My day out at Lyscombe Farm, Cheselbourne.

Notes from a day out with Dorset Wildlife Trust at Lyscombe. Friday 10 May 2024

Brian Bleese, Chief Exec of DWT introduced proceedings, he first introduced George McGavin, President, who very enthusiastically described the importance of the deal that resulted in the purchase of Lyscombe Farm, and the plan for the day.

Others followed, including Tony Juniper (Chair) and Marian Spain (Chief exec) of Natural England.  There was repetition of the self-congratulatory theme, and we were told that so many organisations and individuals have gone above and beyond to achieve this ground breaking deal, which, several speakers noted, will not only unlock the building of 3700 new houses in the catchment, but will also make a huge difference to Poole harbour itself, which currently languishes under a pollution-fuelled mat of green algae, which was so visible from the train on the way down to Dorchester from London that morning.

The meeting had coincided with a release from Government of a piece announcing this amazing scheme which will allow for thousands of new houses to be built in the south west.

Extract from Government announcement:

Thousands of new homes for development are to be enabled in Dorset thanks to the government backed Nutrient Mitigation Scheme, Natural England has announced today (Friday 10 May).

The scheme will enable around 3,700 new homes to be built in the catchment over the next few years whilst protecting water quality.

By securing nutrient mitigation at Lyscombe, the scheme will enable new homes to be built in the catchment whilst protecting numerous rare birds such as avocets, spoonbills and black-tailed godwits from additional pollution that affects their precious habitat within Poole Harbour.  

To quote Marian Spain in the government’s press release above: “The purchase of Lyscombe is a significant step forward for nutrient mitigation and a boost for sustainable development. Providing nutrient credits through work at sites like these will ensure that we can keep building homes for the future, without harming our waterways.”

I tried to ask questions at one point, specifically, could they share with us the calculations which showed how this 330 hectare farm could mitigate the potential pollution from 3700 homes?  But questions were not being taken.  Secondly, how could 330 ha of farmland (farmed organically since 2000) improve the nutrient status of Poole harbour on its own, being only 0.4% of the 80,000 hectare catchment?  Thirdly, how does the purchase of the farm demonstrate good value for public money, costing as it would have at least £10 million?

We were then divided into groups and set off on walks to different parts of the farm, I was fortunate to be in a group with Giles Foster Mitchell, retiring farm manager for Mark Russell, the vendor of the farm.  A small group of us managed to get some tricky subjects aired, mostly with a very helpful chap from Natural England. (John Stobart). Giles told us the farm has been organic since 2000, has not had a dairy in recent years and has been largely run as an extensive beef and sheep enterprise, with some of the arable area on the flatter top parts of the farm being rented out to a local organic farmer, who brought in manures.

We had walked down across the farm to meet the Little Piddle, a stream which emerges from a spring a little further up the valley we were in.  Rob our DWT guide had explained the early plans the trust has for improving the stream and its environment, re-routing it from its artificially deepened current route, so that a boggy wetland will result, which will be able to slow down the flow of water, and allow any nutrients in it to be absorbed by plants before it continues to wend its way ultimately to Poole Harbour.  The wetland itself will become a valuable wildlife habitat.  The stream usually flows all year.

It should be noted here that Lyscombe farm, although farmed extensively and organic for many years, is surrounded by other farms which operate more intensively, with large dairy pig and arable operations nearby, so it is quite feasible that the spring water will be carrying excess nitrates leached from elsewhere, so a wetland to help clean the stream will indeed be beneficial.

John from NE, and his colleague Nikki went a considerable way to explain different aspects of the deal that led to the purchase of Lyscombe farm, which involved at least 3 different sources of funds, each of which were targeted at different parts of the farm.  The Nutrient Neutrality money, through Natural England’s Nutrient Mitigation scheme, has been used to buy the portion of the farm that has been arable most recently, and although having been organic for the last 24 years, can still be attributed with nutrient neutrality credits.  We were told the deal has unlocked the building of 3700 houses, enough to at least raise the eyebrows, but the people running the project, when questioned, are not really pretending that the farm is actually supposed to mitigate for all of the pollution caused by those houses in the future, in spite of what was implied at the start of the meeting. (Government’s own figures for housing density are 35 per hectare, so the notional 3700 new houses will commit approx 105ha to concrete, tarmac and gardens. I can’t help wondering if this would include schools, shops, hospitals, roads, etc, or whether that would require even more space.)

John explained how the fact that the land is being committed in perpetuity, and will never return to agricultural production, adds significantly to its value in terms of nutrient mitigation.  He also explained that to make the calculations which result in mitigation values being attributable to schemes like this, a computer model called Farmscoper was employed.

(Farmscoper is a decision support tool to assess diffuse agricultural pollutant loads on a farm. It can also quantify the impacts of farm mitigation methods on these pollutants.

The farm systems within the tool can be customised to reflect management and environmental conditions representative of farming across England and Wales. The tool contains over 100 mitigation methods, including many of those in the Defra Mitigation Method User Guide.  From ADAS)

Interesting to note here that Farmscoper was a few years ago assessed as one of a number of possible systems available that could be used by the Environment Agency and farmers in the Poole Harbour catchment to monitor/calculate farm activity and nitrate leaching risk, but the EA decided it was not suitable for farmers to use in this instance.  Since then the now discredited Nutrient Leaching Tool (NLT) has been developed, imposed upon farmers, and repeatedly found seriously inadequate for the task of matching farm activity to leaching risk. The EA have now had to back off with it, pending a comprehensive rewrite, or replacement.  Consequently several years of potentially valuable data collection from across the catchment have been wasted.

Returning to the conversation with John Stobart, we learnt that a different pot of money, from Natural England’s National Nature Reserves funding, has purchased the SSSI and other low input environmentally sensitive areas of the farm, but which DWT will manage.

The speakers had claimed over and over how projects like this can help to rescue Poole harbour, but during the conversations afterwards it was quite easy to feel that this had been somewhat misleading.  What was missing was the detail.  In our small group by the stream, John spent a great deal of time, faced with persistent questioning, explaining how the project at Lyscombe will have huge knock-on effects, far greater and more valuable, both environmentally and financially, than will actually occur on the farm itself.  Quite difficult to grasp, we now understand that projects like this are very effective, for example, in putting huge pressure on water companies to clean up their act and reduce river pollution from sewage treatment works outflows.  Considering the huge exposure in recent months on the size of the problems facing our rivers,  I felt he was being somewhat optimistic.

After an illuminating conversation, some of which was admittedly a struggle to understand in every aspect, we suggested that it is essential that they (DWT/NE) make significant efforts to explain the deal in simple terms for public consumption, in order to head off the noisy criticism that is likely to emerge.  The questions at the top of this piece are on the lips of very many farmers in the PH catchment, in which Lyscombe sits, and although we heard a pretty full explanation of the big picture benefits that should flow from the purchase of the land, the immediate difficulties faced by farmers in the catchment are not addressed at all.  The value for money question is particularly pertinent here. For the last 5 years, farmers in the PH catchment have been threatened with the imposition of a Water Protection Zone, which if imposed would reduce the catchment to trees and a little bit of ‘dog and stick’ farming.  Hence the catchment’s 500 farmers are extremely worried, their livelihood would be destroyed.  During the last 5 years, the Poole Harbour Nutrient Management scheme (PHNMS) has been formed by the EA, and the Poole Harbour Agricultural Group (PHAG) has brought together many of the catchment’s farmers as a coherent and co-operative body.  At the heart of the work of PHNMS has been the NLT, which from the start has been troublesome, unreliable, and has undermined much of the goodwill binding the PH project together.

When explaining this to the NE people, relating the Lyscombe project to the problems faced by farmers (and EA) in the PH catchment, they claimed the situations are very different and shouldn’t be considered together.  This land use change at Lyscombe is for ever, in perpetuity, whereas PH has to be solved in shorter timescales.  I said over and over that if money can be found for a project like this, then money must be found for a proper NLT and to properly progress the works needed in the catchment.   They agreed, however as happens all too often, it is clear that they work in silos, and being different issues, these people have no control over the decisions and funding needed for Poole Harbour.  Patently ridiculous, seeing how many time PH was mentioned at the beginning of the meeting.

Questions needing answers

  1. I would like to see the calculations which show how this 330 hectare farm could mitigate the potential pollution from 3700 homes? 
  2. How can a change in management of 330 ha of farmland (farmed organically since 2000) improve the nutrient status of Poole harbour on its own,  being only 0.4% of the 80,000 ha catchment? 
  3. How does the purchase of the farm demonstrate good value for public money, costing as it would have at least £10 million?
  4. Should we be worried about Nutrient neutrality units being traded out of catchment?
  5. Will they share the break down of the financing for the project, it would be helpful to understand exactly how much and where the money has come from. I think this could be helpful as well to understand if there are any funding mechanisms we could tap into in the PH catchment that haven’t yet been explored as well as where public money has been used.
  6. If this turns into a trend, led by NE and ambitious NGOs, is there a danger a huge amount of money will be spent achieving practically nothing in terms of actually reducing pollution?

Alternatives you could spend the money on:

  1. Help water companies clean up
  2. Help farmers learn new techniques to use fert and manure more efficiently, eg the NLT
  3. Pay farmers to lay off any N or Muck application up to 200m from any waterway
  4. Pay farmers to not use fert at rates higher than, for example 100kg/ha

Stop press 2nd July, Dorset Council have just announced they are purchasing a former dairy farm at Higher Kingcombe, using a grant from central government.

From BBC news website: A local authority is buying a dairy farm as part of nature-recovery efforts.

Dorset Council has agreed to buy Middle Farm at Higher Kingcombe, which sits alongside a Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) nature reserve.

The council said changing its use to woodland or rewilding the area would reduce harmful nutrients flowing from the farm into watercourses.

The exact purchase price of the farm has not been disclosed, although the council has received a £4.63m grant from central government.

The authority has not confirmed whether the cost is higher or lower than the grant total.

In a statement, it said the current intensive use as a dairy farm was “not ideal” as it suffered from run-off and soil erosion.

The land is ideally located to deliver both nutrient reduction and nature recovery in the headwaters of the River Hooke.

Changing its use to woodland or rewilding can reduce nitrates as required and could be achieved with little investment,” it said.

The sale was approved by the former Conservative administration and is continuing after the Liberal Democrats took control of the council following the local elections.

Dorset Council said it was supported by Natural England and that there had been discussions with DWT, which runs the adjacent Kingcombe National Nature Reserve.

May – June 2024

The View from the Hill

A few weeks ago our experimental area of bi-cropped wheat with crimson clover looked like this.  The clover, sown at the same time as the wheat last autumn, has become rather dominant, and when it then rained heavily a week or so later, pretty much the whole lot laid over.  Since then the clover has finished flowering and started to die back, and some of the wheat has managed to stand up again.  However the early clover dominance will have depressed the potential yield of the wheat, which is the part we get paid for, and it is far too late now for the wheat to throw up more tillers to fill in the gaps.  The difficulty with minority interest cropping like this is that there is not much guidance aavailable for seed rates etc, so there is quite a lot of guess work.  The wheat/clover bi-crop last year went the other way, we used a less vigorous white clover, so lacking in vigour that there was barely any there at all by spring.  Some other farmers across the country, trying similar things, are having better luck than us, this is what a good clover under-storey looks like, although if I’m honest, there’s not enough cereal (oats I think) in this field.

The reason for the bi-cropping is to see if we can move away from mono-cropping, which can have poor outcomes for soil and environmental health. We are growing the wheat for Wildfarmed, a new company dedicated to growing and baking healthy food which does not degrade the environment, and making it widely available on the high street. Bread widely available in Waitrose and M&S. No chems and limited nitrogen, plus a crop partner. Diverse families of roots in the soil foster a broader range of mycorrhizal and other organic activity in the soil, one way of doing this is to keep an under-storey going through several seasons, it keeps the soil shielded from hot sun and heavy rain, the clover fixes its own nitrogen, some of which can become available to the following crop as the clover dies and regrows. A good under-storey can also shade out weeds.  Diversity is one of the five guiding principles of soil focussed, regenerative farming, which, thanks to the great god Gabe Brown from North Dakota, can be summarised as follows:

  • Minimise soil disturbance. Minimising physical and chemical disturbance to the soil prevents damage to the micro-flora and fauna that form the soil ecosystem. …
  • Keep the soil covered. …
  • Maintain living roots in the soil. …
  • Maximise plant diversity. …
  • Reintroduce livestock.

And here is the great god himself, discussing the finer points of soil management with a hairy farmer from Dorset.  Doug tells me that Gabe has recently added a 6th important element, that of context – by which he means that how you apply these principles to your land should also consider the context, your soil type, location, altitude, aspect etc.  Gabe’s book ‘Dirt to Soil’ is considered by many to be the regenerative bible, it’s a great story, and full of useful guidance. Not all that emanates from the US is bad!

Out here in our herbal ley fields, our cows are happily munching away in their mobs, they have got very used to being moved on to fresh grazing every day, and don’t hesitate to let the world know if we are late to move them on.  This year’s rainy spring has led to a very vigorous grass growth everywhere, an early hay cut has been taken in places, and even parts of the river meadows have been mob grazed this year to force the animals to graze it properly.  The system is working well with the lightweight Kiwi-designed electric fence easy to move, and a network of water pipe across the fields with quick release push-fit fittings so that it is straightforward to empty and move the troughs daily.

As you can see, Theo the bull is enjoying his favourite 6 weeks of the year, with a mob of cows and their calves, including the pretty one in the foreground, one of his daughters from last year, out of cows with a certain amount of Belgian Blue in their genes, which has given us two calves this year with freckles and a white line along the spine, a little reminiscent of the rare breed Gloucester cattle.

Advantages from mob grazing include the following: Fewer flies bothering the animals, fresh grazing every day moves the cattle off yesterdays dung pats where the flies often congregate. Fresh grazing also reduces the pressure from intestinal worms, a 50 day cycle between the grazing of any single part of the field helps to break the lifecycle of worms, so less wormer is needed, which when present in the dungpats, can kill the flies and beetles on which species like the rare Greater Horseshoe bat thrive. (See last month for more on this). Some of the herbs which the animals are grazing can themselves have an anthelmintic effect (discourage or kill intestinal worms). Mob grazing which leaves around a third of the pasture behind allows the plants to regrow more quickly than traditional grazing which takes nearly all the herbage, because there is still enough leaf to enable plenty of photosynthesis. As plants are grazed down, their roots die back, and therefore they take even longer to recover and regrow, both under and above soil level.

Several weeks ago this fellow was spotted emerging from the end of the unloading auger on our combine, so our good friend Alan was called up, and he put in many patient hours of watching and waiting before catching a string of wonderful pictures as Wol emerged, and then took off for his early evening patrol of the surrounding area.  We decided that he was probably a lone male, roosting in the combine during the day, amongst other haunts we believe he uses.  Seeing as we will need the combine in a few weeks’ time, Alan advised us to erect an owl box in the vicinity, in the hope that he moves over before harvest, and that maybe he might find a mate for next season.  The giveaway for other roosting spots are the owl pellets on the floor, and great slashes of white poo below the roost.  Have you ever pulled apart an owl pellet?  Fascinating to find the tiny bones of many little rodents, tidily wrapped up in the indigestible skin of the unfortunate prey.  I have to admit to being very impressed by Chris Packham’s ability to identify different species of small mammals from the jawbones and teeth patterns thereon, which he had teased out of owl pellets on one springwatch episode.

Following swiftly on the heels of the bluebell season, the wild garlic show was as good as it gets this year, here is Fishmore hill near Milton Abbas, the ultimate Dingly Dell, always a joy to drive through at the right time of year, and below is the lane down to Bramblecombe farm from Milton Abbas, where the bridleway crosses the road, thick with garlic on both sides, the walking boots always take on a marvellous aroma.

The problem with failing to keep up with a monthly edition of this publication, is that with so much going on at this time of year, things are being missed, I really must try harder.  Here is Tangle with the first lambs of the season, born on May 5th, they are now considerably bigger.  We had a good lambing, one triplet, 3 singles and 8 twins, overall average 175%.  12 ewes is admittedly not much to get excited about, but you need to remember these are special sheep, kept entirely for their entertainment value for school visits, and not at all for commercial reasons.  Many a child has lit up when let loose with the sheep and a handful of toast, the screams of laughter and excitement are a great reward, I am quite often told that children otherwise uninspired by school life, come alive on such outings. Sheep therapy should become a thing, they are rich in character and greediness.

A fascinating seminar with local grain merchant Bartholomews, held at the Hall and Woodhouse brewery, not only fed a group of farmers with a very fine cooked breakfast, but with vital intelligence on the current grain markets.  An essential event in the farming year, this meeting, presented by grain trader Edd Britton, gave us much useful information which will help us to navigate the minefield that is the world wheat market for the next few months.  The weather in the US and Russia, (both major world wheat producers) have been very influential factors recently, with quite violent up and down swings in grain price over a short period of time, making rational sales decisions very tricky.  The graph here shows how the balance between import and export of wheat in and out of the UK has altered over the last 10 years.  In most years we are now a net importer, for several reasons, firstly the good old reliable British weather, followed by the bioethanol and starch plants further north, which take a great deal of grain, sucking it in from a wide area, and helping keep the market buoyant.  However if prices rise too far they will close for a while until things calm down.  Then there are generally lower levels of production as farmers commit more land to environmental schemes, taking (usually poorer) land out of production in exchange for payments of public money for public goods like wild flower headlands and wild bird food.  Housebuilding has some effect, taking land out of production for ever, and then there is the contentious issue of organisations like the Dorset Wildlife Trust, in conjunction with Natural England, purchasing land with Nutrient Neutrality money, paid by housing developers in exchange for planning permission.  Please see this page for a full account of my day out with the DWT as they celebrated the revolutionary purchase of Lyscombe farm, which by reverting it to 100% nature, and no food production, will somehow unlock the building of 3700 new homes in the Poole harbour catchment, in which the farm sits. As you will see, I am not convinced by the wisdom of this in terms of value for money, or whether any actual improvement will occur in Poole Harbour as a result of this purchase. Is this where I should be banging on about the importance of looking after our home grown food supply? There has to be room for food production to thrive, we have a growing population, and some of the best soils and weather climates for food production anywhere in the world, but without care for soils and nature, healthy food production will become increasingly difficult. Weeds and insects become resistant to chemicals, which all too often wreak collateral and unintended damage elsewhere, so we have to learn to be cleverer.

Fred’s big sky big hay yield picture from the meadows. We haven’t seen grass like this for a very long time on this field, something to do with being flooded 4 or 5 times over the winter perhaps, borrowing fertility from upstream?

Another big sky from when the rape was in flower, the green, yellow, blue, and clouds look just wonderful.

A common spotted orchid found in a brand new site, on a wildflower margin miles from any other orchids. Now approximately 14 years away from being intensively farmed, we are seeing some interesting plants showing up on our oldest margins, I am reliably informed that the tiny orchid seeds, almost dust-like, will have sat in the soil for decades, waiting for the right conditions to return to enable germination. They need the right mycorrhizal conditions to develop, to connect the seeds with the right nutrients in the soil. They have endured so many years asleep in the soil, through generations of evolving human activity, only to return to life when government schemes pay farmers to rein back a bit on the intensive farming, we have to make room for nature in and around our food production, and this shows it can work.

Baboons invade Durweston, during Dorset Art weeks. Not only a very skilled photographer of owls, hares, newts, and countless other wildlife, our clever friend Alan has been exhibiting his latest talent. I love the way the chicken wire has been brought to life, the animal has a cheeky look to him.

We also played host here at the farm, to local artists, during the county wide art festival, such a variety of work was to be found down so many winding lanes, in private houses or other venues in the towns and villages across Dorset. Here is a lovely painting by Claire Thomas, exhibited at the Big Yellow Bus project in Shillingstone, it is a view of the lane between Travellers Rest and Shepherds Corner, I love her interpretation.

Dog endlessly fascinated by these prickly garden visitors, they are definitely enjoying a revival around these parts.

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10 years ago on the hill

In praise of cow dung

Professor Ian Newton

Bear with me while I explain. One of the main ecological benefits derived from domestic livestock stems from their dung which, when deposited naturally on pasture, can support huge numbers of insects. These insects in turn may serve as food for birds. My aim here is to draw attention to the importance of livestock dung in the lives of birds, and the adverse trends of recent decades which have greatly reduced its value as a source of insects. Generally speaking, large herbivores are not good at digesting their food. Typically, they extract only 10–30% of the nourishment it contains, and shunt out the rest as dung. Many small animals have evolved to take advantage of this. Worldwide, thousands of species of flies and beetles are dung specialists, and many other insects eat it along with other organic matter. Among the specialist beetles, both larvae and adults eat dung, but in many of the flies only the larvae develop on dung while the adults eat different things. Cow dung has been most studied, and each pat can feed hundreds of insects and other organisms (Lawrence 1954; Jones 2017). It is one of the wettest of types, with a moisture content of 73–89%. When it emerges, as a more or less homogeneous stream, it is fresh, fragrant and glistening, but as soon as it hits the ground it starts to dry, and a crust forms over its surface, slowing further moisture loss. Masses of flies and beetles arrive within minutes of its release, and by the second day their numbers are high, up to 200 beetles having been found in a single pat. Predatory insects arrive soon afterwards, feeding on the dung-feeders. During the first 2–3 weeks, eggs continue to hatch within the dung and insect numbers reach an overall peak, declining thereafter. By about the second week, the pat no longer attracts hordes of new visitors, but the developing larvae and maggots feed quietly within. Some adult beetles are still present, but others have moved off to new pats. By about eight weeks, the dung begins to look more fibrous. It has lost its smell and it begins to crumble, in places looking powdery, and attracting some different creatures. Gradually, mainly by the actions of dung beetles, the pat becomes buried underground, where it rots and contributes to further plant growth. Earthworms accumulate below and grass returns to the site. Standard decay times for cowpats in Britain vary from about seven to more than 20 weeks, depending mainly on ambient temperatures (Jones 2017). Different insects feed on dung at different times of year, and in addition more earthworms occur within pats in winter than in summer. In a pioneering study, Lawrence (1954) found that, on average, each cowpat produced about 1,000 developing insects. Each animal deposited 7–10 pats per day, but some were destroyed by trampling or in other ways, so he assumed six suitable pats per day. This was equivalent to 6,000 insects per day, or nearly 2.2 million insects per year (mostly flies) for each beast kept outside year-round (these estimates are not, of course, applicable to dung stored as muck-heaps or slurry). Accepting seasonal and other variations, Lawrence went on to estimate the total annual production of insect biomass from the dung of each cow or bullock kept on pasture. He concluded that ‘a cow leaves in its faeces enough food material in a year to support an insect population, mostly dipterous larvae, equal to at least one-fifth of its own weight.’ Not all insects that used the dung could be included in his calculation, so for this and other reasons, his estimate should be regarded as minimal. It also excludes worms of various kinds, which are also eaten by birds. But as a rough guide, we could say that, in five years, each cow or bullock kept outside on pasture can produce its own weight in dung insects. Many bird species in Britain exploit the insects associated with cow dung, and each pat can provide food over many weeks. Wagtails and others pick flies off the surface; Jackdaws Coloeus monedula and other corvids, Common Starlings Sturnus vulgaris, BB eye In praise of cow dung Northern Lapwings Vanellus vanellus and other waders, Black-headed Gulls Chroicocephalus ridibundus and others dig into dung pats and turn over the pieces to expose the insect larvae and beetles within. Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica and others catch the aerial insects above, as do many species of bats. Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus nesting on inland pastures first pick the flies and beetles off the surface of fresh pats; 10–15 days later they start to probe into the pats for beetle larvae; and after two months, when the pat has mostly rotted, they probe in the soil beneath for earthworms (Briggs 1984). During autumn and winter, the majority of cowpats present in the countryside can be pecked open by birds in search of worms and beetles. Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata probe deeply for the larvae of Dor Beetles Geotrupes stercorarius buried beneath each pat (Potts 2012). Insects from cattle dung can be especially important to Lapwing and other wader chicks. On the Solway, such insects formed more than 80% of the diets of adult and young waders (Rankin 1979). In the Netherlands, some 21%, 30% and 49% of faecal samples from Lapwing chicks contained the remains of dung fly (Scathophaga), dung beetle Aphodius (Scarabaeidae) and soldier fly (Stratio myidae) larvae respectively (Beintema et al. 1991). The equivalent figures for Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa were 73%, 18% and 66%; for Ruff Calidris pugnax 33%, 29% and 46%; and for Common Redshank Tringa totanus 17%, 9% and 26%. These and other dung insects were evidently important to growing waders, and often more than one type was found in the same sample. But whereas Lapwing chicks fed on insects from within the dung, godwit chicks picked insects mainly from the surface of the pats and nearby vegetation. The other species exploited both sources more or less equally. However, there is another ‘fly’ in this story. Livestock dung deposited naturally on pasture now produces much less bird food than in the past. Not only have cattle almost disappeared from parts of the country in recent decades, but many are now kept inside buildings or yards, in winter only or year-round. In the 1950s, almost all farms in Britain kept cattle, but now the estimated figure is less than 40%. But another important development, from around 1980, was the introduction of anthelmintic drugs given to livestock to destroy gut parasites. These drugs are administered in various ways, but for weeks after dosing, they are excreted in the dung, where they last for a further several weeks, killing many of the creatures that could otherwise live in it, as well as others in the soil below, including earthworms (McCracken 1989, 1993; Madsen et al. 1990; McCracken & Foster 1994; Edwards 2004).

Dung flies and dung beetles are major casualties. The most widely used compounds for this purpose are the avermectins, particularly ‘ivermectin’ introduced in 1981. At the concentrations normally found in dung, adult beetles are seldom killed, but their egg-laying may be reduced, and larval development is slowed or prevented (Strong 1993; O’Hea et al. 2010). Fly larvae are more often killed outright, especially those of Cyclorrhapha, which is one of the most sensitive genera, showing a range of responses from death of larvae to developmental abnormalities in adults (McCracken & Foster 1993). Other British Birds 111 • November 2018 • 636 – 638 637 BB eye 413. A fresh cowpat with Yellow Dung Flies Scathophaga stercoraria, Dumfries & Galloway, 2015. Richard & Barbara Mearns chemicals are also administered to cattle to destroy other parasites. The net effects are that the numbers of insects emerging from cowpats of treated animals are much reduced compared with those from untreated ones and that, over time, dung-feeding insects have gradually declined. So much so, that a special group was recently set up to assess the current status of dung beetles and foster their conservation (the Dung Beetle UK Mapping Project, or DUMP). Little is known of the impact of this food loss on birds. However, Red-billed Choughs Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax depend heavily on dung-based invertebrates, and a halving of their numbers on Islay between 1988 and 2013 was associated with a large reduction of dung insects in the diet (MacGillivray et al. 2018). In fact, most of the bird species that feed on dung-feeding insects have declined markedly in recent decades, raising the question of how much their individual declines could also be linked with this massive reduction in food supplies provided by dung. Interestingly, organic farms now hold significantly greater numbers and variety of dung beetles than conventional farms (Hutton & Giller 2003; Geiger et al. 2010). The important message, however, is that dung insects – so important to many birds in the past – represent a sizeable component of insect loss over recent decades which has so far been largely ignored in assessments of the factors involved in farmland bird declines.

References Beintema, A. J., Thissen, J. B.,Tensen, D., & Visser, G. H. 1991. Feeding ecology of Charadriiform chicks in agricultural grassland. Ardea 79: 31–43. Briggs, K. B. 1984. The breeding ecology of coastal and inland Oystercatchers in north Lancashire. Bird Study 31: 141–147. Edwards, C. A. 2004. Earthworm Ecology. 2nd edn. CRC Press, London. Geiger, F., van der Lubbe, C. T. M., Brunsting, A. M. H., & de Snoo, G. R. 2010. Insect abundance in cow pats in different farming systems. Entomologische Berichten 70: 106–110. Hutton, S. A., & Giller, P. S. 2003. The effects of the intensification of agriculture on northern temperate dung beetle communities. J. Appl. Ecol. 40: 994–1007. Jones, R. 2017. Call of Nature: the secret life of dung. Pelagic Publishing, Exeter. Lawrence, B. R. 1954. The larval inhabitants of cowpats. J. Anim. Ecol. 23: 234–260. MacGillivray, F. S., Gilbert, G., & McKay, C. R. 2018. The diet of a declining Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax population on Islay. Bird Study Madsen, M., et al. 1990. Treating cattle with ivermectin: effects on the fauna and decomposition of dung pats. J. Appl. Ecol. 27: 1–15. McCracken, D. I. 1989. Ivermectin in cow dung: possible adverse effects on the Chough? In: Choughs and Land-use in Europe. Proceedings of an international workshop on the conservation of the Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax in the EC. The Scottish Chough Study Group. — 1993. The potential for avermectins to affect wildlife. Veterinary Parasitology 48: 273–280. — & Foster, G. N. 1993. The effect of ivermectin on the invertebrate fauna associated with cow dung. Environ. Toxicol. & Chem. 12: 73–84. — & — 1994. Invertebrates, cow-dung and the availability of potential food for the Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax L.) on pastures in Northwest Islay. Environ. Conserv. 21: 262–266. O’Hea, N. M., Kirwan, L., Giller, P. S., & Finn, J. A. 2010. Lethal and sub-lethal effects of ivermectin on north temperate dung beetles, Aphodius ater and Aphodius rufipes (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae). Insect Conserv. & Diversity 3: 24–33. Potts, G. R. 2012. Partridges. Collins, London. Rankin. 1979. Breeding waders on Rockcliffe Marsh. Wader Study Group Bull. 26: 25. Strong, L. 1993. Overview: the impact of avermectins on pastureland ecology. Veterinary Parasitology 48: 3–17. Ian Newton 638 British Birds 111 • November 2018 • 636 – 638

March-April 2024

The View from the Hill

Not really what you need when towing a 10 ton load of seed through town, right outside the Hall and Woodhouse brewery in fact, during a short break in the weather, sufficient to sow around 60ha of our 220ha spring sowing programme.  Pat from Blandford Tyres was on the scene very quickly and we managed to get the tyre blown up, the trailer unhitched and the tractor into the brewery car park for a proper repair to be made. (An old factory repair on the previously tubeless tyre had given out, so Pat had to put in a £150 tube.) Brendan came to the rescue with another tractor and took the seed trailer on to the drill, and we got the barley sown by the skin of our teeth before it rained again, but the soil was too wet to roll, like every other field this spring, and half the autumn sown crops too. 

Before I wallow too indulgently in self-pity I’d better put in a word for the farmers who farm land a good deal wetter than ours.  Our chalk based soils drain quite quickly compared to the heavier clays on which much of the country depends for its food.  Countless thousands of hectares of winter crops have been under water for many months in some parts of the country, and of course the crops will have been destroyed with precious little chance of the soil drying out in time to sow a viable crop this spring as the rain has continued almost without relief until mid April.  A great many of those fields will need more than a year to recover their productivity, one option would be to plant a summer fallow of mixed flowering species, and hope for an opportunity to sow a crop in the autumn, otherwise leave well alone until spring next year, but who knows how much it will rain next winter? The financial consequences of all this are eye-watering.

A week in Herefordshire recently showed how bad things can look, every river brim full or overflowing, and so many fields under water or with water sitting on top of the soil.  This particular erosion was on the River Lugg, not far from the infamous spot where a farmer with a digger was jailed for causing damage to the river bank. There were also many sheep with young lambs looking utterly miserable with little to eat.  I really don’t understand why so many farmers persist in lambing their sheep so early, when there is little grass and miserable weather most years. The sight below should be a huge embarrassment to the farmer responsible.

For the nerds, our 7 month winter rainfall (Sept-March) exceeded the amount that normally falls in a whole year. (1090mm v 1040mm).  Our soils are still very moist, and as the crops emerge, which we managed to finish sowing on Saturday 13th April, several weeks later than the optimum, we are trying to get them rolled, to push stones in and reduce slug grazing.

Moving on from the horror and stress of the weather and trying to get crops sown, our cows have been pumping calves out steadily for the last few weeks, all of our 60 cows have now calved, and as of just last week are enjoying fresh grass outside.  We couldn’t risk them going out earlier and turning fields to mud before enough grass has grown to sustain them.  The tiny flock of ewes are not due to lamb, until mid May, just in time to entertain a number of school visits booked for this term.

Several Durweston Primary classes visited the farm last term, and it’s great to see them feature in the school newsletter, the lad hugging the sheep is a classic pic, the ewes were so fluffy, their wool is so clean after all the rain, and luckily on this occasion they were lovely and dry. The school logo already has a significant agricultural influence…….

Our mid Stour Valley Cluster group has met several times over the winter, in January we enjoyed a technical session with soil specialist from Devon, Andrew Sincock.  He talked muck, soil, cover crops and compost, and then we trudged out into a damp field to look at grazed cover crop and then some very cold and wet looking compost windrows.  Andrew had shown us a curious graph which is supposed to tell us all we need to know in order to get compost right.  If you can understand this you are cleverer than me.

Our own composting efforts had worked well earlier last year, we made and spread all the muck-based batches successfully before sowing this winter’s cover crops, but the compost rows that were only built in the autumn, using straw, horse manure, and material cut from our flower margins, didn’t contain enough nitrogen to get the composting process going before winter.  We are about to liven up the windrows with fresh muck from the cow shed, then get the turner going to start it up again.  We need it to reach 70 degrees temperature, to kill weed seeds and to encourage the right kind of organisms in the compost.

A couple of weeks ago Claire our cluster group leader organised a bat walk, led by Jim Mulholland of the Vincent Wildlife Trust.  He gave us a fascinating talk with slides to begin with, focussing on the Greater Horseshoe bat which has a colony containing around 500 bats very local to the farm.  We learnt many years ago that our land was highly likely to be providing foraging habitat for this endangered species, and we, as well as neighbouring farms, were encouraged by the Vincent Trust to manage our hedges to benefit the bats, and to refrain from using Ivermectin wormers on our cattle, this family of medicines kill the flies and beetles that feed on and live in cowpats, and which at the same time provide an essential food source for bats and many other species.  From a low of just 2,200 individuals 30 years ago, the greater horseshoe bat UK population is now said to number around 10,000, thanks not least to the Vincent Trust, which has spent huge amounts of money purchasing buildings used as roosts, and then adapting them to suit bat requirements as closely as possible. 

Jim took us to the roost, gave us bat detectors and encouraged us to stand quietly, watching the sky and listening for the GH bat’s unmistakeable sonar-like noise.  Normally undetectable by the human ear, through the detectors they sound a bit like the Clangers, with a rising pitch phrase of 5 or 6 blips.  The sound of approaching bats on the detectors made us look upwards to be treated to swoops of individuals leaving or returning to the roost, with the bats silhouetted against the dusky sky the combination of sound and vision was captivating. This link takes you to a leaflet about the GH bat, with some great pictures.

Interesting fact of the week; apparently the weight of all the creatures generated from the manure produced by a cow in a year is equivalent to 20% of the weight of the animal.

And a second one for good measure; the mites carried by dung beetles hop on and off the beetles as they travel from cowpat to cowpat, they spend much of their time consuming the fly eggs they find in the dung, therefore a good healthy cow pat which does not contain the residue of the most powerful wormers, can itself reduce the number of flies that it might well otherwise have produced.  

For those keen to explore this subject further, here is an article (from which much of the last paragraph was borrowed),  by Prof Ian Newton, who is described by my naturalist farmer friend Martin as our greatest ever ornithologist.

And finally for this episode, a developing situation is causing concern in various quarters in the county. Nutrient Neutrality is one feature of the Environment Act of 2021, the basic principles of which are enshrined in the act’s Environmental Principles Policy Statement.  The five environmental principles set out in the act are:

  1. the integration principle (that environmental protection be integrated into the making of policies);
  2. the prevention principle;
  3. the precautionary principle;
  4. the rectification of environmental damage at source principle; and
  5. the polluter pays principle

All of which make plenty of sense.  But start digging deeper and it gets complicated.

The nutrient neutrality bit is where developers of new housing or commercial property on green field sites, have to lodge large sums of money with the local authority, or Natural England, which allegedly enables them to offset the likely future pollution produced from those new sites, and thus be awarded planning permission for the development.  The six million dollar question is what happens to that money ?  Well in two cases here in Dorset, the Dorset Wildlife Trust appears to have got its hands on some of it, and has used it to buy two farms, in order to rewild them.  Now whatever you may think of rewilding, and I would need to write another 2000 words to do it justice here, my question is does the spending of let’s say £12 million for the two farms (total approx. 1000 acres) represent good value for public money ?  The Trust will rewild 1000 acres (400 hectares) , which frankly will make little difference to the overall environmental condition of the Poole Harbour catchment (80,000ha) in which both farms sit, and where the Environment Agency (EA) has for the last five years been trying to persuade farmers to rein back on their nitrogen usage and manure production, in order to significantly reduce the amount of nitrogen reaching Poole harbour.  The harbour is a globally important area for wildlife, and excessive nitrogen causes algal blooms which can starve the water of oxygen, and consequently seriously harm water dwelling species.  So far the EA has worked with a large number of farmers in the catchment, and they have formed the Poole Harbour Nutrient Management Scheme, however it has become mired in difficulty due to the EA’s inability to devise an effective computer model that farmers can use to calculate their N leaching risk. (The now infamous nitrate leaching tool). The EA claims to be strapped for cash, and hence does not have the resources to invest in a programme sophisticated enough to provide the information required.  It strikes me that this is exactly the kind of thing that the Nutrient neutrality money should be spent on, it could have a hugely beneficial effect through persuading farmers to reduce their riskier activities, over a very wide area, not just the 400ha that DWT are trumpeting as a huge environmental gain.  Cynics might say vanity project.

£12 million could go a very long way in persuading farmers over a very wide area to farm in a more environmentally friendly way. In a nutshell, it’s land sparing versus land sharing, and I know which I favour.

If anyone can shed further light on what happens to NN money in different areas of the country, please feel free to illuminate those like me who find it all a bit mysterious right now,  in the comment box below

From DWT’s website:

“We are delighted to be partnering with Dorset Wildlife Trust and others in this significant project which has the potential to substantially boost nature’s recovery in this part of Dorset. This is a great example of thinking creatively and bringing partners and different types of funding together. A large proportion of the funding is from Natural England’s nutrient mitigation scheme, meaning this work will offset the nutrient impact of much needed housing elsewhere in the Poole harbour catchment. While crucially playing its part in creating a beautiful landscape for people to come and enjoy for many years to come.”

Rachel Williams, Deputy Director  – Natural England

We have done a bit more hedge coppicing this winter, admittedly it looks pretty drastic, but by the time we have filled in the gaps, and the stumps have sprouted new growth, we will end up with a much healthier hedge, with a thick bottom and lots of growth which can provide shelter for nests and fledglings. We hired a man and machine for the day to chip up all the brush wood, the chipper is huge and can munch it up faster than the operator can feed it with his long armed grab. We will use the wood chip in the cow shed next winter, to give the straw bedding a good base, and to mulch new hedge and trees around the farm. Fencing it in is now high on the list of ongoing work, to prevent deer and our livestock eating the new growth. Gary has been down there this week getting posts knocked in with Brendan, and will get the wire up in no time with our fencing machine and electric staple gun, (see last issue).

It’s time to get the wool off the ewes, a couple of weeks before they lamb. Newly learnt lessons with a Kiwi shearing gang have meant the shearing can be done in house once again.

Turnip seed coming along nicely for next winter’s cover crops, along with phacelia, clover, linseed and radish, with a few more about to be sown, such as buckwheat, vetch and camelina.

Mr Red enjoying the company of 11 heifers, replacements for the herd for next year, and the cowslips.

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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 

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.

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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.

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10 years ago on the Hill

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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:

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.

Last month

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:

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.