By Rosewood Farm, May 15 2017 10:43PM
The week started on an enormous nature-high for us here at Rosewood. The biggest breakthrough yet in our entire time here; an unexpected vindication that we were correct in our hunch that ditching the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which in theory paid us to do better things for nature, was the right decision.
Elsewhere, things aren’t going so well as two pieces of news show. The first story made The Times when People Need Nature founder Miles King flagged up the destruction of a piece of precious chalk downland grass - the stuff that’s famous for its rare and delicate butterflies and flowers. It was sprayed and reseeded with a far less diverse grass mixture that will feed livestock better, but can’t ever hope to play host to said butterflies.
This isn’t unusual of course, as the second story showed - the much less widely reported output from the Organic Research Centre which spoke of the abandonment by farmers of High Nature Value (HNV) grasslands [pdf] over the next five years. I almost spat my tea out when I read that, as I have been witnessing and talking about this exodus for the last five years! We’ve already lost 97% of our unimproved grasslands but it’s just not as newsworthy to neglect them as to spray and grub them up, so few notice the loss.
High Nature Value grasslands are pretty self explanatory, they provide a lot of nature bang for your buck….the trouble is, they don’t provide much buck for your bang! They’ve been around for a few thousand years though, what’s changed? My answer would be that there’s a piece of the puzzle missing - you guys! In the past, these grasslands fed us, they produced our beef, cheese, woollens and mutton, making a good stab at providing a good portion of our diet and clothing. They were important to all of us.
Moving away from these old fashioned products made a lot of money for importers, oil companies and so forth, but the loss of the old grasslands was noticed, you can rest assured. The government and conservation bodies have tried to plug the gap left by consumers by subsidising these grasslands, giving farmers money to keep them going - so long as we stuck to the rules, we could have some money. I think after about 20yrs of that though we’re finally realising it hasn’t worked. We can come up with complex reasoning about it but basically, we’ve run out of money. The taxpayer can’t afford to buy food AND keep throwing money at keeping all these habitats going, not with the NHS buckling under pressure and economies slowing down and so on aswell.
So why not put them back together? Food and conservation? Our grasslands are lost without you!
In 2013, we didn’t renew our Countryside Stewardship Scheme when it ended, and we didn’t replace it with any other subsidy. Our home land at Rosewood is not under any protection and is now not subsidised either, we’re totally reliant on you. Under the scheme, we had to stick to a hard and fast rule of not grazing before a certain date in the year. We had been chafing against this for a few years but still, we were hesitant to graze any earlier even after it ended - we’re supposed to be nature farmers and it felt naughty, even though we know our grazing system is gentle on the land. This year, we finally plucked up the courage and grazed the land concerned unprecedentedly early, and due to the size of our herd, we were able to graze it quickly, 100 Dexter cows getting 20 acres trimmed, fertilised by dung and moistened by pee in a matter of days.
And what happened? That nature high I was talking about. The whimbrels came. Whimbrels are a red list species, they’re like a smaller version of the curlew and pass through on their way to Iceland from Africa every year. We know they visit the nature reserve we graze and that they are extremely fussy about where they eat and frankly, it wasn’t even on our radar that they would come to us - we have never even laid eyes on one on the reserve - so we were bowled over to spot 31, a full 1% of the passage population, poking about among the cowpats on our land.
Or should that be your land? Because let’s face it, one day, no matter how rich we might be, our grip on the land will loosen and we’ll be gone forever. The land will remain, and if it keeps its value to the public the incentive will be there for some other human to come along and keep doing what we did, and the whimbrels can keep coming. When a farmer sprays off some HNV grassland, he’s not acting alone.