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

By Rosewood Farm, Jan 16 2017 01:54PM

I wasn’t planning to blog so soon after my last installment about Planet Earth, but then a report, revealing how birds are being cropped out of the British Countryside, dropped into my inbox. I felt it was important to share this news as so often we can easily feel like our contribution is insignificant when it comes to preventing and reversing climate change. This is different, there really are lots of things we can do to halt the decline of farmland birds and their habitat.

You may be forgiven for thinking that we are anti-arable farming here at Rosewood after years of us going on about how bad crops are for the countryside and how much better grassfed is for us, the environment and the animals. So you may be surprised to learn that we do actually like some veg with our meat, and we don’t think humans should turn into carnivores - we just think that the balance has been somewhat tipped in the wrong direction.

I don’t know any farmers who actively enjoy destroying biodiversity but the level of passion for our wildlife varies among them from apathetic to absolute dedication. The problem we face is that the market doesn’t offer many opportunities to reward farmers for having the most biodiverse farms, in fact it is largely due to the personal interest of farmers & conservationist that we have any wildlife left in the UK at all.

Sprout aficionado John Clappison produces 5% of the UK's sprout crop
Sprout aficionado John Clappison produces 5% of the UK's sprout crop

It was during a meeting with one farmer last year about our plans to graze his recreated wet grassland that the enthusiasm really hit home. John is an arable farmer with a real passion for growing brussels sprouts, but it turned out his passion also extended to taking shots (with his mobile phone's camera) of the Lapwings living in his sprout crop! But when was the last time you saw ‘Lapwing-friendly’ sprouts on the supermarket shelf?

Post-war governments & the EU have certainly played a big part in both habitat loss and restoration over the years, and opinion remains divided over whether Brexit will be good or bad for nature. At Rosewood our own experience, taking part in the EU-funded Countryside Stewardship Scheme for ten years, was a mixed bag. On the one hand the capital grants were great - they helped us to restore the hedgerows that had been lost due to years of neglect (as opposed to active destruction).

A new mixed-species hedgerow planted at Rosewood Farm
A new mixed-species hedgerow planted at Rosewood Farm

The other side of the coin was that we were farming by dates and numbers. Prescriptions were put in place to stop us grazing after x-date and not before y-date, not taking into account the weather, ground cover or alternative grazing/housing for the animals. ‘Farming by numbers’ was both practically unsustainable and took absolutely no account of whether we were achieving our wildlife objectives or not. If I could change one thing about the system it would be that any incentives are paid for results and let farmers farm in the best way they see fit to achieve those results.

Fast-forward to the present day and we can see the legacy of ‘farming by numbers’, coupled with unsustainably low prices for livestock, in the number of local farmers who are giving up grazing in the Ings. There has also been a [not so] coincidental shift in what the market is demanding from farmers too. We all know about the effect that the cheap food policy has had on farming but less often mentioned are the unrealistic specifications that farm produce has to conform to. In the good times the prices paid for produce may be reasonable, but there is virtually no demand for the produce which falls outside of the spec so it fetches a much lower price. This has shaped the countryside for years with farmers forced to produce what they can sell, not necessarily what benefits their land and biodiversity.

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) the largest member of the Plover family
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) the largest member of the Plover family

Hugh’s War on Waste challenged us to start demanding wonky veg to cut food waste. Not only does this represent a waste of time and energy in growing and transporting food that we will never eat but that veg is taking up valuable space once inhabited by our farmland birds. As we spray and cultivate crops in pursuit of perfection we are actively wiping out the insects, seeds and nesting sites on which our farmland birds depend.

This is why at Rosewood we sell-direct, as we have always kept Dexter cattle that are much smaller than most breeds of cattle. Dexters are the ‘wonky’ veg of the beef world, so wonky that you won’t find them in the supermarkets at all. Ironically we find that our customers find that the smaller joints and steaks suit them better for home cooking, when they are given the choice. We have also found that Dexters, unlike the supermarket specification-hitting larger breeds, are ideally suited to grazing the diverse and damp grasslands of the Ings without causing damage to the soil.

Redshank (Tringa totanus) is a target species for the new wet grassland
Redshank (Tringa totanus) is a target species for the new wet grassland

So, what does this mean for the birds? Well, the other advantage of being in direct contact with you, the consumer, is that we can talk about the problem of declining bird numbers and how eating more beef really can help us to address this. Our passion has always been grassland and grazing livestock, so we’re not planning on becoming arable farmers anytime soon, and much of our land is unsuitable for cultivation anyway. Overs the years we have amassed a wealth of knowledge and experience in managing the land and livestock together for the benefit of wild birds and by working with farmers like John, we are able to spread our impact over the wider arable landscape too.

So here are a few things you can do to help us to put the birds back into the British countryside;

- Write to your MP to put birds into Brexit by letting them know that you want to end the ‘farming by numbers’ approach

- Help us to invest in new hedgerows, ponds and bird boxes with our 'Veggie' donation box

- Keep buying the wonky veg, and serve it with some wonky beef

- Take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Bird Watch on the 28th - 30th January

- Share this blog with all your friends and inspire others to bring the birds back!

By Rosewood Farm, Jan 9 2017 02:38PM

I hope you’ve had a good Christmas and New Year holiday. Chances are that, as you’re reading this blog, you’re a big fan of all things nature & there’s a fair chance that you were among the millions of people tuning in to watch the final episode of Sir David Attenborough’s epic Planet Earth II. The series was reportedly more popular among young people than The X Factor. I may no longer be a ‘young person’ by the BBC’s definition but I too enjoyed the amazing footage and snapshots of life on Earth...although I’ve never watched The X Factor.

A harvest mouse climbing long grass Photo credit; BBC
A harvest mouse climbing long grass Photo credit; BBC

Two months ago I invested in a book that I had been meaning to read for some time. The author of The Yorkshire River Derwent: Moments in Time, Ian Carstairs may be less well-known than Sir David but as his MBE for services to conservation and OBE for services to heritage demonstrates a lifelong commitment to our natural heritage. If you happen to read Moments in Time (and I highly recommend that you do) you will learn just how important our little local river has been and continues to be to both conservation and our natural heritage. As Moments in Time shows, this wasn’t an accident and a lot of work by conservationists and local farmers over the years has preserved it to this day.

Not having a TV our viewing at Rosewood tends to be limited to programming that is available online. The changes to TV licensing in 2016 meant that we weren’t able to watch the series on iplayer either. However I did manage to catch at least of a couple of episodes including the one covering our favourite subject - grasslands. I hope it inspired a love & appreciation of grasslands among the British public, particularly our very own Lower Derwent Valley, but I also share the concerns of Springwatch presenter and natural history producer Martin Hughes-Games in his opinion piece; The BBC’s Planet Earth II did not help the natural world.

A Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) on the Rosewood pond
A Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) on the Rosewood pond

This didn’t first occur to me while watching Planet Earth but rather several months ago while carrying out our own promotional work here on the farm. We see some amazing, breath-taking sights while out around the valley working with our stock. I like to think that our use of social media gives the public a glimpse of what we’re up to, one that I hope will inspire them to support both Rosewood and some of the organisations we work with. However, there is a niggling worry inside me - is this sharing of nature’s bounty breeding a false sense of security?

Most of these encounters represent fleeting glimpses of wildlife that are gone in an instant and, despite my best efforts to carry the camera with me at all times, I don’t get many good shots. We are usually working with animals or against the fading daylight, I rarely have the chance to sit in a hide and wait, so the cameramen working on Planet Earth having nothing to worry about! Hughes-Games’ solution to the possible complacency issue we face of taxing wildlife footage therefore, clearly won’t work at Rosewood.

Conservation protection designations such as SSSIs and Special Protection Areas have been instrumental in preserving the most extensive range of remaining UK floodplain meadows in the Lower Derwent Valley but they can only complement, not replace, the agriculture that shaped these grasslands. Without sympathetic and appropriate farming there simply aren’t the resources to manage these habitats by other means. Neither voting Green nor signing online petitions is going to provide this resource and it is vital that farmers are encouraged to continue doing the very things that created these habitats in the first place.

Farmers, and particularly ‘intensive agriculture’ are often blamed for not sticking with the ways that were kinder to our environment but it’s important to remember that agriculture can only produce what it can sell. An overall decline in farm incomes over the time since environmental protections were introduced has seen many farmers sell their grazing livestock or keep them in sheds more and more, and cultivating the land instead, where allowed. Here, this has seen increased silt levels in the river due to soil erosion, and has put increased pressure on conservation bodies to carry out the essential management the farmers used to, at a time when we face cuts to these organisations.

Unintended consequences; large areas of grassland suffer from undergrazing
Unintended consequences; large areas of grassland suffer from undergrazing

The upside of this for us at Rosewood is that we are not short of grazing for our animals. We can survive where others could not only because we have cut out the middleman (butchers and supermarkets) and set our own prices rather than accept market prices. But we can’t graze the ever larger areas we’re required to as effectively with the same number of animals we had in the past - we need help to fill this vacuum and return things to the way they were.

We are in a unique position to be working so closely with Natural England in the National Nature Reserve where our progress is independently monitored and published. We hope that over time, the results will improve and there will be an upward curve for all the monitored species on a graph somewhere. But we wouldn’t want those good figures to result in reduced support when people think the job is done, and to see things slide back. Our plea is that you make the good results a reason to buy, not a reason NOT to buy.

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