselves highly important reservoirs of biodiversity, are dotted around the fields. Wet flushes and ponds add yet another layer to the site’s impressive range.

That this wildlife gem, of real national importance, remains so lustrous is directly due to its management regime. Traditional low intensity farming methods have continued to be utilised on the site. Examples of such “conservation farming” management show that food production can indeed continue unhindered, alongside the protection of habitats and vital biodiversity.

This is in direct contrast to so much of what is often sadly to be seen across British lowland countryside; such as the aesthetically pleasing, but essentially monoculture, vibrant green glow of rye grass, sown on highly fertilised fields. Or the vast hedge-less oil seed rape plantations, soaked through with destructive pesticides, a bright yellow flag warning us against the impact of the profit motive, when we allow it to stand in direct competition with the natural world.

Cattle and conservation grazing

Cattle and conservation grazing

Happily the Herefordshire Nature Trust is in the process of purchasing Birches Farm, safeguarding its brilliance and beauty for the benefit of all. Closer to home, in Pembrokeshire, the National Trust’s heathland beef initiative has been a most welcome exemplar project. Across heathland areas in places such as St David’s Head, Welsh black cattle are used to provide conservation grazing for these protected coastal jewels.

The half ton steeds’ gargantuan appetites help supress scrub and coarse grasses, hence restoring overgrown and run-down areas of heath. Through grazing, these cattle are actively maintaining some of Pembrokeshire’s iconic colourful shows of coastal gorse and heather, so promoting tourism and adding much needed value to accommodation and other service providers in the local economy. Additionally, high quality beef is produced, which, in common with many other naturally fed extensively farmed meats, can attract a worthwhile premium for the farmer.

Suitable use of grazing animals to maintain areas of grassland is certainly one of the main tools open to land managers interested in marrying conservation with food production. For instance, the maintenance of diverse traditional hay meadows relies upon their use. Traditionally meadows are closed to stock from late autumn and left to grow, with the resultant crop of hay cut after desirable species have flowered and set seed, usually from late July onwards. Grazing stock are then used to control excessive grass growth and lightly poach the land, creating bare areas for wildflower seeds to germinate the following year. Cutting and grazing together avoid a build up of dominant grasses and dead vegetation, giving living room for more delicate species to thrive.

Teifi marshes - Buffalo

Teifi marshes - Buffalo

Another stand out example of conservation grazing in action can be seen here at Teifi Marshes, where six other bulky black beasts, these water buffalo, are currently in action grazing some of the marsh. While buffalo seem a strange choice to many (to quote a recent Facebook correspondent from Northern Territory, Australia… “it’s the Welsh Wildlife Centre, why d’you have buffalo??!”) these beasts have been carefully chosen for their suitability for the job in hand. They are also quite a major attraction on the Reserve (it seems both visitors and locals love the buffalo). So I hope to discuss their “job” on the marsh in the next column.