RosewoodFarm EVdexter

  Food as a by-product of conservation ~ UK-wide mail order

01757 289 640

's Blog

Welcome to Rosewood Farm's blog


Follow us for updates of life, food & wildlife on the farm here in the Lower Derwent Valley, Yorkshire.

By Rosewood Farm, Nov 2 2020 01:26AM

This is the story of our meadows, a story that goes back millions of years, the earlier part of which I’ve covered in previous blogs so I’ll pick this tale up in modern times. If you’ve take any interest in conservation and wildlife in the British Isles over the last 20 years you’ll no doubt have come across the statistic that an estimated 97% of our ‘unimproved’ grasslands have been lost in England & Wales between 1930 and 1984. Whether that figure has increased or not since the 1980’s is largely immaterial, it’s still a lot, and we’re no where near restoring them all, so where have they gone?

I grew up as part of a farming family in the 1980’s, it was a time of production subsidies, land drainage grants, hedgerow removal and the filling in of ponds. These efforts were designed to make farming more ‘efficient’, productive and profitable, but I was too late to witness the large-scale ploughing up of our unimproved grasslands; they were already gone.

As mixed farmers with dairy cattle occupying half the acreage pasture still had a value on the family farms, maize was still a rather exotic crop grown by southern farmers at this time (plant breeding improvements rapidly changed this through the 1990’s though) but even when it did reach Yorkshire it was still restricted to the lighter, free-draining arable land that was out of our league. That said, our heavy-clay pastures were ploughed out every few years for a crop or two of grain before being returned to the latest varieties of grass. Only two fields have escaped the plough in my lifetime.

Power stations are taking over from cows, pushing up demand for maize
Power stations are taking over from cows, pushing up demand for maize


Meanwhile, through conservation efforts by local farmers and conservationists, the floodplain meadows of the Ings, which had survived by virtue of their topography, were facing new threats, and high court battles were going on behind the scenes that had completely passed me by at the time. Growing up in a small rural village, the Ings were a backdrop to a childhood where ancient churches overlooking ancient meadows to the sound of curlews, lapwings and thousands of wintering wildfowl wasn’t anything special, it just was.

The Yorkshire Ings are a linear progression of floodplain meadows that follow the course of the River Derwent and are extensive in it’s lower reaches. For centuries ‘Ings’, or floodplain meadows, were common alongside many of England’s lowland river valleys, but like so many unimproved grasslands, they have largely disappeared from the wider landscape today.

That’s not to say that the Yorkshire Ings have been preserved in aspic, although they represent the best of the intact floodplain meadow ecosystems in the UK, attempts have been made to improve and change their land use over the years. Preservation of the Ings focussed primarily upon the intact hay meadows, but even on the floodplain itself there are pockets of land where cultivation & cropping had been attempted in the past. Some of these have subsequently been returned to grass while others, like this one, remain in arable cultivation.

Lost meadows; 97%+ have gone the way of the plough
Lost meadows; 97%+ have gone the way of the plough

As we drove the cattle from their summer pastures to autumn ‘aftermath’ (the regrowth after the hay cut) grazing we mused over the reason why these floodplain edge-meadows had been cultivated. They flood, along with the hay meadows, almost every year, and crops remain at high risk from flood damage. We farm some of these edge pastures ourselves, and they tend to be formed from sandy ridges with springs feeding small bogs & mires along their edge - hardly prime arable land, but perfect habitat for damp-loving wildflowers like meadowsweet and ragged robin, hunting grounds for our barn owls, and foraging for curlews & corncrakes.

When it comes to our way of farming it’s not uncommon to be accused of starving people by not managing our land more intensively. There is a narrative being spun that we can’t feed our expanding world population without intensive farming and that it is our moral duty, as farmers, to produce as much as physically possible from the land. The markets, however, suggest that the supply of food is exceeding demand and a study by Which reveals that we’re actually paying less, accounting for inflation, for our food now than we did 30 years ago.

Farmers are custodians of the land & food producers, but they’re also businesses, and if it costs more to produce something than you can expect to receive for it then you’re under no obligation to keep producing more. A large proportion of the land we farm is part of a SSSI, this means we couldn’t farm it more intensively (even if we wanted to), but how you farm also has an effect upon the land & wildlife that reaches beyond the farm boundary. These edge habitats are not restricted by SSSI rules, but they are no less important to the health of the hay meadows beyond them.

So let’s take another look at these more intensively farmed former meadows - around half of them, 24 acres, have been planted with a crop of commercially coppiced willows for biomass power generation. Although trees and willow coppice are often regarded as good for wildlife, this modern, commercial monoculture offers little by way of increasing biodiversity. In fact providing cover for predators beneath and within it’s dark branches, so close to the meadows, is actually posing a significant threat to ground nesting birds. But when it comes to ‘feeding the world’, this intensive land use does not contribute to UK food production. Even the crop is not making full use of the land as wide headlands are left bare for turning the large machinery used to harvest the willow. On the other half of these edge meadows there is no crop, the land is left fallow.

I delved into the historical records to try to discover why these meadows had been cultivated originally and was fortunate in that I was able to pinpoint it to a specific point in time - 1943. The farm in question is, today, a large arable unit that has both intensified and diversified over the years to remain profitable. They still produce traditional crops of wheat and barley but, like many of the arable farms in the Yorkshire Ings today, they also lease out land to other companies to grow carrots, potatoes, maize, lawn turf and, of course, the willow coppice. In 1939 they were still a traditional mixed farm though, like many of those in the east of England, with permanent grassland being an integral part of the cropping mix.

By 1943 Britain was four years into the Second World War and rationing of many foodstuffs had been in place for three years. UK food self sufficiency had stood at less than 40% in 1939 and with imports down due to German U-boats we had a deficit of 43 million tonnes of food to make up. One solution was the organisation of War Agricultural Executive Committees for each county which oversaw the process of increasing food production from all farms in the UK. It essentially became illegal not to plough out ‘old grass’ and replace it with something more productive under the Cultivation of Lands Order, 1939. The committees were made up of local farmers and their role was primarily to encourage, rather than force, farmers to intensify. Practical demonstrations were carried out on farms to showcase to other farmers the work being done and inspire them to increase productivity on their own land.

This farm had played host to one such demonstration in July 1943 and from the reports about it we learn that they had already ploughed out most of their old grass, including this meadow, and intended to have ploughed the final two fields by the following year. Earlier that month another such demonstration was hosted by the chairman of the committee Lt.-Col. J.A. Dunnington-Jefferson over on his own farm at Thorganby. He described how “a mass attack is being made on rotten old grass.” and noted that cultivated ground produces significantly more food than even the best grass.

Ploughing continued into the night to keep Britain fed (YEP, 1942)
Ploughing continued into the night to keep Britain fed (YEP, 1942)

We also learn from these reports that neither did the Ings escape arable cultivation, albeit at an experimental stage, 20 acres of Dunnington-Jefferson’s Ings had been sown with oats despite being "covered by 18 inches of water" just four months earlier. The crop was also undersown with a permanent mixture to reseed the floodplain meadows with more productive grasses in subsequent years. Crops at both farms were described as ‘excellent’ on ploughed out grass, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the floodplain is poorly suited to arable cropping and both arable crops and new grasses don’t stand up as well to flooding. 67 years later, some parts of the Ings are much richer in wildflowers where they have never been ploughed and this demonstrates why it is so important to preserve our remaining fragments of established species-rich habitats.

Another interesting observation arises from the Thorganby report confirms my suspicion that drainage and arable ‘improvement’ of the surrounding higher ground has had a detrimental effect upon the Ings. This is because drainage of land does not solve the problem of flooding but merely passes it on to somewhere else. Although the floodplain is there to hold excess water from the river, today much greater volumes of the water flow into the floodplain from the surrounding farmland which makes farming & conservation in the Ings much harder.

Farmers were knighted for their work on the War Ag Committees
Farmers were knighted for their work on the War Ag Committees

It would be easy to condemn farmers of the past for destroying our wildflower meadows, and we’re right to feel that loss, but it’s important that we recognise that they were the heroes of the their time. Food rationing continued until 1954 and having come so close to starvation as a country, prices to farmers were then guaranteed under the 1947 Agriculture Act (with the exception of pigs, poultry meat and horticultural crops) in order to encourage more people into farming and for the industry to produce more of our own food for the nation. Food prices to farmers were subsidised when the market price dropped below a certain level but, crucially, import tariffs remained at zero. These provisions were mirrored across Europe and were covered by the Common Agricultural Policy when Britain joined the EEC in 1973, however instead of making up the price, import tariffs were applied to keep the market prices high.

When it comes to how we, as a nation, move forward with our food policy & respond to the ongoing biodiversity crisis, leaving the EU (and the Common Agricultural Policy) offers both risk and opportunity. I don’t profess to know the best way forward, but I do feel that a policy remaining closer to rigid conservatism will destroy what we have left by the middle of this century as land managers are too restricted by a system that seeks to preserve what has already been lost.

Much of the focus at present is upon producers and policy, and how they interact - a few of us making big decisions about which direction we head in. This can be hugely advantageous - persuading one large landowner to adopt regenerative farming and conservation is much more efficient than doing the same with 30 small holders. Unfortunately it also stifles innovation and adaptation with an ever diminishing knowledgebase of farmers and land managers. In order to avoid this and become more resilient we need to engage another P - people.

Large organisations, whether they be vast estates owned by a single person or public funded charities with many members, tend to share the same inherent problem - a tendency towards risk aversion. If we want our food production system to be dynamic & restorative we need to spread the risk to allow a greater number of farmers & conservationists to work together, positively shaping whole landscapes. Sharing ideas and being open to new approaches will drive innovation - we don’t need to return to an agrarian economy.

Designing a food system fit for the 21st century is a long term process involving a collaborative effort that requires us to embrace change, but quite how we begin that transition is a subject for another blog...

By Rosewood Farm, Oct 11 2019 12:44AM

‘Why don’t you do a Knepp?’ is one of those inevitable suggestions, along with going organic, that crop up when discussing the difficult times faced by the industry with non-farmers. The idea of rewilding has captured the public’s imagination but although it remains poorly defined and ambiguous the underlying theme is one of relinquishing some human control of environmental and wildlife conservation to let nature restore itself.

It was whilst I was visiting the Natural History Museum in London earlier this year that I picked up a copy of Isabella Tree’s book Wilding, all about their journey from a failing dairy and arable farm on heavy Sussex clay to a wildlife utopia. Even though Knepp is 100 times bigger than Rosewood, many of their experiences seemed to be very familiar.

Exmoor Ponies and Dexter Cattle grazing at Rosewood
Exmoor Ponies and Dexter Cattle grazing at Rosewood

The law of primogeniture in England, until 1925, had ensured that family land was inherited by the eldest son. This tradition continued in many farming families until fairly recently and although it seems incredibly unfair on any younger and/or female siblings within a family, it did ensure that viable units of land holding remained intact when passed down to the next generation. Like many estates, Knepp Castle Farm has been passed down the generations in this way since 1787 to the current owner, Charlie Burrell.

My own love affair with farming started around the same time that Charlie took over the farm some 30 years ago, growing up in a rural community with two separate traditional mixed dairy and arable farms in our family which gave me a connection to the land that most people can only dream of. However, with farms getting ever bigger during the 1980’s & 90’s, the economics of the small family farm remained challenging and the lifestyle was far from lavish. However, ‘the farm’ was a constant in our lives and it took priority over everything - the thought that one day it might not be there never crossed my mind.

To say that I was discouraged into farming would be an understatement though. The farm wasn’t expected to continue into our generation and the careers advisers at school very much regarded farming as a very poor choice. However, spending time in hospital as a child had given me a sense of the fragility of life and a determination to start young, not taking the risk of leaving the opportunity to farm until some far-off day in the future that I may not see. So starting a farm without a farm was just the first step.

Farming itself is hard work, but farming without land can be even harder as it lacks security and encourages a short term approach. In 2002 my brother & I were able to pool our savings to raise the 50% deposit on what was to become ‘Rosewood Farm’, 37 acres of wet, heavy clay. Having land entirely under our control allowed us to do exactly what we wanted, and what we wanted was to ditch the fertilisers, shun the pesticides and use a small native breed of cattle than no commercial market would pay for. We had dreams of expanding to create a real, traditional mixed farm with pigs, sheep, chickens and even arable crops. Looking back it sounds crazy, and that’s because it was, especially because we had no money left after investing every penny into the land.

Bracken Horse by Gareth Dale, 1961
Bracken Horse by Gareth Dale, 1961

Gareth Dale, writing about the 1950’s, observes the reasons for the move away from this type of farming, and he wasn’t wrong. He goes on to say; ‘The drawback was that a variety of livestock enterprises, however small, demand a constant round of work and attention. The term “mixed farming” can be frequently synonymous with sheer drudgery.

On the other hand, Ian Newton highlights the importance of mixed farming for farmland birds, and how it’s loss has been a significant driver of species decline;

With hindsight I can only echo the sentiments of both writers - farmland birds thrived in the mosaic of habitats created by mixed farming and their declines have occurred as we have sought, through economic & social necessity, to manage the land using less physical labour. I think that much of what gets lumped in with rewilding is actually a desire for the ‘refarming’ of days gone by.

Our own niche developed when a change in farming fortunes meant that the floodplain meadows of the Ings were in need of the reintroduction of cattle grazing and our light-footed Dexters fitted the brief perfectly. By this stage we had already given up on arable farming, and the pigs were only offering variety to our sales offer, but, as past farmers have found, it made more sense to concentrate on the things we were good at and do them well.

The Yorkshire Ings is home to some of the UK's finest wildflower meadows
The Yorkshire Ings is home to some of the UK's finest wildflower meadows

The Ings are a unique traditionally farmed lowland floodplain landscape that was once widespread throughout the UK. The hay meadows once belonged to local farmers & landowners with the who cut and grazed them during the summer & autumn each year. This preserved the rich mosaic of wildflower meadows and the wildlife that depend upon them until they were threatened with more intensive farming in the 1970’s.

Today the Ings are owned by a combination of private landowners, conservation charities and the government body Natural England, which forms the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve. The majority of ‘our’ land actually belongs to the state as Natural England, with other areas in private ownership, all with SSSI status. Due to the nature of the floodplain and land ownership within it our ‘farm’ is spread out across many different land parcels, which makes management more challenging, time consuming and costly.

Many of our wildlife sites benefit from minimal disturbance by man
Many of our wildlife sites benefit from minimal disturbance by man

There has been a lot of talk of the need for changes in land ownership in recent months with prominent land reform advocates such as George Monbiot & Guy Shrubsole contributing to the Land for the Many report. Among other things, this includes a much needed (farming sustainable) reduction in land values, and the report calls for changes in the way land is owned with greater access for the public. However I share a grave concern with Simon Leadbeater that fragmenting ownership and increasing access to our wild areas will actually do far more harm than good for wildlife. Here in the Ings many people already assume that because some of the meadows are in public ownership that they have the ‘right to roam’ across them, causing great damage to nesting birds and other wildlife in these sensitive sites, especially when accompanied by dogs.

The great beauty of the Knepp Estate, as far as rewilding goes, is that it is a significant area (3500 acres) is all under the control of one man but, as Isabella notes;

This represents a huge hurdle to overcome for large scale rewilding - either we are expecting people to inherit large areas, be subject to inheritance tax and then purposefully devalue their land for rewilding or to buy land at inflated prices and plunge themselves into negative equity. It’s a big ask, even where passion for wildlife is strong. Many land reform advocates call for large tracts of land to be broken up into smaller land holdings through taxation though but rewilding 3500 acres is going to be far more difficult if 95 different landowners the size of Rosewood must be enthused versus one or two as in the case at Knepp.

The Ings also give rise to an added complication outside of our control - it floods! In the past different farmers would each have managed smaller areas of the floodplain with most of their land would be on the higher, drier ground. Today, with more people than cattle living in the traditional village farmsteads, the surrounding farmland has increasingly turned over to arable farming. This makes it impractical for us to easily move the cattle from one part of the Ings to another but the cost of replacing all the fences would be huge as both materials and labour have risen dramatically in the intervening years. As Isabella Tree notes in Wilding, perimeter fencing, even for a project like Knepp, is still prohibitively expensive without government funding.

In order to manage the floodplain effectively we need both sufficient numbers of animals to graze during the short window between haymaking and flooding, and the resources (land and/or buildings and hay) to keep those animals for the rest of the year. Just like rewilding, the management of the Ings needs significant investment of private funding that depends upon the willingness and ability for local farmers to give a little back to nature. At Rosewood, some three miles away from the Ings, we’ve done our best over the years to achieve as much as possible for as little as possible, but perhaps we’ve reached the limits of what we can do without significant changes to our personal fortunes and/or the rural economy.

It seemed that our luck had changed when we were gained planning permission to turn our farm office into a home, but it turns out that there was a sting in the tail. We explored the possibility of formalising our respective land ownership shares in order to give my family some security in the event of either my own or Paul’s deaths. Making the farm and house into two separate entities made a lot of sense. However, due to the wording of the permission any split, even in principle, would make the planning consent invalid.

This was a bitter blow, with the only option remaining being to sell Rosewood and start over again on a smaller area of land. Selling would leave us with even less non-floodplain land for overwintering the herd on and no buildings, forcing us to reduce the numbers of animals significantly.

Many of the problems with our food & farming system today are the result of capitalism - the pursuit of methods which create the most margin, rather than the most resilient farming systems, have changed the way food is grown and consumed. At Rosewood we’ve always believed that good food & the knowledge about how to produce it should be accessible to all, so rather than chase high end, exclusive markets, we‘ve tried to foster an honest and open approach in order to encourage more people to farm this way.

Over the past 24 months I’ve personally become much less of an active farmer, spending less time with the cows and wildlife I love to devote more effort to our end product. Our system relies upon direct sales - Dexters, for all their value in conservation grazing, are not in great demand due to the added per kg processing costs. Most conservation grazing/rewilding projects choose larger breeds such as the English Longhorn at Knepp or Belted Galloways as they both produce the larger carcasses that the industry is used to. Ironically the consumer seems to prefer the smaller joints from the Dexter and, of course, the taste!

The farming/sales paradox has destroyed many a small farm - the more successful your business becomes, the further you move away from practical farming. I’ve now reached a crossroads in my life where I need to decide - do I prioritise the beef or wildlife? I’ve sounded out just about everyone I’ve met over the past few months, wildlife peeps & beef customers and the overwhelming consensus has been;

Farming support, even for rewilding, is very much linked to land ownership whilst everything that we do depends upon the beef to pay the bills, but perhaps there is another way. Selling beef direct to the end consumer has always been the key to our business, so what if wildlife was the equally direct?

So, here’s the idea; if you like what we do at Rosewood, and want to see us continue doing it, please consider becoming a patron and (if you’d like to make an ad-hoc contribution and/or have reason not to use the Patreon website) feel free to use the Paypal Me link.

Thank you.

By Rosewood Farm, Jul 28 2019 03:46PM

I’ve been promising you all that the next blog was going to be about land & rewilding ever since I wrote the last one - that’s still coming but sometimes you read something that is too inspiring not to share. 'Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer', by Chris Newman is based upon the US but applies just the same here in the UK. There is a lot to take from this piece, it is honest and may be hard to accept for many but is full of truth, particularly the following is extract;

I think, with the exception of paying employees/relying upon volunteers, I've done all of these things myself, and with hindsight I regret having done so.

Over the last 20 years many people have said "You should do farmers markets" and every time I've said that it simply isn't worth investing the time and resources in taking a shop to a central point where we, and the customer, both have to converge at the same time. From day-one I realised that with a small farm we need to remain flexible and convenient for both ourselves and the customer, and that's why the first thing we did when we established Rosewood Farm as a business was to build a website. This is one thing I have never regretted.

Our Rosewood.Farm site means that, unlike at a shop, farmers market or even over the phone, I can receive enquiries and orders when I am anywhere on the farm, or even off the farm. Our customers seem to enjoy the flexibility too, with orders regularly coming in at close to midnight! It also means that we can pack orders at any time of the day to fit in with family life and work on the farm - some times that means working all night to fit it all in, but at least we can do so without you having to pay extra for us to stand on a market stall.

Independence has also enabled us to do some great things. As I discussed in the Organic Matters blog, conforming to a label can restrict your values and marketing collaboration can even dictate decisions such as the breed of animal you use on your farm. Being independent has brought us great benefits on the conservation side too giving us the freedom to try new & innovative approaches that larger, organisations might have found harder to implement.

As I look to the future I’m increasingly thinking about where to go from here, I want to do the right thing and ensure that all that hard work and sacrifice wasn’t for nothing. We’ve consolidated and focussed what we do and although it’s tempting to have sheep and pigs back on the farm again, without the time and energy to devote to them it would only take away from the many things that are still to be done.

We're happy to recommend Grassfruits Farm & High Farndale for pork
We're happy to recommend Grassfruits Farm & High Farndale for pork

Collaboration does work, and we need to do more of it in both farming and conservation to ensure that the job gets done. Part of that is recognising what you’re good at and not being tempted to try to do everything yourself. As Chris says in the article, farmers should follow their passions instead of diversifying, and I agree. Not being afraid to ‘lose’ a customer by passing them on to another farm actually serves that customer better which builds a stronger, more resilient food system for everyone.

This is also true of society as a whole - the competitive nature of business has systematically reduced consumer choice to a number of largely indistinguishable options that has only serves to concentrate resources and power in the hands of a select few. We don’t need to dominate one another nor divide everything absolutely equally to work together, even conflict itself can yield solutions that we otherwise wouldn’t even have considered.

It's not always going to be easy but if we can learn to respect our differences and not try to be something that we’re not it does get easier. And when things are easier we make more progress for the same amount of effort. We may be facing an uncertain future, both politically and environmentally,, but there is strength in diversity and, to part with Chris’ words “It’s that isolation that makes us weak”.

Follow the links to High Farndale & Grassfruits Farms

By Rosewood Farm, May 7 2019 12:10AM

Climate change has been at the top of the agenda with the Extinction Rebellion protests in London and the school climate strikes happening across the globe, and now with David Attenborough getting in on the act with ‘The Facts about Climate Change’ airing we know something will happen, as it did with plastic awareness.

I know when climate change is being discussed because, as a cattle grazier, I find that the hateful messages on social media tend to reach their peak. Some people, often with very anonymous SM accounts feel justified in lambasting me for not caring or, as was the case this week, denying that climate change is happening, so it’s time to set the record straight.

I, like most people who work on the land, either as farmers or in the conservation sector, am acutely aware the changing climate - we’re seeing it happening before our very eyes, it’s affecting the land and the weather, which is making our job more challenging. However, rather than being late to the party, I can’t help but feel that I’ve been here for so long that I’m now trying to clear away glasses and straighten out the furniture.

The River Foulness today, flanked by arable cultivation
The River Foulness today, flanked by arable cultivation

It’s not so much that I think climate change won’t happen but that we’re already about 200 years too late to avert ‘disaster’. I’m sure, if we’d realised in 1819, or 1719, what we were doing to the planet then we would have been able to avoid a 2 degree rise in temperatures by leaving fossil fuels where they were and stopping the drainage of our wetlands, but we didn’t. And even that wouldn’t have prevented climate change, even it would have altered the pace.

I say this because the climate has always been changing, and no where are we more aware of this than in the Yorkshire Ings. Our grazing sites in the Ings were once at the bottom of the gigantic ‘Lake Humber’, formed when ice sheets in the Humber Estuary blocked the meltwater from the last ice age - we owe our landscape to climate change. I don’t say this to give anyone an excuse to wreck our planet, merely to point out how insignificant we really are.

Many of us see ourselves as ‘saving the planet’ but in reality the planet would be fine without us, rather than being altruistic by addressing climate change we are really seeking to maintain our own future on the wonderous ball of spinning rock. Whenever I moot the suggestion that the natural world doesn’t need us suddenly people who have decried humans as being a blot on this planet join forces with the most intensive of agvocates to condemn the idea, trying to derail the conversation by making out that I’ve advocated culling and/or starving people.

The same thing happens when I suggest that extensive beef production has a part to play in food production - the most intensive of farmers and plant based advocates reveal that their concern for the natural world remains secondary to the belief that we can, and should, put the human species, and every one of us alive today above all other life on the planet. The uncomfortable reality is that we aren’t unique as a species, despite our penchant for being hugely creative, we balance this with an ability to be equally destructive.

The basic premise that our society works towards, is that we need to maintain a growing (human) population and alter our resource use to enable this, whilst simultaneously reducing our numbers through birth control.

But in actual fact, the human species responds to improved food production by growing the population. This theory is too often rejected in favour of the belief that we remain in control of our food supply and produce more food in response to more people.

The only reason to perpetuate this myth is to maintain our feeling of superiority over other species that don’t farm, but in reality we remain as vulnerable as any other.

And what if the same could be said for the climate and associated sea level rises? Perhaps we have enjoyed a brief moment in time when sea levels allowed us to reclaim and drain land from the fertile wetlands in the east of England. As little as 6,000 years ago man was pushed away from the rich landmass called ‘Doggerland’ which connected Great Britain to continental Europe, and a great area of wetland was lost to the melting ice sheets as it became the bed of the southern North Sea.

The Yorkshire Ings is well known for it’s low lying floodplain meadows that provide vital habitat to some of England’s rarest flora and fauna, but our neighbouring catchment, that of the River Foulness is barely noticeable in the modern landscape. Nearby place names such as ‘Water End’ and ‘Runner End’ suggest the extent of the floodplain that once was. Perhaps this is because ‘Foulness’, meaning dirty water, is rather less attractive than the Derwent, derived from the "valley thick with oaks", which may have enhanced it’s preservation throughout time. Today the Foulness is little more than a large drainage ditch serving the surrounding arable land.

It was during drainage works by the Foulness, in 1984, at Hasholme Hall that revealed a little more about how the area looked in the past. In the late Iron Age, the river was still a tidal inlet of the River Humber and the discovery at Hasholme showed that it was capable of accomodating a 40 foot solid oak log boat with a significant cargo.

Sea level rise at 2m, 5m & 9m respectively (Source; Sea Level Rise App)
Sea level rise at 2m, 5m & 9m respectively (Source; Sea Level Rise App)

The population of Britain was only around one million at the time, and with sea levels having risen significantly since the country was connected to the continent, Britons would have been much more adept at farming these rich wetlands than we are today. Research into the archaeology of the Foulness valley has revealed a sea level of some 1 metres higher than today and despite it’s cultivation, the Foulness (or ‘Foona’) floodplain is actually lower than that of the Derwent. As we can see from the sea level maps, two metres and five metres respectively would affect this catchment much more extensively than in the Ings. This is because the area to the south, alongside the banks of the River Ouse, have also been heavily fortified against floods and drained since the 12th century to create arable out of marshland, which continues to this day.

So what does this mean for the future of our landscape with climate change? Well, firstly man made climate change is definitely happening, there’s no denying that, but I think there are rather a lot of people out there who think that if we just stop driving cars and eating animals, then climate change will be stopped in it’s tracks and the human population saved. Humans are a very adaptable species though and although I’d agree that our vulnerability stems from our unwillingness to change, I doubt that our resistance to pre-emptively change our diets is the biggest threat. What worries me more is our willingness to reject tried and tested skills and technologies based upon their inability to sustain an increasing population and adapt little by placing all our hopes on further intensification of our food production.

The most telling discovery from the Hasholme boat was it’s cargo -

The landscape around the Foulness is now home to a significant proportion of our vegetable production in East Yorkshire. Glasshouses are a key feature of the modern farming landscape, and most of our best vegetable growing land, alongside the banks of the River Humber, lies at or below current sea levels, reclaimed from wetland and saltmarsh in our attempt to control nature. The popular narrative goes that forest in the UK was originally cleared for pasture, but here the forest was flooded by rising sea levels and only became dry enough to grow crops again with extensive artificial drainage.

Cattle are now a rarity in the Foulness valley, as are trees, but the archaeological evidence suggests that both were important features of the landscape in Iron Age Britain. Oak, alder and hazel woodlands, alongside meadows and marshes, were a key feature of the landscape - much like the Ings to this day.

There’s little doubt that our climate is changing and some may see my steadfast commitment to the cow in our agricultural landscape as a snub to efforts to reverse this. However I don’t think the future is looking too good for the human species if we continue to rely upon low level ex-marsh for our cultivated crops. Is it even sustainable to resist the natural rewetting of the land? The humble cow has served us well in many climates throughout time and to reject them now, at this crucial point in human history, would seem to be a folly from which we could not recover.

We need to accept change in all aspects of our lives and be ready to adapt to a new normal. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach in such a rich and diverse world as ours. We have become complacent that our man made environment is ‘natural’ and ‘safe’ when in fact we have been living on borrowed land for some time. Wetlands are not the barren wastelands to be drained and ‘improved’, and humans can continue to live sustainably within them. They provide us with food, fuel and transport, but if we are going to survive we need to seriously consider many new (and old) ways to tackle the impending crisis’. Let’s really push the boat out, in more ways than one.


Hull Museums; A study of the Hasholme Boat

Sea Level Rise App

Aspects of the Romano-British landscape around Holme on Spalding Moor, East Yorkshire

By Rosewood Farm, Apr 21 2019 08:47AM

It was on the 25th March this year when I noticed, via Twitter, that a farm in Wales had begun mowing organic grass for silage. If you’re not familiar with the farming calendar, that’s very early, and with our focus on ground nesting birds I shared the news to point out that often the increase in birds of prey is blamed for the Curlew being in trouble, but in fact one of the greatest threats to the birds come from more intensive land use, mechanisation and earlier cutting of grass for silage, which was certainly the case for the demise of the Corncrake. The fact that the land in this case was organic, often regarded as being ‘good’ for wildlife, was a strange juxtaposition for me as a strong advocate for organic methods in farming!

There are, of course, almost as many factors in the decline of wading birds as there are opinions about them, and many of them will be discussed today on World Curlew Day but for the purposes of this article I’m going to concentrate on how we might modernise farm mechanisation to avoid killing off the Curlew.

We aim to avoid harming ground nesting birds here, including not mowing grass until much later in the season, but then we are blessed with having retained far more wildlife in the Yorkshire Ings. This makes us very aware that we could be responsible for wiping out the last of these iconic birds in England if we are not careful to avoid the mistakes of the past, for which we now have the benefit of hindsight.

Rosewood may seem like a special place, nestled in a landscape that time forgot, but change has happened here as much as anywhere else. We’re a commercial farm and we don’t receive any environmental payments from the government so all the work we do must be paid for by food production. The thing that makes Rosewood different is that we’ve set out with the intention of changing the food market to suit a wildlife friendly style of farming rather than changing our farming to suit the market.

We do still need to use machinery at Rosewood though, without which the farm would be neither physically nor financially sustainable. We aim to minimise machinery use as far as practical but with high wages and living costs in modern Britain we simply wouldn’t be able to manage the acreage needed to survive without a tractor. The farming of yesteryear involved a lot less machinery and a lot more people working on the land - between 1945 & 1997 the number of labourers working the land fell by 77% (Newton, 2017). This almost as stark a drop as 97% of our traditional wildflower meadows disappearing over a similar timeframe.

Why there are so few people working in agriculture today, like the reason why there are so few wildflower meadows, comes down to economics. Farming is a numbers game like any other and the less money you receive per unit of produce, the less you can spend on paying wages and taking care of wildlife, to balance this out, to a degree, cutting costs usually goes hand in hand with selling more which can, but doesn’t have to, have a detrimental effect upon wildlife.

Haymaking in the Ings, 1930s (Ralston, 2005)
Haymaking in the Ings, 1930s (Ralston, 2005)

Two world wars were a catalyst for change in UK agriculture - heavy losses in the Great War significantly reduced the number of men (and horses) available to work the land by 1918. During the Second World War farmers were called upon to use the most modern machinery to plough every bit of available ground to maximise food production & avoid starvation due to sinking of the merchant shipping that brought much of our food into the country. This even lead to attempts to grow carrots in parts of the flood-prone Ings, with predictably disastrous results and long last effects upon the biodiversity of the pasture. Blaming today’s farmers for these two events is ludicrous but often what’s seen an uncaring attitude towards nature stems from the multigenerational effects of those significant past events.

At Rosewood we are no more immune from these pressures than any other farm - I’m pleased to say that 2019 has got off to a good start for us as more people are actively looking for food that benefits their own health and that of the Yorkshire Ings so we’re busier than ever. But every silver lining has a cloud and over the past 12 months we’ve had to consider how to make best use of our time on the farm in order to achieve more output without harming our core principles.

In an ideal world we’d simply turn back the clock to how the Ings were managed for the majority of their history, cutting the grass by scythe & moving the hay by ox-cart, but the money needed to employ enough people at today’s cost of living would eliminate any revenue from food sales. The cattle naturally harvest their own grass in summer but simply leaving them to graze the meadows year round is impossible due to extensive flooding in winter. Many species of wildlife, birds in particular, thrive where they have a variety of different habitats for different needs such as feeding and breeding, so the annual hay cut is an integral part of keeping the Ings in top condition.

While some forms of mechanisation, such as the earlier mowing mentioned above, can be devastating for wildlife, others, like our ‘new’ bale shredder, has freed up significant amounts of time spent on menial tasks like forking hay with negligible effects upon wildlife. It is these kind of tasks we focus on to give us more time for tasks like checking the cattle, improving habitats and packing orders.

Not all mechanisation is bad for wildlife - the bale feeder at work
Not all mechanisation is bad for wildlife - the bale feeder at work

In the book ‘Wealth of Nations’ eighteenth century economist & philosopher Adam Smith extolled the virtues of the division of labour using the example of a pin factory to demonstrate that a great loss in productivity lay in ‘passing from one species of work to another’. Smith was less than convinced that his pin factory could be applied to farming but as we found when operating a single tractor, a great deal of unproductive time is lost in the simplest of tasks. Hitching and unhitching the bale feeder for loading, was actually taking longer than the machine was operating so our decision to invest in a second tractor this year has, counter intuitively, actually reduced our machinery & fuel use! During the summer, we’re also operating across several sites in the Yorkshire Ings, so machinery movements will now be reduced, which all helps us to avoid having to change in-field operations that may harm the birds, such as faster and earlier mowing.

Many farmers worry that wildlife friendly farming means turning back the clock to a long lost, less productive era, full of back breaking work and inefficient methods. The Farmers' Union of Wales recently said that ‘nature should not be prioritised at the expense of the rural economy’ but balancing the needs of wildlife in a thriving countryside needn’t involve consigning the Curlew, nor the tractor, to the history books.


Newton, I. (2017) Farming and Birds. London: Harper Collins Publishers

Ralston, C.S. (2005) Birds of the Lower Derwent Valley. York: Natural England

Smith, A. (2012) An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Ltd

By Rosewood Farm, Jan 13 2019 12:49AM

Happy New Year!

Once again another year has passed and guilt has transcended across the nation with people regretting overindulgence over the Christmas period by partaking in a different kind of unsustainability - the post Christmas lull where we forget to eat properly, or at all.

One group of people who don’t have that luxury of choice at this, or any, time of year are the homeless. As you may have read in my blog from earlier this year I’m keen to highlight the housing crisis problem across the countryside and the effect this is having upon sustainable food & farming. However, the problem is even more acute in our cities.

We’ve strived for many years to keep our costs and prices low at Rosewood to ensure that sustainably produced, wildlife-friendly organic meat isn’t the preserve of the wealthy and that everyone can enjoy the benefits of a high quality diet. This includes not wasting vast amounts of money on fancy (and unnecessary) packaging or expensive marketing but there’s only so far you can take this without sacrificing the business and your own wellbeing.

Kitchen for Everyone, York; providing meals for the vulnerable & homeless
Kitchen for Everyone, York; providing meals for the vulnerable & homeless

When you’re in a vulnerable position not being able to buy food, however, is just a small part of the overall problem - without the knowledge and facilities to store & prepare fresh food your options are severely limited making a healthy, balanced diet impossible to achieve. For many years it’s concerned me that we couldn’t do more to help as changing eating habits have seen us selling fewer of the roasting joints and more steaks and mince. You cannot just produce steaks on demand without utilising the whole animal so this can be a limiting factor, particularly for small farms such as ours. This is known in the trade as maintaining ‘carcass balance’, and whilst larger processors can easily divert excesses into manufacturing or export markets, smaller farm shops and butchers have limited options.

In the Yorkshire Ings the traditionally managed floodplain meadows were also suffering biodiversity declines due to an overall reduction in cattle grazing. Our little Dexters are the perfect size to graze the damp grasslands without damaging these sensitive habitats but the supermarket driven food system has increased the size of cattle leaving processors paying next to nothing for small carcasses. Undergrazing in the Ings wasn’t only reducing the quality of the meadows and the wildlife they support but also represented a huge waste of food that could/should feed people efficiently, as it has done for thousands of years.

The idea of cooking up the surplus joints and providing homeless folk with a decent meal appealed strongly to us but it was also frustrating as we lacked both the time and investment to do what was badly needed. It’s an issue that troubles many farmers in the UK - we want to produce food to feed local people, but to do so at a price that people can afford is increasingly difficult. Fortunately I discovered last year that we aren’t alone and the rise in rough sleeping in the nearby city of York prompted a group of dedicated volunteers to start Kitchen for Everyone (KEY) which has grown to expand services to the homeless and vulnerable of the city. I got in touch to find out how we could help and get the beef rolling, so to speak.

The Jersey milk vending machine at Elvington, near York
The Jersey milk vending machine at Elvington, near York

Meanwhile our friends at Greyleys Farm in nearby Elvington have been producing creamy Jersey Milk for over 50 years, and although dairy farms were once a common feature of the Yorkshire Ings, today they are few and far between. In 2017 Greyleys invested in a milk vending machine to offer locals the chance to buy the milk direct from the farm. Situated just outside York, in the village of Elvington, just yards away from where the cows graze from Spring through to Autumn, people come from all over Yorkshire to buy the milk. As we were passing we decided to offer our customers in York and the surrounding area a delivery service along with our meat boxes, cutting down on food miles & save them a trip out of the city. When I mentioned KEY to Helen at Greyleys she was keen to help and immediately offered to send a regular supply of milk every week.

I wanted to the same with the meat but although raising our prices was one way to fund a regular donation I didn’t want to put more pressure on our regular customers family food budgets. I knew that our customers would like to support giving more people the opportunity to eat sustainably so I have started to offer ‘KEY vouchers’. You can now buy these vouchers along with one of our meat boxes and as soon as we have enough vouchers to make up a box we’ll deliver it direct to KEY!

Kitchen for Everyone serves 60 meals twice every week
Kitchen for Everyone serves 60 meals twice every week

We hope you’ll also support KEY directly via the website and ‘like’ their Facebook page too - while many people will have already ditched their resolutions by the end of January, these guys are there throughout the year.

By Rosewood Farm, Aug 21 2018 12:57AM

Overgrazing is one of those words I’m hearing more & more as time goes on, and it’s begun to make me cringe every time I hear it. It’s a popular criticism of livestock farming but it’s overuse seems to have changed the meaning of the word towards any land management that is less than optimal for wildlife. In recent months I’ve seen ‘overgrazing’ used to refer to everything from severely undergrazed pastures to land that wasn’t grazed at all.

Of course the obvious solution would appear to be to graze fewer and fewer animals on the land. While this may achieve some objectives, such as succession to scrub and then eventually woodland, it doesn’t necessarily help us to conserve a variety of habitats, like the species-rich grasslands of the Yorkshire Ings, in good condition. In fact it creates the need for increased human involvement with tractors and pesticides replacing the animals to create a poor imitation of the grazed landscape that many wild plants, birds and mammals have come to depend upon.

'Sheepwrecked'; undergrazing by sheep resulted in growth suppression
'Sheepwrecked'; undergrazing by sheep resulted in growth suppression

When I say that we need more animals grazing the Ings to better manage the grasslands it often invokes lengthy justification of why animals are destroying the planet, starting with the notion of ‘overgrazing’. Usually it is not over-grazing so much as inappropriate-grazing management that cause problems. Focussing on numbers or stocking-rates really takes the onus off the management of those animals, making it possible to describe grazing practises in an easy, formulaic, but ultimately counterproductive, way.

Reducing grazing to a simple numbers-game ignores the many different variables relating to the land, seasons, climate and the animals themselves. The scientific method is useful in so much as it informs and influences our decisions, but on a day-to-day basis there are many thousands of tiny observations being made regarding the effect grazing animals are having upon the land, vegetation and wildlife that using science in isolation becomes cumbersome and overly focussed on certain aspects, such as numbers of livestock.

Naturally, as a grazier I would say that though, it’s in my best interests to keep animals on the land and not have my job outsourced to a central database. In truth, riding around the Ings in a tractor cab, out of the elements with a ‘machine’ that can be turned off at the end of the day and put away overnight/for winter is actually very appealing. Given the current trends in income from livestock farming there is little financial incentive left in grazing livestock at all, hence the declines seen in recent years.

However, it wasn’t always this way, 160 years ago the Ings were described as;

By contrast, the thin, chalky soils of the nearby Yorkshire Wolds were considered too poor for continuous cropping and sheep were employed to build fertility on an ‘outfield’ pasture for 5 - 7 years before being ploughed to plant a crop under the pre-enclosure open field farming system. Meanwhile the manure from domestic stock was used to fertilise & farm more intensively on the ‘infield’. Hay meadows in the Wolds were in short supply so some of the excess hay crop of the Ings would have found it’s way to the Wolds for feeding the beast that pulled the ploughs.

Today those fortunes appear to have reversed with vast tracts of the Wolds never seeing livestock but coming under the plough continuously. At the same time the fertile Ings lay under used and under appreciated by many modern farmers. So what’s changed?

Without doubt the most notable change has been the transition from Oxen, via Horses, to Tractors, which had a two-fold effect. Firstly, relying upon animals to till the land, meadows literally powered cultivation. By harvesting energy from the sun, grasslands were essential to turn solar power into traction to pull the plough but the move to tractors released many acres of meadow for other uses.

Ploughing on the Yorkshire Wolds
Ploughing on the Yorkshire Wolds

Photo credit

Secondly, the outfields of the Wolds built fertility with livestock until such time as it was worth going to the effort of planting a crop. Turning over the earth is a high energy ordeal and demands a high-output to justify it. Lacking the fertility provided by flooding, these were the original marginal lands but with the advent of synthetic fertilisers Wold farmers could regularly and predictably make it worth cropping the chalky hills.

These two factors seriously reduced the amount of grazing land required and increased the croppable area too. The transition of the Wolds largely from pasture to cultivation also had a devastating effect upon it’s wildlife. Birds and mammals that had previously enjoyed up to six years of undisturbed pasture found themselves competing with crops on an annual basis.

The common thread running through this agricultural revolution was Oil. The discovery of fossil fuels had kick started an increase in demand for food with industrial towns growing on the back of coal but fossil fuels were slow to power similar increases in the supply of food. It wasn’t until we worked out how to use Oil & Natural Gas that we could power the advance of agriculture to become (almost) completely non-dependent upon livestock.

This was achieved after German chemists Fritz Haber & Carl Bosch developed the high-energy Haber-Bosch Process in the early 20th century to ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air into a form useable as fertiliser. While this replaced animal manures & legumes as a source of fertility the development of the internal combustion engine and mass production of tractors by both Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson paved the way for the modern farming as we know it today. Together these two innovations, along with a multitude of others, have speeded up the pace of agriculture, allowing us to ‘borrow’ fertility from the past, via the carbon stores locked up millions of year ago in oil & gas to increase output over such a short space of time. This has mirrored the decline of both grazing and wildlife in the UK, as each has lost their value in a world that grows too fast.

The Yorkshire Ings - flooded with fertility
The Yorkshire Ings - flooded with fertility

Photo credit

The irony of the notion that we overgraze in a bid to produce more food is that it results in the exact opposite. A heavily grazed pasture lacks the means for a productive crop - even if you do fertilise it, it lacks the leaf area to harvest the sun’s energy and the organic matter to preserve precious water. Undergrazing is no more productive either as the pasture reaches a point where the taller, untrodden grasses shade out any chances of fresh, new growth.

Many people say that we can’t possibly ‘feed the world’ with meat from grazing animals, but right now I’m just trying to feed my family and preserve some of the last & best remaining floodplain meadow habitat in the country. Grazing more cows on these grasslands isn’t competing for prime farmland so it can only help to feed the world if more of us eat grassfed beef from the Ings. It also feeds a wealth of wildflowers and birds too, which looks (and sounds) pretty awesome to me!

By Rosewood Farm, Jul 16 2018 12:11AM

‘How do we make #farmingwithnature sexy?’ was the question posed by Beki & David of The Horned Beef Company on the ‘Farmers of the UK’ Twitter account last week. It’s not a new question, it has been rumbling around the farming world for some time now as we face the growing dual problems of a difficulty in finding farm staff and the average age of farmers steadily creeping upwards.

The farming press is doing it’s best to paper over the cracks with regular features of smiling young farmers now appearing in the Farmers Guardian with quotes such as ‘it’s hard work but it’s worth it’, but the truth is that it increasingly isn’t worth it. Farming isn’t sexy, it’s not even vaguely attractive to most young (and many older) people today.

There are some material problems in farming and the rural community that stand in the way for both new entrants to the industry and established farmers, but more about those later. First I want to discuss a much bigger issue - that farming has an image problem. No, I’m not talking about the rosy picture painted by supermarkets in their marketing making it looks better than it is, nor am I talking about the critics of farming painting a much darker picture. The problem comes from within the farming industry itself.

Farmers often see themselves as resilient and independant but the industry has more than it’s fair share of depression and suicide. Under increasing pressure to do more for less, market volatility and buyers contracts make it harder than ever for farmers to make a living, but few feel secure enough to be able to speak up. Of course farmers will talk to each other about the weather and the workload, but when they do it’s usually just an opportunity to demonstrate how well you are coping with the situation, not a genuine desire to talk about how you’re feeling. Even when we do come together we’re self-isolating within the social context and as a result mental health problems are rife in the countryside. Farming also comes out tops on rates of physical injury and death, doubling up to be the riskiest business to be in both mentally and physically.

For workers the hours are becoming less unsociable and more unworkable, particularly in the dairy sector. As herd sizes grow roles become harder to fill when staff are expected to start earlier and finish late. This puts further pressure on the available workforce with very few young families able to commit to such roles even with a desire to be working in farming. It’s almost Victorian.

So far so bad, it’s not sounding very sexy!

Often technology is blamed for our society becoming less social but the beauty of social media, and particularly Twitter, within farming is that it sparks conversations between people who may never meet in real life but who share the same interests, be that Curlews or combines. Of course there are no guarantees, as you can still hide behind a computer or a phone screen and pretend, but at the same time talking to someone in a similar situation who you know less well is often easier than talking to those closest to you.

Phil Latham; we cannot ignore our financial obligations
Phil Latham; we cannot ignore our financial obligations

So, getting back to the question of how to making farming, particularly farming with nature, sexy? I said at the time;

That response raised a few laughs, but I was serious. I think within that summary I covered all the basic problems of our mental, physical and emotional well being within farming today.

The housing crisis

The Campaign To Protect Rural England says that nearly half of rural households are going to be aged 65 or over by 2039 - we are facing the same problem within rural demographics as we are in the farm workforce. They put this down to a lack of genuinely affordable housing, as I touched upon in a recent blog, housing prices in the Yorkshire Ings have risen sharply whilst wages have remained constant. Many of the houses available locally consist of either smaller properties have been extended or new builds that are too big to start with, putting prices out of range of young people in local employment.

Here at Rosewood we have faced our own issues with housing as there was no farmhouse with the land when we moved here in 2002. A planning policy exists whereby you are allowed to build new properties on farms in the open countryside providing you can satisfy both a functional and a financial test. This involves proving that you a) need to live on site and b) that you have sufficient income to be able to afford to live here, in order to protect the countryside from unsuitable development. The irony is that, in most cases, the only way to meet both these tests is to establish an intensive livestock unit!

In his blog, Miles King recently criticised the Government’s relaxation of the planning laws so that “now you can convert an office into a residential flat without planning permission.” resulting in “Lots of low quality housing”. When our own farm office ticking over the 10 year mark at the end of last year it became eligible to be converted into a dwelling, without a requirement to fulfil the financial need - an absolute lifeline for nature friendly farming. However the planning system could still be significantly improved by recognising the value of non-financial benefits to be gained for allowing appropriate & genuinely affordable rural homes.

It wasn’t until the permission came through from the local council that I realised just how much the lack of a permanent home had affected me over the years. I suddenly felt that a huge pressure had been lifted and I was finally able to talk more about the real reasons that nature friendly farming is starting out on the back foot.

So, I’ve fairly comprehensively picked apart why farming with nature isn’t sexy, but the question was how do we make it so? How do we ensure that young rural folk have a roof over their heads, the money to live and the time to take care of the environment & yet still have enough spare to enjoy both intimacy & family time?

We can waste our time blaming the next generation for not wanting to work hard or for little money, but in doing so we ignore the fact that the goalposts have moved and many young people simply can’t afford to live in the countryside with what’s available to them.

I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful kindred spirit in Natalie who cares passionately for the Ings and it’s wildlife. Nat brought a new perspective and valuable fresh ideas to the area - without her insight we would not have introduced Corncrake Friendly Mowing, nor the identity of what is the Yorkshire Ings itself - a legacy of love and care for this special landscape.

Inspired; Corncrake Friendly Mowing in the Yorkshire Ings
Inspired; Corncrake Friendly Mowing in the Yorkshire Ings

The recent breakdown of my marriage has made me think again about the troubles that farming & wildlife are both facing right now. It’s important that we, working on the front line of conservation, actively engage with and inspire others to care and do something about the declines in both our traditional farming and wildlife. However, our ability to care for nature is not improved by ignoring our own well-being and that of those around us.

Farming & the countryside remains a (relatively) popular for school leavers, with rural colleges expanding, but even 20 years ago, when I was at college, I spoke to an examiner who admitted that we were giving kids false hope as suitable jobs simply weren’t there in the countryside, and it hasn’t got any better today. Many graduates go on to non-countryside related employment, losing the skills we have carefully trained people in.

We cannot rely upon an initial attraction to maintain the long term relationships that are vital for the future of our countryside. It may only take a small amount of investment to keep England’s only natural population of breeding Corncrakes in the Ings, but no amount of money will fill that void when they have gone and to re-establish a breeding population would be both expensive and not guaranteed work. And rural people are no different - we all need suitable habitat maintaining to enable us to stay.

Our problems don’t go away by keeping quiet about them and the public will not support us to do better if we keep insisting that all is well.

As we discuss the future of farm & nature funding we seem to be trying to tackle the symptoms rather than the root cause. The truth is that there are already many passionate young people out there in both conservation and farming who do still think the profession is sexy - they are simply lacking the ability to afford to do it.

Conservation shares many of the same problems with work & housing - the whole of the nature friendly sector shouldn’t need to rely upon the drive and passion of low-paid people and volunteers.

Rather than tackling rural funding problems for housing, farming, conservation and social care separately, perhaps it’s time for a more holistic approach. Let’s not subsidise industry, let’s subsidise people and ensure that those who want to provide all those ‘public goods’ that the market is unwilling or unable to support can do so. This is why I am increasingly thinking that the key to a truly sustainable future lies in a Basic Income for all.

Providing a more secure income would not only benefit farmers directly, but would also allow a more sustainable workforce to exist within the countryside. The current benefits system for out of work people actively discourages the taking on of short term and seasonal work, as well as pushing them towards a more urban centres. Finally, more financial security within urban areas could enable more people to seek out and support both nature and better food, further boosting the rural economy - what's not to love?

If we value people more they will work to produce the food and wildlife that we crave. Now that’s what I call sexy; Nature-Friendly Farming!

By Rosewood Farm, May 30 2018 03:02AM

The Guardian revealed yesterday that 'industrial-scale beef farming comes to the UK', and it's likely that this kind of reporting will lead to some people reducing their consumption of beef - but is that really the best solution?

Scenes like these will no doubt elicit strong feelings from the public about the welfare of animals contained within these 'feedlot' style rearing systems, but I tend to think that everyone is missing a trick. It may be that animals prefer to be in grass fields with hedgerows and trees for shelter, or they may actually enjoy having their food delivered to them in concentrated, grain form. Proponents of more industrial systems like to point to the fact that management can be better on a large farm that is able to monitor animals more closely and even partake in regular veterinary checks to ensure high welfare. As we cannot ask the animals which system they prefer, that argument is likely to run & run.

However, whilst we waste our time debating whether a cow prefer grass or corn, there is another factor that we cannot ignore - the effect that more industrial farming systems have upon our wildlife. Now, I'm a big fan of everyone eating more beef in order to save our wildlife, but I also stress that we need to be sure that the beef we eat does actually help to preserve declining wildflower meadows, and doesn't speed up their decline.

Recently I wrote about the plight of the Curlew, and if you have read the book that I recommended in the blog, Curlew Moon, you will already know about the effect that rapidly intensifying farming is having on birds such as the Curlew & Corncrake over in Ireland. The country the main source of UK beef imports & much of this beef supplies supermarkets & fast food outlets. Figures from the AHDB show that in 2016 the UK imported 263,500 tonnes of beef & veal, a massive 22% of our total consumption!

It's often suggested that increased industrial farming is driven by a greater demand for meat, but when we take a look at the long term figures for the UK we see that each of us are now eating 24% less beef than we were in 1961. Even accounting for the increased population we are still eating 11% less beef as a country. So if we are being told to eat less meat, is this actually contributing to more industrial farming? I think so.

The problem with eating less is that, with lower demand, the price of meat drops and farmers have to produce it ever more cheaply. As identified by The Guardian report, this indutsrialisation is driven by cost, not volume, and the less we eat, the more intensive farming must become to survive, with even less money leftover to make provision for wildlife.

People say to me that farms like Rosewood simply can't produce enough grassfed beef sustainably to feed the world at current levels. My response is always - not if we don't try to! I think that to encourage farmers to produce beef the Rosewood way we need to demand more, not less, grassfed beef. If we can produce it then everyone, including our wildlife, is happy. But what happens if we can't produce that much? Well, the demand would then exceed the supply so the market price is forced up and people eat less as a consequence - it's a real win-win scenario.

Eating less beef may be a consequence of a move to more sustainable production systems, but it is certainly not a prerequisit and buying less does nothing to encourage farmers to change. I also believe it is highly damaging to tell people to eat less because those most receptive to that message are already supporting farms like ours - a double blow on the back of low prices.

Rosewood Farm; when we say 'grassfed' we mean from birth to beef!
Rosewood Farm; when we say 'grassfed' we mean from birth to beef!

As a small farm selling all our own produce we do receive a higher price than if we took our animals to the local livestock market, however we lack the economies of scale that large retailers enjoy. Our customers, too, receive more individual attention, which all comes at an extra cost. I'm pleased to report that our sales are up by 27% year-on-year in 2018 BUT we're also serving more customers with the average spend decreasing which pushes up the cost of selling by one fifth!

I understand that not everyone can afford to eat Rosewood beef every day, but there are a few things you can do to help us out & keep industrial farming at bay;

1. Buy in bulk; the more you spend at once time, the lower our costs

2. Do more home cooking; buying a joint to slice up for sandwiches througout the week - you'll save money and avoid industrially produced meat

3. Return the packaging; not only does reusing our shipping boxes reduce waste, it also saves us money!

4. Share this blog with your friends - word of mouth is our best endorsement, and is our cheapest way to advertise!

Thank you.

By Rosewood Farm, Apr 28 2018 02:21PM

What a week it’s been! It started with the 2018 State of the World’s Birds report highlighting that even familiar birds are now at risk of extinction. Among the many reasons cited for this was agricultural intensification driven by ‘global demand for commodities such as coffee, cocoa, sugar, palm oil and soya’. Also called into question was the widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides, said to have a detrimental impact on seed-eating birds, causing weight loss & also affecting their ability to navigate on migration.

Good news for bees as neonicotinoids are banned
Good news for bees as neonicotinoids are banned

On a more positive note, conservationists universally cheering at the end of the week as the EU voted to ban the outdoor use of neonicotinoids. This was mainly due to the effect they have only both wild and domestic bees, vital pollinators for many of our crops. However the NFU were quick to deny this and declare that the alternative chemical assault they would release would be much worse. Insecticides that don’t harm insects seems highly unlikely to me, however, I have an alternative that is much, much better, but more of that later…

By mid-week Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall started Britain’s Fat Fight by telling us that 2 out of every 3 Brits are now overweight. The culprit, for a change, is sugar, and Hugh challenged us, and the companies who make our breakfast cereals, to use less of it - well done Hugh. As it happens our consumption of sugar has actually reduced by 23% between 1961 - 2011, but the worldwide sugar beet acreage increased by 70% over that time period as we switched from cane to beet sugars. One of the main crops to rely upon neonicotinoid insecticides is, yep, you guessed it; sugar beet.

Unlike sugar, over the last half century our appetite for vegetable oils has almost doubled, largely due to the demonisation of animals fats in dietary recommendations, with crops such as soy and oilseed rape (OSR) taking over to supply the burgeoning veg oil demand. OSR itself represents the predominant source of veg oil for the UK market and it relied heavily upon neonicotinoids, right up until they were banned in the crop by the EU in 2013.

This week was also a celebration of everything beefy for ‘Great British Beef Week’, with the ‘Ladies in Beef’ promoting the health & culinary benefits of including British beef in your diet. At Rosewood we’re also keen to promote the potential environmental & wildlife benefits too, providing you choose the right beef, of course!

It seems that beef has been public enemy number one from all sides; environmental, health and financial, for some time now. Although, no doubt, started with the best of intentions, this is having a devastating effect on the wildlife of landscapes such as the Yorkshire Ings, which evolved over thousands of years, shaped by the symbiotic relationship of wildlife and cattle grazing.

To put all of these figures into a dietary perspective, we may think of roast beef as the quintessential English dish, but we now eat nearly as much veg oil as we do beef, and still more than twice as much sugar!


So, back to that alternative. While we can call on the EU to ban pesticides, and food companies to cut sugar, maybe we should also consider our own influence on changing food & farming methods a little more. Regardless of whether you agree that neonicotinoids are killing our bees, there’s no doubt that many birds rely upon protein-rich insects to successfully rear their young. Finding alternative ways to produce & consume food without insecticides is vital if we want to encourage rich and diverse bird populations. At Rosewood we don’t use any pesticides to grow our grass and that’s one of the reasons why our insects, and birds, flourish as a result.

RSS Feed

Web feed