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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.



By Rosewood Farm, Dec 3 2016 05:21PM

You may have heard us talk about ‘Conservation Grazing’ in the past and not be exactly sure what it involves. In the simplest terms conservation grazing is the keeping of animals with the primary objective being the management of a wildlife habitat, as opposed to rearing for meat or dairy production.



The process involves raising animals on the land in a way that mimics once common farming methods in order to preserve or recreate biodiverse grassland habitats. These methods have fallen out of favour over the years as farming techniques have changed. With new machinery, chemicals and breeds of livestock we have been able to produce food which better matches the long supply-chain, convenience markets of the modern world. The problem is that the rate of change has been so rapid that evolution hasn’t been able to keep pace and an overall loss of biodiversity (plant, insect and animal life) is inevitable.




One solution to biodiversity loss is to set aside land that can ‘go back to nature’. The problem with this approach is that nature has adapted to cope alongside farming for the past 10,000 years. Some species have been lost completely whilst others have changed their anatomy and behaviour in order to survive. The Lower Derwent Valley contains many important examples of habitats shapd by thousands of years of farming. As we cannot bring back extinct species nor recreate the exact conditions that existed before we, as a species, began to farm, then we can only ever create a new, modified habitat that may have more life than intensive farmland but lacks much by way of diversity of life.



The back to nature approach also has one other major obstacle - us. At the dawn of farming there were just 5 million people on the planet and the first cities were no more than large villages of today. Aside from food production we have greatly changed the landscape in a way that we aren’t willing to sacrifice with housing, drainage, roads and other infrastructure that would also need to be removed to recreate nature as it was.






The Lower Derwent Valley is famed for it's biodiverse grasslands
The Lower Derwent Valley is famed for it's biodiverse grasslands


Conservation efforts therefore tend to focus on preserving and linking up the small pockets of habitats which remain in the modern landscape. The majority of species, although threatened, do still exist and are able to repopulate suitable areas when available. Humans have used animals as a source of food, power and many different materials throughout history so it is no wonder that so many habitats have been shaped by livestock over millennia.



It’s easy to forget that prior to the industrial revolution the only way people could travel or move things over land beyond a walking pace was by animal power. Cultivating the land & moving goods all involved oxen, trained cattle, and later horses to provide the motive power. This was renewable energy but it did require lots of grazing for the many cattle and horses, which had a profound effect on our landscape. The land was also a lot wetter in the days before mass drainage and suitably dry arable land was in short supply. Fortunately grazing animals were able to utilise wetter or seasonally flooded grazing lands that would be unsuitable for cultivated crops.



Grazing; the eating of the leaves by either nibbling or ripping (depending upon species) by the animal allows light to reach the ground. New seedlings and less competitive grasses and wildflowers then stand significantly more chance of thriving. Many ground nesting wild birds such as lapwing require short, open grasses in which to nest and rear their young and hares in particular favour the fresh, nutritious growth to feed on throughout the year.




Grazing; creates nesting sites & increases chick survival for bird species
Grazing; creates nesting sites & increases chick survival for bird species


Trampling; the parts of the plant that aren’t eaten are crushed by the weight of the animals walking over them. This also helps to allow more light to reach the ground surface and ensures that dead and decaying matter is pressed into contact with the ground. Invertebrates and soil microbes can then more easily consume the plant and incorporate the important carbon element into the soil.



Trampling; soil contact is important to lock up carbon in the soils
Trampling; soil contact is important to lock up carbon in the soils


Dunging; the indigestible parts of the plants pass straight through the animal to be deposited on the ground. In addition to recycling nutrients back into the soils for subsequent plant growth, dung piles are also home to over 250 different invertebrate species in the UK. Animals which are not routinely treated with insecticides to control internal parasites produce much healthier dung with more insects that provide food for many birds,bats and larger mammals such as badgers and foxes.



Dung; chemical-free & full of insects, a vital food source for many birds
Dung; chemical-free & full of insects, a vital food source for many birds


A greater variety of different sward heights and types are created by animals than by mechanical cutting and changes in the species, timing and duration of grazing are all used to produce the desired effect for wildlife. Animals which are perfectly adapted to grazing are much more efficient and the sheer scale of the task means that there aren’t enough human volunteers to manage the sites by hand.



At Rosewood we have ponies, goats and sheep used in conservation grazing but the stars of the show are cattle. Due to the way they graze, and their size, cattle are best suited to grazing and trampling some of the roughest, overgrown pasture & turning it back into productive, biodiverse habitat. Ponies and sheep nibble rather than rip the foliage with their tongues so they are better suited to fine tuning the shorter swards after the cattle have passed through.



The LDV is one of the top three sites for Snipe in the British Isles
The LDV is one of the top three sites for Snipe in the British Isles


Grazing animals tend to breed each year and numbers fluctuate on an annual basis through a combination of predation and shortages of fodder in winter. This ensures that only the fittest animals go on to breed the next generation. As farmers we are more protective of our animals than mother nature, managing their grazing and making hay to ensure that they can survive the winter and create a surplus. Unfortunately cattle numbers here in the Lower Derwent Valley have dropped significantly over the past decade as eating habits have changed and farmers have found it more difficult to justify keeping livestock. Unfortunately this has had a knock-on effect on the wildlife value of the meadows.



Increasing biodiversity remains the primary goal for conservation grazing and provides the greatest amount of satisfaction but unfortunately satisfaction alone doesn’t provide for the upkeep for the herd. To enable this to continue wesell meat and other produce to help fund the whole process and the more meat we sell, the more habitat we can maintain. You can do your bit for nature without even leaving your home. It really is that simple!





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