February 2024

The View from the Hill

Who in all honesty can tell a frog from a toad?  Our neighbours’ pond has recently been a hotbed of rampant reproduction, libidinous croaking has filled the air at all hours of the day and night, and now the pond is brimming with spawn, ready to erupt into a myriad tadpoles in a few weeks’ time.  But how to know if we are witnessing Toad or Frog rumpy?  The guide books are not terribly helpful, they seem to assume that you have a frog in one hand and a toad in the other, so that you can compare the sliminess of their skin, the pointiness of their facial features, or the length of their legs, but in reality how likely is that to happen?  What did it for us was the simple fact that toads lay their spawn in lines, and frogs do it in clumps, and as you can see clearly in the picture, what we have is huge clumps, along with a great many froggy parents, with one (pointy-faced) individual standing guard. This simple method of identification soon falls apart outside of breeding season, by which time you will have had time to catch one of each and do a thorough examination.

There was an article somewhere recently which blew a big hole in the old argument that we Brits are boring because we spend all our time discussing the weather.  The theory holds that discussion of the weather is what binds us together, it never fails to engender a response from the person you address about it, one can share the pleasure of a sunny day, or commiserate about endless gloom.  The weather affects what you are going to wear, it can dictate the entire shape of the day ahead, especially if you are a farmer, it is also likely to affect what you will eat today.  So let’s celebrate it, while I dribble out a few weather stats.  This may well feel like the wettest winter in many years, in fact it is only the third wettest in the last 12 years, both 2013-14 and 2019-20 were wetter from October to February. However that said, the rainfall we have endured in that 5 month period represents 75% of the 39 year annual average total (1100 mm).  Does that mean we are heading for a dry period?  Looking at the long term 12 month trend on this graph, it looks like we could be about to peak, but it could go anywhere.  There’s lies, damned lies, and statistics……

For the geeks, here are the numbers for every month since 2010.

Last week saw the dreaded annual TB test, which cattle and humans dread in equal measure.  On Monday our vet arrived to find all the cattle arranged and waiting for him.  He has to trim off some hair, measure the thickness of the skin, and then inject two vaccines into the skin of the neck of the animal.  He then returns after three days to ‘read the lumps’.

The lower vaccine site is a mix of proteins extracted from cultures of mycobacterium bovis which has been killed by heat, and the upper site is a dose of avian tuberculin, which acts as a kind of control, representing as it does naturally occurring tb in the environment.  The skin test can be interpreted at either standard or severe interpretation. Standard interpretation is the default used for all routine surveillance testing, whilst severe interpretation is used in circumstances where TB is strongly suspected or confirmed e.g. for testing in TB breakdown herds.

Where there is any detectable reaction at either site, both sites are re-measured with callipers and the measurements and type of reaction recorded against the animal, along with the test result after interpretation.

The size and nature of any reactions at the avian and bovine injection sites are measured and compared. Depending on the degree of reaction to the skin test and the interpretation of the test, the animal is classified as;

Clear – negative result

Fail – reactor or positive result

Inconclusive reactor (IR) – the animal shows a reaction to bovine tuberculin greater than the avian, but not strong enough to be classified as a reactor. IRs must be isolated and re-tested after 60 days. Animals that have an inconclusive result at two consecutive skin tests are considered reactors. 

We have managed to get our herd onto a health pathway that entitles us to annual TB testing, rather than the previous 6 monthly, unless you are shut down.  The outcome of last week’s test was that a single animal tested as an Inconclusive Reactor, which is almost worse than a full reactor. A full reactor will be taken for destruction by DEFRA, and compensation will be paid, whereas an IR can either be destroyed with no compensation, or kept for a second test at 60 days.  If it fails again, it is regarded as a reactor and the whole herd will have to pass two further clear tests at 60 day intervals, if it passes it can return into the herd and be declared clear.  However its presence will prevent the herd’s return to higher health status and therefore will be denied annual testing, instead having to undergo 6 monthly testing, which all points towards the animal taking a short journey to heaven as the least worst option.

The stress of TB testing on man and animal is immense.  However well we set up the handling system to gently encourage the animals into the crush, and however calmly we handle them for the rest of the year, the animals know when it’s testing day, they can smell the vet a mile off and know that he or she is going to stick needles into them which sting.

Why we are still having to undergo this archaic and inhumane system to manage a disease is quite bewildering.  How did we manage to design and build the covid vaccine and stick it in the whole human population in no time at all, and yet still be told that a TB vaccine for cattle always seems to be 5 years away?

A huge amount of effort has gone into reducing the reservoir of TB in wildlife, in Dorset in particular new outbreaks of TB in herds have reduced by well over 50% since the beginning of the campaign to control badger numbers in 2016.  That’s a huge improvement, but the cull is being drawn to a close, with small trials being undertaken to evaluate the effectiveness of vaccinating badgers, which is hard to see having a significant benefit, and certainly will be wildly poor value for money. 

The problem can’t all be laid at the badger’s door however, there is clearly still a reservoir of disease in the cattle population, the testing regime doesn’t seem to be able to root out all animals carrying the disease subliminally.  So there they remain, slowly drip feeding it into their fellow cows.  To be quite honest, until there is an effective vaccine, the near future lies largely in farmers’ hands, the chances of avoiding TB will only be able to improve if farmers practise the following:

  1. Operate closed herds (ie no imports of live cattle from other farms anywhere)
  2. Co-operate with APHA (animal and plant health agency) to use all tests available to clear out the disease from herds
  3. Reduce to zero the opportunities for cattle to interact with wildlife.  This is hugely difficult, especially when grazing outdoors.
  4. Keep a close eye on numbers and activity of wildlife
  5. If all these cannot be achieved then consider giving up cattle farming.

This is admittedly brutal, and a personal view, with huge implications for very many farmers’ business models, but without all of the above, in the absence of an effective vaccine, we are simply destined for more of the same.

Tales from the shearing shed

Six weeks as Rousies with a shearing gang in New Zealand has been a great experience for two Reading University graduates through December and January.  The main job is to move the wool from the shearer to the packer as the sheep are stripped of their wool, sorting out any dags (bits with poo on) along the way.  With up to 6 shearers working flat out on the biggest flocks, the best of them shearing 400 or even 500 per day, this is not a job for the faint hearted.  Especially when the girls get thrown into shearing lessons themselves at the end of every two hour session.  Most of the sheep have been dagged or crutched in previous weeks, which makes the main shear straightforward, but when you hear that most flocks are shearing twice a year, (we generally only do it once in the UK), you realise that these guys really do work hard for their money.

The Loo with a view.  (otherwise known as the Dunny)

One of the best gadgets we’ve bought in a while, those marvellous people at Milwaukee keep coming up with things we never knew we needed.  Here is a staple gun, the best part of it being that it doesn’t need a gas bottle, like most other makes do.  It can generate the power to shoot the staple into the post just with battery power, and it is surprisingly light too, so makes stapling up the simplest and most enjoyable part of fencing.

Outgoing NFU President Minette Batters came to tea with Dorset NFU at the Langton Arms, the last stop on her Farewell Tour of the country.  About 15 farmers attended to present her with a beautiful platter created by Jo Burnell , potter, of Winterbourne Whitechurch.  We had a fascinating and wide ranging conversation about many of  the current issues facing UK farmers, with the benefit of Minette’s wisdom and experience.  She has been in the leadership team of the NFU for 10 years and has as President for 6 years seen us through some of the most potentially traumatic events UK farming has faced since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, including leaving the EU, the Ukraine War, and Covid pandemic.  She has worked tirelessly, on farmers behalf, with an endless stream of Prime Ministers and Defra secretaries of state, each of whom has had to be carefully introduced to the intricacies of UK farming.  In spite of the NFU’s best efforts, some of them managed to do irreparable damage, specifically Boris Johnson and his oven ready deals with Australia and New Zealand, where he gave away so much for so little,  which any negotiator with any brains would not have done.
This year’s NFU National Conference took place in Birmingham, where Rishi Sunak was the headline political guest on day one.  He addressed conference and was then interviewed on stage by Minette who demonstrated what an accomplished politician and adversary she has become.  The PM tried very hard to convince the audience that ‘He has our backs’, and in terms of the new schemes of public money for public goods that his government has introduced, they have admittedly done quite a good job, the scheme works, is easy to apply for, and is already paying out.  However, it is still the case that farmers’ main responsibility is growing food to feed the nation, but with the disappearance of the Basic Farm Payment, food gets no support now, and yet the government doesn’t seem to be the least concerned about the long term effects of this.

A great deal of food is already imported into the UK which is grown abroad in ways which are illegal for UK farmers to use.  Ruthless retailers and other operators in the food industry care not a jot, and conspire to keep the consumer in blissful ignorance.  We have had so many restrictions imposed over the years on how we grow food, in particular in the pig and poultry sectors, also oilseed rape and milling wheat, and yet we are still expected to compete with the imported stuff grown with illegal chemicals or welfare standards.  How long do we expect this to go on before very many farmers give up growing food entirely and simply take the money on offer to grow flowers, bird food and trees?  It seems to make more sense to me to do all of these things, including the growing of food, and learn how to produce food in a more sustainable fashion, reducing our impact (pollution and loss of habitat), whilst producing healthier food with fewer potentially harmful inputs.


This is a link to an episode of On Your Farm on BBC Sounds, with Minette, recorded shortly after her term of office concluded after conference.  It is a lovely walk around her farm on a sunny day recorded last week, with reflections on her 10 years at the top of her game with the NFU, and her plans for the future.


Another interesting extended interview featuring Minette, can be found on the Rest is Politics -Leading podcast with Rory Stewart  and Alistair Campbell.

Brendan has been working hard on hedge laying this winter, when the weather and cattle work has permitted.  He has become very adept at laying down the old and brittle stems of the shrubs in the hedge without them snapping, as can be seen in the picture.  It will be lovely to see how this leggy old hedge will look after it has put on a few months growth later in the year.

Another hedge has also been given loving care and attention, at Folly, where a very over grown, predominantly hazel, hedge has been laid, staked, and bulked out with ‘dead hedge’, cut lengths which will provide protection from marauding wildlife, and at the same time protecting the new shoots that will soon be emerging.  Fred and Rosie are preparing a flower garden, demarcating the site and opening it up to sunlight have now led to the purchase and planning of a polytunnel, and the planting of the first plants.

Not something we’ve found in a round bale of hay before, but an eagle eyed operative spotted the remains of a snake in the bottom of the cow’s feeder. Hard to identify, as we hardly ever get to see snakes, but we assumed it must be an adder.

It had to be 9.00 on a Monday morning on the main road at Durweston lights, someone had left a gate open, and the traffic was backed to the village before we caught up with them. Luckily a couple of kind farmer types had managed to block the road and turn them back, and being tame, and partial to toast, which I was carrying, they were soon led to safer pastures. They must have realised we were planning to move them that day, and decided to save us the trouble of getting the stock trailer out.

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10 years ago on the hill

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December 2023

The View from the Hill                                           December 2023

Daisy the sheep excels herself on the last school farm visit of the year.  Such patience and gentle endurance. Everyone wants to stoke her, and she stays on long after all the toast has been eaten.  Hands on experience is an important element of school visits, even in mid-November.  Some of the ewes are wonderful with the children, much more tolerant than with adults.

Last week saw the inaugural session in our kitchen classroom, a group of willing participants from Durweston school arrived ready to try out the programme that our friendly teacher Penny had worked out.  The plan was for the children, with careful guidance, to prepare and cook a simple vegetable soup, including fresh farm-squeezed rapeseed oil, field grown potatoes, and onions from the garden.  They would also be shaping and baking rolls made with 50% homegrown wheat flour, having first seen the wheat being ground into flour, and then if successful, taste the result.  Penny brought along dough she had prepared the day before, using some of our wildfarmed wheat flour, which the children made into a variety of shapes.  The bread was very tasty, and considerably more popular than the soup, although it too was very tasty.  In between the cookery, the children painted farm flavoured pictures and did a cutting and sticking exercise to help them realise which foods originate locally, and which come from overseas. 

The cookery exercise is designed to cover the food and cookery element of the DT curriculum, which many schools struggle to deliver well, as they lack the facilities.  We hope that our kitchen will be able to provide this for local schools.  Penny’s carefully laid plans worked really well, the session romped along, the children approached the challenge with gusto, and the team of supporting adults were hugely enthusiastic.

A few weeks ago, a few members of our cluster group met at Hammoon to learn how to survey hedges.  Led by hedge expert John Calder, from Dorset Climate Action Network’s Great Big Dorset Hedge Project, we explored a few km of hedges around Adam’s farm, as well as finding them in pretty good condition, and mostly made up of a healthy mixture of species, there were plenty of trees too, and even hops, admittedly rare in Dorset.  The prime purpose of our visit was to find out what we needed to do in order to take advantage of the hedgerow offer, part of the new Sustainable Farming Incentive standards (SFI).  For this we don’t even have to record the species, but as John pointed out, it can be informative.  An old rule of thumb runs as follows:
The number of tree and shrub species in a 30 metre length of hedge can indicate its age, with one species for each 100 years. A single species hedge is likely to be less than 100 years old whilst a 1,000 year old hedge is likely to contain ten to twelve species. However, this formula must be used with caution.

For example, how this is supposed to work if we are surveying our new hedges planted last winter, where we were planting up to 10 species within 30m, is anyone’s guess.

For the purposes of SFI, we simply have to assess each stretch of hedge around a field according to the Adams formula, which will help us to decide the most suitable management for the hedge in the future, whether trimming, laying, coppicing, gapping up etc. 

There are bonuses available if you have a tree per 100m of hedge.  These can be existing, newly planted, or a suitable hedge plant selected and marked to not be trimmed and allowed to grow up.

John and his team have been helping many farmers across Dorset to learn about this, and to get their hedges into SFI.  John has put huge amounts of energy into the development of the SFI hedgerow standards, with numerous messages and presentations to DEFRA, RPA etc, and one enduring sadness is the absence of any incentive in SFI to actually plant new hedge.  We very much hope this will materialise in the next chapter of releases.  For more information about the Great Big Dorset Hedge project go here https://www.dorsetcan.org/hedge/ 

Who can identify this little bundle?  It takes me right back to nature rambles when a child.  They appear here and there in hedgerows containing a certain species.

I need the common name please, the species it is found on, and for a bonus point, what causes it. Please reply in comments below.


It is too late to buy for pre-Christmas delivery now, but I would still like to recommend a few books:

The first is quite a slog, not surprising bearing in mind the sweeping breadth implied by its title, it covers a huge amount of ground and in some detail: “Feeding Britain”, by Tim Lang.  Here is the detailed account of how UK government could develop a food policy.  We have policies for water, environment, climate, health and biodiversity, why on earth not food?  After appointing Henry Dimbleby to lead the National Food Strategy Independent Review, government has sat on the report.  Dimbleby has since written a book – “Ravenous” which I was given for Christmas, and have just begun, it covers much of what he found, and I am assured it is essential reading.

Why would a government not put food at the top of its list of concerns?  We can actually survive in the short term without any of the above other than water, but without food, we die.  Why is food not taken anything like as seriously as it should be?  Why are we importing numerous foods which we can grow here, in our benign maritime climate with wonderfully productive soils, from countries which are desperately short of water?  Why do we ban products or techniques here, but continue to import the same foods using those same (illegal here) methods, (hence undermining our own food industry)?  And why are we signing trade deals which will allow more of this in the future.  Tim Lang covers all of this and more.  There are numerous pressures on land other than for food production, many of which earn more than food production can, especially now we are losing the (previously EU CAP) grant payments that used to enable us to produce food at below the cost of production.  Many governments fully realise that one way to guarantee civil unrest is to allow food prices to rise out of line with everything else, and they will go to great lengths to prevent this from happening.  In the UK it is simply a case of “let the supermarkets run it, they know how to keep their shelves full”.  Except that they don’t.  The huge shortage of eggs earlier this year, and the difficulty with salad crop supplies from Spain due to a drought resulted in empty shelves for a while.  The UK has long believed, (dangerously in my view) that we will always be able to buy the food we need from elsewhere.  Several tipping points have been met over recent months, such as those mentioned above, and we all know how panic buying causes utter chaos.  Then why no national food policy???  Read these books, and join the debate.

Have you read George Monbiot’s “Regenesis”?  It is certainly stimulating, and a lot more besides.  Chris Smaje has written a bold and intelligent riposte, “No to a farm free future”, subjecting Monbiot’s claims that we could all survive on bacterial gloop fermented in huge vats and abandon meat eating altogether, to close scrutiny.  Having just finished the book, there is so much swirling around in my head, and so many leaves turned down for future reference, that it is hard to pick out headlines, however part of his argument centres around how much energy would be required to produce this intensively grown bacterial protein.  If it were to be produced using renewable electricity, in order to provide all of humanity’s protein needs would require 9 times the amount of solar electricity currently produced worldwide, and that is before we consider the energy required to build the manufacturing plants. Monbiot’s line on moving the entire world away from meat eating towards manufactured protein seems to founder on some pretty basic ballpark calculations right at the start.  This book examines his ideas in great detail and is a worthwhile read.

Last but not least, for a bit of a contrast, my regular birthday treat was the latest novel from Robert Harris.  His books are always impeccably researched and imaginatively amplified to fever pitch in many places, this one, “Act of Oblivion” focusses on the execution of King Charles 1st in 1649, more specifically the tracking down of the 59 parliamentarians who signed the document sentencing him to beheading, a search instigated by Charles 2nd after the monarchy had been restored in 1660.  A fascinating period of history, deeply entwined with religion, and the early days of the US where some of them had escaped to.  Hard to imagine in the modern age where churches are falling into disuse, and the monarchy is little more than symbolic.

The cows are indoors for winter, the plumper ones munching on hay made from our wild flower margins, the thinner ones made on lovely soft sweet meadow hay. Much more digestible with less roughage. Pregnancy diagnosis detected 6 empty out of 70, which is a bit higher than it should be. The 3 empties we have kept have been banished to the steep banks of the valley, no nice warm shed for them. The young stock are in two groups grazing cover crops this year, there’s lots of leaf to eat, and a good many roots this year, thanks to the damp autumn, daikon radish and turnips abound. They get a fresh hectare every day, so they don’t over tread the ground, and leave plenty of green matter in place to grow on in the milder periods.

Spot the bird roosting in the holly bush, would anyone like to identify the species? Hit the comments section below!

Brendan has started on a stretch of hedge laying, with tough gloves and the aid of a nifty electric chainsaw. Looking good so far, but there’s a way to go yet, please could we have some dry weather?

Reggie has been at work over christmas, all the ewes now have a red rump, we changed his raddle crayon last week, and none have yet turned blue. Let’s keep it that way and have a nice compact lambing period in May.

Last month

10 years ago on the Hill

Next month

November 2023

The View From the Hill 4th November 2023

After 10 years of not missing a month, here we are with a two month hole in the record. Humble apologies to any disappointed readers, hoping to make up for it this time.  There’s been too much going on to find the time to sit down and reflect on what we’ve been up to.

A kind friend sent this across this morning, from a corner of the farm next to Field Grove wood, it rather sums up the wild weather fluctuations we’ve seen lately, the occasional beautiful sunny hour interspersed with endless rain.  172mm in October is far from a record here, although the average for this the wettest month of the year is 126mm, 10 years in the last 38 have seen more than this month’s total, maxxing out at 251mm in 2000.

Drilling wheat into oilseed rape aftermath at Thornicombe, the rainy windscreen betrays dodgy conditions as Doug tries to finish the job.

The rain has rendered autumn sowing a little challenging.  Holding off as long as we dare to reduce the risk of aphids infecting our crops with barley yellow dwarf virus (it affects wheat too), runs the risk of autumnal rain settling in and making good seedbed days hard to find.  Luckily the drilling team threw in some long hours on the good days and got the job wrapped up in the rain on Oct 25th.  It would have been a different story had we not been direct drilling.  Previously cultivated seedbeds do not dry out anything like as quickly as those that have not been touched by machines.  The worm holes and airways in the soil remain intact and it is amazing how quickly many soils drain down after rain. 

Working against the direct drilling model however, is the underlying slug burden, especially in fields that grew oilseed rape the previous year.  Cultivations can disrupt the slug lifestyle, damage their eggs and reduce the ability of the slimy devils to move through the soil, whereas direct drilling does not, and in a wet year like this we are seeing a slug fest in the wheat following rape.  Slug pellets (now ferric phosphate based, the nasty ones have all been banned) are in short supply, and timing is difficult.  Based on yesterday’s forecast we took a punt and spread many hectares with a dose yesterday, hoping for a good kill overnight before today’s rain arrived and washed the uneaten pellets away.  Waking up this morning to the sound of rain already on the roof was annoying to say the least, soggy pellets are not attractive to slugs and therefore useless as they wash into the soil.  The slugs will continue to paddle around nibbling off newly emerged seedlings while we look on helplessly.

We are assured by our regenerative friends that as soils get healthier, slug-predating ground beetle numbers will build as we disturb the soil less and apply fewer harmful chemicals, our in-field wild flower strips should also act as reservoirs for other potential slug predators, but when we can expect to go slug pellet free is currently anyone’s guess.

Here is a good old fashioned seedbed, (from dry mid September), over-worked and consequently vulnerable to run-off and capping due to heavy rain events, it’s like a pudding now.  This is the second time we have tried to establish an AB15 mix on the headlands of a handful of fields.  To those not familiar with Countryside Stewardship options, this one is a 2 year legume fallow, intended to help farmers get on top of troublesome grass weeds.  The rules state that we must mow off the foliage several times during the two years, to prevent seeding of weed grasses like blackgrass or brome, and also to ensure that we do not benefit some other area of our business by for example making hay out of it for our animals.  Defra are determined that in rewarding us for one thing, we should not be able to benefit from it in any other way other than that which they intend.

The reason we overcooked the seedbed here is that when we first tried to establish this mixture of vetch and clovers in 2022, it did not emerge and grow at all well, so fear of being penalised at an inspection made us try again.  Whereas first time round we direct drilled it, which we now feel is not the best way to establish small seeded crops like clover, this time we went to town, first with the Sumo cultivator, which cultivates quite deep, then the discs to create a good tilth, followed by drilling with the old Vaderstad Rapide drill, which further breaks up the soil as well as firming the ground and placing the seeds.  Topped off with the ring rolls, the whole intention was to create good seed to soil contact, to optimise the chances of a speedy and even germination.  The result however reminds us why we now try to direct drill wherever we can, this clay cap soil can run together when wet, and capping can prevent seedling emergence, not only that, it will turn to a pudding and dry out only slowly, because the cultivations have destroyed the worm holes and natural fissures between undisturbed soil particles which allow water and air to percolate through the soil, keeping it aerated and free draining.  Ploughing has the same effect of damaging soil structure, to a greater depth than simply cultivating, and which can take a whole season and more to recover from.  Small seeded crops are much trickier to establish than larger ones like cereals and beans.  Getting the conditions right and judging the right amount of cultivation to suit them is a big challenge.  Even after all that work, sadly the germination of the clovers in the mix has not been particularly good.

A few weeks ago, as we gently drifted from summer into autumn, the hedgerows and bird food plots were steadily building up what is now a larder filled to bursting, which will sustain over-wintering wildlife for the next 6 months.  Late flowering hedge plants like ivy are very popular with bees and butterflies at the tail end of the season, and here I managed to snap a beautiful Comma butterfly, at once bright and colourful, then suddenly almost invisible against the background when it closes its wings.  Wonderfully adapted to its environment, I managed to film as it closed its wings, one blink and it’s gone.

See the very quick video here

The first of two very popular late summer Farmer Cluster meetings, this one held on the Tory family’s land by the Stour at Shapwick, led by Nicola Hopkins of Dorset FWAG (farming and wildlife advisory group), she had two of us wade into the river with waders and nets to see what we could find on the river bed.  We then passed the nets ashore for emptying and sorting, before then spending ages trying to identify what we had found.  There was wonderful diversity of species to be found, caddis fly larvae, in their characteristic grit covered duvets, there were damsel fly larvae and even a dragon fly larva, quite a few small fish, as well as snails, water boatmen and quite a few unidentifiable wrigglers.  After marvelling at what we found, then being sobered up by what Nicola told us was missing, the river faces many challenges from sewage treatment outflows, and leakage from farmland, we adjourned to the Anchor Inn for refreshments.  Plenty of food for thought and exchange of ideas for how to improve the health of the river.

As the Stour burst its banks yesterday, and rather murky brown water spread across our meadows, I was reminded of that delightful evening, and how important it is to prevent soil being carried into rivers, as it buries the grits and gravels which are such important habitats for the creatures we found, and threatens their survival.  Not only that, but phosphate is often attached to the soil, which can cause algal blooms and other problems in the water, further challenging aquatic ecosystems.

Our cluster group has been carrying out some citizen science over the summer, every couple of weeks a group of us collect water samples from the river and some of its tributaries, then Claire our leader collects them up and sends them for testing.  Suspended solids and other contents are quantified, and we look forward to seeing a whole year’s results, hoping we can learn from them.  Our own most recent main river samples, taken following a few days of rain, looked pretty awful alongside a still clear bottleful taken from the Iwerne Brook, which flows down to the Stour from the Fontmell Magna and Iwerne minster direction. Identifying where pollution enters the river is surely very tricky. In some cases, country lanes, where impatient drivers squeeze past each other’s vehicles, will be contributors, as tyres rub soil off the bank and into the road, it will only wash one way, downhill, to the nearest river. Everywhere is in a catchment.

A footpath near Start Point in the South Hams district of Devon, has a canoeist been this way ? This is heading direct to the sea, no rivers involved.

A weekend spent in Devon during the recent wet weather was even wetter than at home, rivers were brimming over, and a few recently sown fields were disgorging their soil into the roads, from where it is but a short trickle to find its way into watercourses. We really need to do better.

One of our cluster members is hosting this run-off experiment by Wessex Water on his farm this winter, if you look closely you can see each enclosure has a different type of ground cover crop mix, and a surrounding fence that funnels any water that runs off the soil down a gutter to be captured in an IBC where it can be measured. The results should be interesting.

Continuing the watery theme, we recently became aware of high water usage on one our meters, which was becoming rather expensive, so off we went with the digger to try to find the leak and fix it.  Numerous holes across the paddock failed to locate a wet patch, even with the help of the newly learnt skill of water dowsing, so in the end it seemed easier to renew approximately 60m of underground pipe.  We took the opportunity to install a couple of isolation points in some very handy plastic chambers, much easier to install and make inlet holes in than the traditional concrete sections.  Isolation valves will make it easier to find leaks in future, a hazard of flint infested soil, unprotected plastic pipes seems to invite flints to move small distances towards them over a period of several decades, guaranteeing that some mug in the future will have to dig them up again.

All done, buried and levelled. All it needs is a few pounds of grass seed.
A sobering presentation on farm accident statistics presented at NFU Council a few weeks ago.
New pup needs to regard pet sheep as friends not quarry, being half collie there’s certain instincts in the blood which need to be controlled. 
Growing our own cover crop seeds results in small quantities of seed needing drying, and some inspired bodging has been required to achieve the right moisture levels. The fans suck warm air from above the heater and blow it down through the seeds in the green pedestal. Two days like this can remove 10% easily.
A late entry, missed from my last broadcast, but a sunset well worth sharing at the end of the County Show, the most well attended ever as I understand it, it was a cracking weekend
A lovely day for a picnic during a school visit in September.
Back to school after a day on the farm, who can spot the significant reference on the new Durweston School sign?
Our FIPL funded Farm Kitchen Classroom is nearing completion, with bookings already in place for January. The plan is to offer a farm tour in the morning, in the trailer as usual, followed by a session in here, using basic ingredients mostly grown on the farm, and turning them into something healthy and edible. As always the motive is to link food with where and how it’s grown.
Hand washing station
We were all tickled by Brendan’s laughter, recorded as he filmed this alien in one of our fields on his phone, and then posted it to the rest of us. He and Gary were supposed to be picking up haylage bales from the wildflower margin, but had to take a break to shepherd this emu back to its rightful home.

Last broadcast

10 years ago on the Hill

Next broadcast

August 2023

The View from the hill                                                                       7th September 2023

Frankly a harvest not worth remembering in terms of performance, though perhaps worthwhile for the things we learnt, such as how quickly the shine can be lost from a wheat variety which seemed almost too good to be true in 2022, with exemplary disease resistance, and reasonable yield, Theodore looked like a good bet for our new reduced input system.  But one year is not a fair test, so a second season was essential, however resistance to brown rust fell off a cliff in 2023, resulting in fire brigade spraying to protect leaf area from being submerged under a tide of brown rust pustules.  The odd thing was that where we grew it in a blend with Extase, a great variety with pretty good resistance to most wheat diseases, the brown rust developed much later in the season than when grown on its own. Yield was a big problem, grown on its own Theodore produced below 7.5t/ha, when the other varieties produced more than half a ton more, and its ‘bushel weight’, (density, in kg per hectolitre) was terrible, the lowest we have seen in any wheat for very many years. (70-71kh/hl).

We also learnt more about nitrogen rates, this was our third year of experimentation with lower rates than those we’ve applied previously.  Tramline trials showed that for a difference in 40kg/ha of nitrogen, we saw yield differences of between 6% and 16%.  The higher level is quite scary, but we have yet to crunch the £ numbers properly.  Bearing in mind we spent a fortune on fertiliser for this harvest, bought at the peak of commodity prices a year ago, and grain prices having fallen too, the margins per ha for the lower N rates might not look as awful as the headline yields might suggest.  Other farmers still using higher levels of N and sprays tell me that they have also had a poor year with wheat, characterised by poor bushel weights, always a useful pointer towards yield.  It looks like 2023 has been a low yielding year for many, the very hot weather in June, followed by wet and cool and an absence of sunshine during later grainfill in July, looks to have done more damage than we had imagined.  As we all too often forget, the weather always has far more effect than anything we can apply to our crops.

Alan’s picture of our team cutting spring barley on a rare sunny day in August

As soon as the fields are cleared, and the straw baled and removed, then in comes the drill, preferably preceded by a muck spreader, to sow a mixture of seeds which this year have germinated very quickly due to the intermittent rain throughout harvest.  These carbon capturing cover crops serve several purposes, firstly to soak up any left over nutrient in the soil and hence reduce risk of leaching into ground water in winter, to keep active roots in the soil for as much time as possible, to give our cattle something to eat over winter, to condition the soil, and lastly to sequester carbon from the air.  Using this carbon, the plants produce sugars which through the roots are exchanged for minerals and other plant nutrients in the soil, at the same time stimulating microscopic threads of fungus, essential to building soil health and resilience. 

Today 7th September, we finally finished harvest, Fred managed to cut the three remaining seed plots, the phacelia, camelina and buckwheat.  They all had some green material present, so we have spread them out on a concrete floor to dry them out for a few days.  After cleaning these will be the seed for next year’s cover crops, along with the vetch, turnip and linseed we cut earlier in the season, and one or two purchased additions, radish and clovers.  In some fields we have also added home grown peas or beans.  The ones sown after barley are racing away, biomass can double in 10 days if sown in early August, but the ones sown after wheat are a bit slower.  In this pic you should be able to pick out 8 species, plus 2 or 3 weeds.  Pea, buckwheat, linseed, phacelia, clover, vetch, radish and camelina.

How many different species can you count here?

The small seeds in the mix for this year have to be blended by hand, here are examples of the seeds sitting in the bin we use for mixing.  The larger seeds like vetch and peas are loaded direct into the drill hoppers, and in total we are sowing up to 10 species using all four hoppers of the drill, separately calibrated.   

These seeds were used rather differently last weekend, at the county show just outside Dorchester, featuring in the craft corner of the Fabulous Food and Farming section at the show, budding young artists put them to good use making collages. 

The motivation of the exhibit overall is to strengthen messages around local food and farming, and how British food is produced.  All the common arable crops were demonstrated, alongside some of the processes such as pressing cooking oil from rapeseed and grinding wheat into flour and baking bread with our own baker, Paul Merry from Panary at Cann Mill.   All this and more to help explain the journey to the consumer’s table.  We had a life size cow (from Dike and Sons supermarket) which people could ‘milk’, a tractor quiz to test the knowledge of the machinery minded, and lots more.  The show was very well attended, 60,000 visitors on both days by all accounts, the weather was very helpful, and there is loads to enjoy across the site.

Here is Fred wading through the buckwheat plot on the last day of harvest.  We’d saved this up till last, as you can see there is plenty of greenery, which we thought might bung up the combine, however there was enough ripe seed to fill the tank, and once dried out this should cover our requirement for sowing next year.  Buckwheat is indeterminate, which means it will keep on flowering and setting seed as long as weather conditions are right, or unless the farmer sprays it off with glyphosate.  We weren’t keen on spraying it for fear of damaging germination when we eventually sow it. 

A request from the sowing department a few days earlier, to go and cut the vetch because we had used up all of last year’s seed, led to an unusual sight, it is rare to see a combine discharging direct into a seed drill.

Beyond the farm gate a huge row has been caused by Michael Gove’s announcement attempting to overturn the rules requiring housebuilders to offset the potential pollution from new housing and its occupiers, by buying services from farmers to counteract such pollution.  A lot of work has gone into developing schemes that will achieve this, such as those developed by the Environmental Farmers Group, a farmer-run co-operative based in Hampshire, whose business model is based around new income streams for farmers coming from private sources such as housebuilders and water companies.  Gove’s announcement has blown a huge hole in this plan, and appears to have once again let developers off the hook.  There can be no denying that new housing built on green field sites will bring pollution into what was previously countryside (food/wildlife/water resources).  Is it unreasonable to put an obligation on the future owners of these houses to pay for the loss, and ongoing pollution that their presence will cause?

In the end, what Gove has done is to undermine a growing reservoir of goodwill that has been developing around new relationships and funding streams for farming from the private sector,  in part to replace public subsidies that are right now being removed.  The Basic Payment Scheme, which on many farms has for years represented the only profit achievable after production of food for less than the cost of production, this year is down to 50% of its level before Brexit, on the way to complete removal by 2027.  Publicly funded schemes under the ELM banner (Environmental Land Management), specifically SFI (the Sustainable Farming Incentive) has again been delayed, we cannot yet apply, and contrary to what DEFRA have consistently said, no money will be available this year.  Meanwhile they sit on the millions already saved by cutting BPS.

For a very clear explanation of what effects the announcement, should it become law, will have on environmental schemes in progress, have a listen to Farming Today from Monday 4th September, from 6 mins 20 in, where Dorset Farmer Clare explains how it would affect her business and many others: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001q6g1

Environmentalists now fear that if the man who once promised new streams of income from the private sector whilst at the same time extolling the sunlit uplands of a glorious Brexit outcome, can perform such a shocking about-turn, are the rules surrounding BNG (biodiversity net gain) which oblige developers to provide BNG in exchange for planning permission, also vulnerable to backsliding reversal?

Our ancient Rutherford grain cleaner finding new purpose in life separating beans from wheat grown together in our Wildfarmed bicrop fields. More on this next month.
A young hare spotted by Rosie, hunkered down in one of our flowery field margins. He soon upped and scampered away.
A rare late night cutting wheat trying to beat the rain promised for the morning, which did indeed appear.
A broken down van caused huge delays when we were hauling grain back from Thornicombe, crawling along the Blandford bypass while Fred twiddled his thumbs in the field.
Rapeseed being loaded out during harvest, watched by a keen observer
Puppy learning a new life lesson…..
Citizen science at work, our farmer cluster members are collecting water samples from the Stour next to their farms, the two on the right are from the main river flow, one from upstream of the Stourpaine sewage treatment works, the other below, the one on the left is from the Iwerne Brook, a pretty stream which joins the Stour just below the outflow, clearly clearer. At the end of a whole season of sampling we are hoping to see some patterns of water quality, relating to location and rainfall events.
Our local signpost has had a makeover. Roger Bond of Normtec has done a fabulous job, funded amongst others by Dorset AONB, Durweston Parish Council and North Dorset CPRE. The lower picture is from 2016, by good fortune I managed to catch a similar background in July 2023. The arms fell off during 2017. All roads clearly led to Blandford, perhaps it was the weight of surplus letters that led to its downfall.
An alternative version
A huge embarrassment on what was supposed to be AB15 2 year legume fallow. How did so much ragwort end up on these plots only, and none on another margin right next to it? Bought in with the seed? Perish the thought……
A well camouflaged Shield bug, no doubt somewhat dazed after its journey through the combine, clambering across a pile of freshly harvested phacelia seed. Some of the prettiest seeds ever.
Phacelia still in flower, irresistible to bees. Fred left a thin strip uncut, it was thick with bees and moths.

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July 2023

The View from the hill                                                                       30th July 2023

Grasshopper – long word – short antennae

Cricket – short word – long antennae

Katydid – odd word – also known as a bush cricket – confusing the issue.

It’s a Meadow Grasshopper on the thumb, and a long winged meadow Katydid on the forefinger belonging to Penny the teacher who brought a class from Durweston to the farm at the beginning of July.  That’s what the ‘Picture Insect’ app tells me at least.  A proper student of wildlife would cross-check in learned books.  However the app is good enough for me, life is too short to be buried in reference books.  Apps like this one, the ‘Merlin bird song app’, and ‘Picture This’ for plants and trees have revolutionised my life, and have increased my screen time and shortened phone battery life alarmingly.

I had hoped for a better common name for this little fellow than ‘Plant bug’

It was a lovely sunny day for this particular school visit, we had great fun looking at crops approaching harvest, wild flowers on chalk downland, and spent ages catching (mostly) grasshoppers, and quite a few other mini beasts.  A sunny day in July is perfect for crawling about on hands and knees trying to catch insects for identification, and for learning new plants. 

After that it was time to pull on the rubber gloves and find a cowpat suitable for excavation, not too old, not too fresh either, as Goldilocks said, it needs to be just right.  Covered in holes on the surface, and firm enough to be a little crusty, but still soft enough inside to be populated with a variety of insect life, hopefully including dung beetles.  If we do not dose our animals with wormers like those based on the very potent insecticide ivermectin, then there will be a better chance of dung beetle presence, they are an indicator of, and contributor towards, soil health, carrying dung deep into the soil profile with their burrowing activity.  On this occasion we found a couple of beetles, who rapidly try to burrow away from daylight, numerous small unidentifiable flies, and this juicy character, a mealworm from another beetle species.  A burrowing bird not worried about getting its beak dirty would be very pleased to find this.

Harvest has been pushing on when the weather has given us a chance.  Here we were a week ago or more, having a nibble at the wildfarmed winter wheat, (reduced input), which has ripened earlier than the other wheats, however it wasn’t quite ready, so we then moved on to the spring barley, which is equally weather sensitive.  Once milling wheat or malting barley is properly ripe, it is important to gather it swiftly, before the weather breaks and essential quality levels deteriorate. (Hagberg falling number in wheat, and germination in the barley).  We also try to keep one eye on the straw,  so that our long suffering straw contractor stands a chance of baling the straw before it gets soaked.  If it looks like rain is imminent it’s a bit unfair to race through damp crop with the combine leaving line after line of soaking straw.  This will only delay our return to the field to sow the next crop, so usually it pays to be patient.  Baler right behind the combine on a sunny day with dust flying is the best of all, fields cleared super quick, and now that we have moisture, the oilseed rape or cover crops which will be sown as soon as possible afterwards, have a greater chance of swift emergence, and growing away while the sun is still high in the sky, every week’s delay in sowing reduces sunshine hours available for growth before winter.

At the end of July we have cut the winter barley and the oilseed rape, the early sown spring barleys, and the wildfarmed winter wheat.  In all cases the heaps in the shed are sadly rather smaller than we had hoped for.  We are still debating why this is, the usual suspect is the weather, and no different this year.  A wet and cold winter, late cool spring and a boiling hot June have conspired to depress yield prospects.  We have yet to discover what the main wheat crop has in store, where once again we have been experimenting with fertiliser and spray inputs.

We have sown a selection of crops in one field, to save the seed from to sow as over-wintering cover crops.  This will be the third year we have done so, it is amazing how well the combine copes with such variation (and possibly something to do with the operator), the seeds are very different to our other crops, and the straw variable in texture and quantity, yet we have ended up with some usable samples. Some of them won’t be cut until after they will need to have been sown, so we will dry and store them until next year.  The turnips we have already cut and cleaned with our ancient Rutherford cleaner, ready to sow again soon.

The farm around Shepherds Corner showing the seed crops and the Wildfarmed winter wheat field.

It was always going to be a hot day on 20th of July, we had been booked to attend Graduation day at Reading Uni for many weeks, and sure enough we were busy harvesting at home.  Fortunately Fred stepped in and underwent a crash course in running the grain store, luckily not much needed drying that day, and it all went smoothly.  The university laid on a pretty smart ceremony, with students all decked out in gowns and mortar boards, the Chancellor greeted every graduand with a few solemn words and a doff of his headgear, and bingo, we are the proud parents of another graduate in the family.  The ceremony guide lists all the students graduating that day, and apparently this goes on for a whole week.  Noticeable on our day was that as well as the agricultural sciences, architecture, politics with international relations, and consumer behaviour with marketing were also on the menu.  I find it a little odd that there were twice as many students of consumer behaviour and marketing than there were of agriculture.  There were about the same number of architects as agrics.

This in some small way could reflect the reducing numbers of people occupied in grass roots food production across the world. Technological advances, and the relentless drive to reduce the cost of food drives people out of the industry, and makes it ever more dependent on chemicals and fertilisers applied in text book fashion across vast areas, which cannot possibly be managed in a way that can produce food and at the same time preserve or improve soil health and protect environmental diversity.

In order to compete in a cut-throat world driven by the retailers and cost conscious consumers, (where no-one is prepared to pay the environmental cost of intensive farming), farming has become hugely competitive itself, arable farmers have long been paying silly money for rented or contracted land, and to cover all this land they need hugely expensive machines. Once committed to this capital expenditure and often unsustainable rent levels, the last thing they can risk is losing yield, so every avenue is followed to optimise production. This is very expensive, but in many cases farmers are often over-applying inputs because they can’t risk what they see as failure.

In our own case, we have achieved 11 tons per ha of wheat in four years out of the last ten, the first time in 2014. That for us is amazing, but we would be fools to think we can do that every year, the weather makes sure of that, rainfall and sunshine distribution will always have more influence than the fert and chems. Should we stick to the high input policy of those good years, implying that in the other six years we over-applied fert and chem, or should we settle for a bit less yield in the best years, and better match our input levels to the average output we might expect ? Paying close attention to the financial margins of different levels of input and output, and weathering the vagaries of international markets for grain and gas (fertiliser) is of course essential.

Along the way we are learning about the damage that chemical fertiliser does to the soil, it destroys organic matter and soil health in general, and are the fungicides we use to keep disease at bay on the plants above ground actually destroying the mycorrhizal fungi within the soil that are so important for healthy plant/soil interaction ? If we are to be serious about global temperature and human effect on the planet’s ecosystems, we really do need to address these issues.

Composting our cattle manure, along with woodchip and digestate. We are also trying out straw mixed with digestate and the trimmings from some of our more grassy flowery field margins
The manures are arranged in windrows which can then be mixed and turned with this newly arrived piece of shiny kit, a (grant aided) compost turner, to make better use of our manures, turning them into a more consistent and more easily spread product. We will be learning, and demonstrating to interested farmers through the rest of this season and next.
Doug has been using his thermometer keenly, once it reaches 70 degrees the compost needs turning again.
Six spot burnet moth
Marbled white butterfly
New hedge looking well, happier in a wet summer than it would have been in 2022

The farm kitchen classroom is taking shape. The Farm Food Lab is the best we have come up with so far, any suggestions for a snappy and attractive name will be warmly welcomed. The idea is to augment our school visits programme with demonstrations of simple recipes made with ingredients grown on the farm. Connecting food with its origin and methods of production.
At last, success with establishing herbals into an aged and worn out permanent pasture. It’s taken 3 years to look like this, with very little grazing while we let it establish.

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10 years ago on the hill

Next month

Groundswell 2023, a Dorset Farmer’s view

Here is the abbreviated programme, possibly a bit small to read, but perhaps you can zoom in. I have circles in red the ones I attended.

For the full programme, look here on their website: https://groundswellag.com/sessions/

Wednesday. Left home at 5.30am, rolled into site 140 miles later at 8.15, not a bad result, a great run through N Dorset and Wilts to the M3, suddenly into traffic, but kept moving. M25 could have been a lot worse at 7.30am. Found family campsite, was welcomed with a cuppa, then headed off into festival for first session at 9, via a bacon butty. The food stands here are an eclectic mix, from hard core steak to the fluffiest veggie stuff, via curry and who knows what else. The main bar is the Earthworm Arms, what else could it be? First talk is three farmers discussing their journey to a more regenerative style of farming, all focussed first and foremost on improving soils. Dougal gives a great account of what we’ve been trying here, from the early days of reduced cultivations as we gave up ploughing in 2002, to the importing of vast quantities of muck, digestate and biosolids. Pictures of our flowery margins, stewardship options and cover crops look good on screen. The other two farmers have interesting stories to tell, and Ian the chair for the session probes with good questions. The audience ask plenty in the final quarter.

After a tea break and a quick runaround some of the stands, it’s back to the soil tent for Neil Fuller’s session “Can we eat our way to a brighter future”. This was a hell of a romp through vast quantities of information relating to the ‘Science based target initiative’. It sounds pretty dull, but is actually a tightly focussed mechanism intended to enable consumers through their food buying decisions to influence farming methods positively. His slides were detailed and clever.

June 2023

The View from the hill                                                                       5th July 2023

Having managed to miss an account of this year’s lambing in last month’s issue, here are a couple of pictures by way of a catch up.  Reggie our young ram has done well, by ensuring that all except one of our ewes got in lamb, the one who didn’t was a bit old and nature was probably telling us she shouldn’t anyway.  Our 11 ewes produced 19 lambs, which is pretty good, including one set of triplets, however true lambing percentage is worked out by number of lambs sold divided by number of ewes put to the ram.  We haven’t sold any lambs yet, and we had put 13 ewes to the ram, one died and one was empty.  At first glance our lambing percentage of 1.73 looks pretty good, but the true number of 1.46 is rather ordinary.  How many sheep farmers accidentally forget to add back ewes lost or empty when calculating their flock performance?  It’s tempting, like pub talk of yields at harvest time.

Above are Conker’s lambs, bearing no small resemblance to their mother, as you will see if you follow this link to Conker’s own page.

Reggie and friends, demonstrating his child minding skills

For those professional sheep farmers reading this rather fluffy nonsense about sheep with names, and a whole page devoted to one animal, it is worth reminding ourselves that sheep only remain on this farm for the purpose of entertainment and education.  Commercial sheep farming is a mug’s game that we gave up last year after a dose of scab forced us to dip all of our sheep in a very unpleasant chemical (or rather a contractor did the dipping), which is the only reliable way to get rid of this pernicious affliction.  It was the excuse needed to disperse the flock, after finding they weren’t really helping with management of oilseed rape by grazing it in the winter, neither were they encouraging wild flowers in our grass swards.  The regenerative approach lends itself more to cattle grazing than sheep, cattle browse, whereas sheep nibble, right down to the ground given a chance, often preferentially eating out herbs from a mixed sward If you let them.

When dipping, you have to submerge the animal in the dip fluid completely, if not you will not kill the scab mites which live in the ears of the sheep, and control will not be complete.  The rubbing, itching and wool shedding will return, and the job will have to be done again. Back in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s it was compulsory to dip all sheep for scab annually, and a policeman would usually attend at dipping time to ensure it was done properly.  Dipping is needed for welfare reasons, the mites drive the sheep nuts when they dig in, and it is worst in cold weather.  Compulsory dipping was aimed at eradicating the problem nationally.  The dipping itself is of course also a welfare issue.  Once the disease was nearly gone from the country, the rules were relaxed, it became no longer compulsory, but unfortunately a few pockets of scab remained, and now we are back to a situation where it is endemic.  The risk of contracting it in one’s flock is huge when you buy in replacements, particularly from far off sale yards and using an agent to buy for you, as we did.  Our replacement policy for many years had been to buy in retired hill ewes, usually from Wales, and expect to get another 2 or 3 crops of lambs from them.  We got away with it for a long time, but got caught out in the winter of 2021.  That was enough to say no more sheep, it would not have been possible for us to move to a closed flock the way we were farming the sheep then.  Our tiny 11 ewe flock is scab free, and apart from the purchase of Reggie the ram last year, we will remain closed, to minimise risk of re-infection. 

This is one of our wheat fields, showing the colour contrast between varieties.  The smaller area of the pale one on the right, variety Champion, was the last of the seed we had sown in a different field.  It’s the first year for us for Champion, it has pretty good book values for disease resistance, standing power and yield, we will see what the combine thinks in a few weeks.  The darker one is Theodore, its second year for us, it had league-topping ratings for yellow and brown rust, and septoria, at the beginning of this season, however where we have been really stingey with the fungicide we have seen a brown rust explosion, which needed fire engine treatment with fungicide.  Apparently we are not alone.  Similarly, variety Extase, which we and every other farmer in the country is growing, has very good book values for disease, but has broken down to yellow rust in the absence of fungicide.  Proper farmers will be yelling “why no fungicide?”, but having shifted our emphasis away from intensive fertiliser and chemical inputs, we are now trying to stretch the genetic ability of the best available varieties to resist disease.  Having reduced fertiliser rates, which in turn reduces vulnerability to disease, a good case must be made before a fungicide is applied. Older (dirtier) varieties received a prophylactic application at T1 and T2 timings, but the supposedly cleaner ones did not, this is where we have stress tested the policy. 

Blend of Theodore and Extase wheat, much cleaner than the varieties grown on their own.

So having seen Theodore and Extase grown on their own with no fungicide both showing their true weaknesses, it has been fascinating to watch how a blend of the two has fared.  Where the yellow rust appeared in Extase in mid May, and brown rust in Theodore a couple of weeks later, the same varieties sown in a blend have remained clean until a small amount of rust appeared on the Theodore last week, and our agronomist says it is now too late in the season to worry about treatment.  The big question is what is going on?  High on my list of reasons is that the plants of the same variety being separated in space by plants of the other variety means that cross infection from plant to plant is reduced.  We will definitely be trying more blends next year, and trying 3 and 4 way mixes too.

We are reducing fertiliser levels as part of our desire to create healthier soils, building organic matter and biological activity in the soil improves water and nutrient holding capacity, leading to similar if not better crop performance, at lower input cost, than in quality depleted soils degraded by decades of intense cultivation and fertiliser use. 

Nitrogen fertilisers and cultivations oxidise carbon and organic matter in the soil, sending carbon dioxide (CO2) and even more damaging nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere, as well as releasing water soluble nitrates downwards towards the water table.  The climatic and environmental consequences are huge, and it is essential that we learn how to grow food more efficiently, without these dire consequences.  Consumers can do their bit by demanding food produced by more sustainable methods, and farmers can do their bit by trying some new tricks.

All this and much much more was on the agenda at the Groundswell Agricultural festival in Hertfordshire last week, hosted by the Cherry family on their farm near Hitchin.  Groundswell steadily grows in popularity every year, and the breadth of knowledge available in talks, seminars and farmer panels, from specialists and farmers from around the world is mind boggling.  Across the two days every couple of hours there would be up to 8 different sessions in 8 different tents.  Somewhat frustrating, as you can only be in one place at a time, more than once there were 4 different ones I wanted to listen to.  On top of this there are multiple organisations’ displays, demos and snakeoil salesmen to gaze at, admire, or avoid.  There were machines on show from no-till drills to robotic weed zappers, a mobile abattoir, compost making, bat, hedgerow and moth safaris, mob grazing demos, with a smattering of music and comedy too.  The hard core festival goers camp on site, some glamp, and others hotel off site, the intensity continues until late in the evening, and it is not easy to escape the feeling you must be missing something even when queuing for food or drink to keep you going.  It is good fun too, to bump into friends from across the country who are also in search of a new or adjusted way forward for their farming businesses. 

A slide from one of the many specialist talks at Groundswell
On the NIAB stand (National Institute of Agricultural Botany) a display of potential new crops for the future. We are trying to grow chickpeas in the garden, taken from a bag of British ones bought from Hodmedods, soaked for a couple of days, then sown. The 40% that germinated are growing well, though no flowers yet.
A group of school children on a visit here at haymaking time, helping to dry the grass……
A couple of the boys spotted Brendan at work across the valley, from a safe distance
Phacelia on the left, Buckwheat on the right, growing our own seeds for cover crops, also Linseed, Vetch, Turnips and Camelina in the same field
The spring beans are heaving with ladybirds, who are feasting on black bean aphid which have been trying to gain a foothold. Most of them are 7 spot ladybirds, but I found a tiny one who turned out to be an Adonis Ladybird, not as common.
Adonis’ ladybird
A regular garden visitor recently, there may be more than one but they are hard to tell apart. They certainly like cat food and some access to water in the very dry weather
Some of this year’s calves enjoying life in the herbal ley, while their Mums entertain Theo the handsome Hereford bull.
or each other

Last month

10 years ago on the Hill

Next month

May 2023

The View from the hill                                                                       31st May 2023

My favourite tree, a copper beech embedded in a carpet of bluebells at the beginning of the month

So much has happened since I last wrote, the bluebells have been, beautiful, and gone, as have the wild garlic carpets, the rape completed its flowering, Dougal and Jules cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats to celebrate their birthdays, and only got wet twice, the last calves were born, the bulls are now doing what bulls do, our 11 ewes started lambing on 5th May, producing 19 lambs, and today they finished (2nd June). 

What a fabulous May it has been, flowers everywhere, cowslips in the fields, the May blossom (hawthorn) in the hedgerows has been amazing, often hemmed by cow parsley on the verges, followed this week by ox-eye daisies popping out in our arable flower margins.  To add to the pleasure I have discovered a birdsong app: Merlin Bird ID, which is a must if you want to try learning who is singing at you every day.  It is free, and remarkably effective.  It records the cacophony of songs we often hear at this time of year, and disentangles them instantly listing each species as it sings, it can be played back so you can try to learn the individuals.  One day last week I found a Corn Bunting and a Yellowhammer in the same place, which I would never have known otherwise.

Here is Fred raking a field of spring barley a few weeks ago, we had spread some clover seed onto the soil between the growing barley plants, then needed to incorporate it into the soil surface. Then the field was was rolled to keep the moisture in.  This is experimental, and we fear it has already failed.  The rake was supposed to remove some of the weeds as well, but that wasn’t terribly successful, so within a week, hoping it was before the clover germinated, we ran over the field with a weedkiller to take out the volunteer rape, cleavers and a few other things.  Not much clover is apparent, do we blame the dry weather or the weedkiller ?  We are trying to establish a living mulch of clover that will live in the bottom of the crop, fixing nitrogen and helping to shade out weeds, with the idea that we will sow the following crop into it and the clover continues into the next season, reducing the need for future weedkillers.  The diversity of different species growing at the same time should be good for the soil, and some extra nitrogen in the system (fixed by the clover) could be useful down the road.  Getting clover established in a growing crop is tricky to say the least, the weeds, stones and weather all conspire to challenge the grower. 

This and many other wacky techniques were discussed at the Wildfarmed Growers day last week, at Andy Cato’s farm in Oxfordshire.  Andy is a leading light with Wildfarmed, and his farm is a test bed of a good many fascinating experiments at field scale.  Including co-cropping of various kinds, with inter-row mowing, hoeing and raking as weed control techniques.  He was running a hoe in a field of spring wheat with spring beans while we looked on aghast, so many crop plants were being pulled up, as well as the weeds, eventually Andy called off the machine, a steerage hoe with cameras to ensure the hoe tines run between the rows, not in them.  There is great scope for this kind of technology, as accuracy and reliability improve, but right now I can’t completely silence a voice in the back of my head which says surely one little dose of weedkiller would be a lot easier, and certainly less of a challenge to any ground nesting birds or more likely their nests, in the field at the time of hoeing or raking?

Andy Cato’s borrowed hoe at work in bicrop of spring wheat with beans.
Bread making demo at Wildfarmed

We were also given a bread making demonstration by Richard Snapes of the Snapery Bakery in London, he started by showing us how to create a simple starter.  A sourdough starter is a stable mixture of beneficial bacteria and wild yeast that’s maintained with regular refreshments and is used to leaven and flavour dough.  It takes the place of the regular yeast that is used in most bread making. The yeast for the sourdough starter is derived from wild yeast spores floating around in the air at the time, which enter the mixture and begin the fermentation.  Richard then moved on through the stages of creating loaves, using doughs and finally loaves at different stages that he had prepared earlier.  Sourdough bread takes longer to prepare than the Chorleywood process used in most modern mass production bread making.  With a longer fermentation, the bacteria in the starter break down much of the gluten in the dough, which can result in a bread more easily digestible, and be more suitable for people with gluten intolerance.  We ourselves have recently purchased a small stone grinding mill, and are looking forward to baking with some of our own Wildfarmed wheat flour after harvest.

This talk of bread brings me to the price of food.  There has been much talk recently of food price inflation, and even of some mechanism to persuade UK retailers to impose a cap on the price of certain staple foods.  I wonder how that would work?  The main reason that there are shortages of eggs and other food products in some supermarkets today is because many of those supermarkets are incredibly resistant to raising returns to primary producers such as farmers and horticultural growers, for fear of losing their competitive edge with their fellow retailers. Farmers’ reaction to this when faced with huge costs (energy in particular) and poor prices for their output, is simply to not restock their chicken houses in the case of eggs, or plant up their glass houses in the case of salad veg.   Farmers receive only a tiny proportion of the value of the raw materials they produce as it is, so they are not well placed to suffer price reductions.  Processors and retailers need to be called out to explain their margins and profit levels. Some kind of mechanism for fairness and honesty in the food chain is required. 
UK food is the 3rd cheapest in the world after the US and Singapore, and the proportion of the average income spent on food is between just 10 and 12%, whereas it was very much higher in the past.  The Food Security summit held at No 10 a couple of weeks ago nibbled around the edges of the problem, but didn’t come up with much of substance.  We will still face uncertainty whilst rampant profiteering is allowed to continue, at the expense of the environment, the producer and in defiance of common sense.

Mr Red and some young lady friends, before he went out with the larger herd 2 weeks ago.
The second to last load of Maris Otter leaves the farm for Warminster maltings, and then onwards to a myriad of craft brewers around the world last week.
A bee tucks into cornflower nectar in one of our flowery plots on Shillingstone Hill.
Nippy and her lambs, one of the earlier ewes to lamb.
Orphan lambs at their final milk feed, they had pulled the teat off the bottle one too many times, and wasted the last of the milk. Spot the pigs in the background, squealing for their supper.
This year’s newly planted resistant Elms are making great progress
Crop of spring wheat with beans, looking good, and humming with bees. The combination of the two crops together gives better ground cover for smothering weeds than either on their own, provides more diversity for the biology in the soil, and reduces disease risk in the field.
Naughty bee cheating. Digging through the base of bean flower in search of nectar, rather than doing the bean a favour by pushing into the front of the flower thereby collecting/depositing pollen, a fair deal you might think? Robert our beekeeper has brought many hives up to the bean fields, I will have to ask him if he has trained his bees properly.

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April 2023

The View from the hill                                                                       30th April 2023

Suddenly spring is here, though not exactly convincingly.  While we’ve been spending too much time indoors because it has still been cold and wet through much of April, everything outside has been getting on with it in spite of the weather.  Many farmers have been complaining that the grass isn’t growing fast enough for them to be able to let their animals out of their winter quarters, and others say the ground has been too wet and bovine feet will turn everything to mud in a flash, but there is no denying that things are indeed growing, like this lovely patch of wild garlic and bluebells together next to the river Stour just upstream of Durweston.  We are just about at peak spring flowers now, and it is essential to get out and enjoy them.  Bluebells are always a joy to brighten a dull day or mood, and an unbroken carpet of garlic, as there is in one or two local woods, is like a fresh fall of snow, though considerably smellier, which one barely dares spoil with a footprint.

Here are some cowslips that just get better and better every year, on a 10 acre field which we reverted to downland under stewardship, in 2010, using seed harvested from the flowery steep banks nearby, the flowers have improved as the fertility has depleted, meaning the grass gets less competitive allowing the flowers to proliferate.  There are many species here, including a few orchids, and if we manage the livestock grazing correctly, allowing the flowers to set seed and spread each year, their coverage improves.

The earlier calving cows,  and their calves, which were born from the beginning of February onwards, have been out of doors for a few weeks on drier fields, the calves are growing really well, and the cows are slowly filling out after their winter hay diet of the last 5 months.  We just need for them to shed the remnants of their scruffy winter coats, and start to shine, then they will look a whole lot better. 

This year’s 6 new heifer entrants to the herd were introduced to Mr Red last week, but they didn’t seem to know quite what to do with him.  He will be with them for the next 3 weeks, then he will be let loose with a larger group of the older cows for around 9 weeks.  Theo the (red) Hereford will take care of the other group.  The purchase of these two new bulls last year, both red in colour, has proven to be a great success, we now have a lovely crop of multi coloured calves, with more variation from Theo than from Mr Red, (Angus) who carries the recessive red characteristic.  Readers who were paying attention last month, and who have at least a rudimentary understanding of genetics, will recall that although red in colour, he is an Aberdeen Angus, where the most common, and dominant, gene carries black colouring.  Most of the cows and heifers that Mr Red served last year are at least ¾ black Angus, so many of his calves have come out black.  However of note are the twins belonging to Ginge, our one red heifer from last year, which are a gorgeous red.  Pictured here at Websley when they were smaller.

Mr Red being friendly.

One fine day 2 weeks ago, we made the tricky decision to get on and shear our tiny sheep flock.  We found a very good shearer, Mike, locally, who came along to shear our pregnant ewes with care and precision, very few were nicked in the process, and all looked very smart after their trim.  There were a few cold nights following, so they were allowed to sleep in a barn overnight, we didn’t want anyone going into premature labour from environmental shock.  We are now waiting patiently for the arrival of some lambs, hopefully starting around May 5th.  At shearing time we convinced ourselves that they are all pregnant, which is a significant improvement on last year.  The ewes are now back in the paddock nearer home where it is easy to keep an eye on them.

There is little doubt in my mind that when a ewe looks like this, there is a good chance she is carrying at least one lamb.

Whilst on livestock, it wouldn’t be right to omit mention of this year’s trio of piglets, who arrived around 3 weeks ago.  Greedy as always, the weather has made it very easy for them to turn their paddock into a ploughed mess far quicker than their predecessors of the last 3 years, when we had very dry spring weather and the soil was far less pliable.

They come from a farm near Milton Abbas, where Maureen Case runs a small pedigree herd of Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, with 7 sows and 2 boars.  These three gilts came from the same litter, they were 9 weeks old when we picked them up.Here is another (younger) litter, of 11, it turns out that there is always a runt of the litter, the big ones bag the more milky teats at Mum’s front end, and the smaller ones have to make do with the smaller yield of the rearmost teats.  The big piglets get bigger and stronger, not for a moment concerned with the welfare of their smaller siblings.  Watching ours when we feed them, one is reminded why they are called pigs, ear biting and barging is commonplace in order to secure the largest portion of the ration.  One of ours was clearly a front end guzzler, she is bigger than the other two and doesn’t hold back.

The Blackthorn winter has certainly lived up to its name this year, much of April has been cold, and the Blackthorn has flowered vigorously for a long time, hopefully that will mean plenty of sloes for next autumn. Blackthorn is an important host of the Brown Hairstreak butterfly, which lays its eggs on young blackthorn twigs, the caterpillars hatch and remain on the blackthorn for much of the year, before eventually emerging as a handsome butterfly with a dark upper wing surface, and a contrasting orange underside.  Over-zealous hedge trimming can eradicate populations alarmingly easily, but once we have learnt this kind of fact, farmers are usually keen to help, and soon grasp the importance of every other year trimming, or longer term hedge management incorporating coppicing or laying, often supported by environmental schemes, which pay farmers to adopt beneficial practices.

As the blackthorn flowers fade, we find the hawthorn is in bud and will very soon deal us another beautiful snowy blanket along many of our hedges and bushes.

I got very excited a couple of months ago when I discovered that a farmer friend I knew from the Tisbury area was as a sideline importing and propagating Dutch elm disease-resistant Elm Trees.  Ancient maps of the Durweston area show trees in clumps in several of our fields, which I feel sure would have been elms.  Back in the 80s I remember digging out the remains of huge tree stumps from our meadows near the old Durweston mill.  At the time we believed these to be Elms, the last of the great many that used to populate the countryside before Dutch Elm disease laid waste to them. The disease is caused by the fungus Ophiostoma novo-ulmi which is spread by elm bark beetles. It got its name from the team of Dutch pathologists who carried out research on the diseases in the 1920s.  Ash dieback disease now threatens another mainstay tree of the English landscape, the sight of hundreds and thousands of ash trees succumbing to the disease is enough to reduce one to tears of sadness and frustration.  Anyway, in an attempt to remain positive, this story is about the efforts of a small number of dedicated plantsmen to try to resuscitate the English Elm.  There has been work in universities across the world to develop resistant elms and these hybrids are subjected to inoculum trials to assess their resistance to Dutch elm disease.

While these resistant strains look similar to English varieties of elm, they are described as exotic species. They might not perform exactly the same ecosystem function so replacing elms with them is not necessarily a complete solution.  My farmer friend had a small stock of a cloned variety called Lutece available, which has become the most widely planted of the modern hybrids in Britain, through the efforts of Butterfly Conservation and the Island 2000 Trust on the Isle of Wight.  Sadly its extended dormancy in spring may prevent it from becoming the resource for the White-Letter Hairstreak butterfly that it was once hoped to be.  In our case, the 9 specimen trees that Peter supplied are all budding up nicely, and I am hoping to obtain more next winter so as to be able to complete a line of them along the road between Durweston and Bryanston.  For further information please have a look here  https://resistantelms.co.uk/elms/ulmus-lutece/, or here https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/tree-pests-and-diseases/key-tree-pests-and-diseases/dutch-elm-disease/
There is a lot of debate surrounding the original appearance of the Elm in Britain, and its subsequent development, generally it is not a strong breeder, and very often spreads by suckers rather than seed, perhaps this made it more vulnerable to disease?  Further interesting debate here https://www.wildlifebcn.org/sites/default/files/2021-07/Complete%20key%20to%20native%20and%20naturalised%20elms.pdf

Some dissected wheat plants from last week, showing development stages, this helps us to decide when is the best time to deploy fungicides or other products to help the plants fend off disease.  The first key timing is when final leaf 3 is fully emerged, this leaf makes a small but significant contribution to final yield, and by keeping it clean, we can help slow the spread of disease to the uppermost leaves, especially the flag leaf, which can contribute as much as 50% of crop yield. You may be able to see from the picture that the variety on the left, Palladium, is some way behind the Extase on the right.  Extase is an early developer, and therefore a good indicator as to the likely growth stage of all the wheat in a given season.  The flag leaf, once fully emerged, is therefore the most important target for expensive inputs.  This year we are trying out products to boost the plants own defences against disease, as well as carefully deployed fungicides, which have become eye-wateringly expensive.  Our policy of choosing varieties with the best resistance ratings against disease, combined with a reduction in rates of fertiliser, should reduce disease pressure, and the application of silicon and salicylic acid are aimed at boosting plant defences, rather than simply attacking the fungal crop diseases with fungicides, which could be counter productive when we are also trying to encourage fungal growth in the soil.  Mycorrhyzal fungi in the soil are intimately incorporated with plant roots, and are essential for conveying sugars (carbon) from plant photosynthesis, into the soil, as well as for sourcing minerals from the soil to feed into the plants, too much fungicide can impede these processes.

In a further attempt to reduce our reliance on fertiliser and chems, we are trying out bi-cropping, in this case, growing spring wheat and beans together, reducing the risk of disease for both crops, and contributing diversity to the soil and environment. Once harvested we will attempt to separate the wheat and beans with our ancient cleaner. They are being grown on contract with a company called Wildfarmed who encourage growers to try more environmentally friendly farming methods by finding premium markets for the produce. https://wildfarmed.co.uk

New hedge freshly mulched to keep the grass down and the moisture in.
This month in the workshop, a new chainsaw sharpener with which even an amateur (like the author) can bring a saw back into useful cutting condition.
A marvellous spoof from April 1st. Anyone who has watched Paul Whitehouse on ‘Our Troubled Rivers’, or the Countryfile special on the river Wye, will have an inkling of what this is all about. Bit of a sh.t show……..

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