Farmer Stories

Debbie Wilkins - Mixed farming with 100-acres of species-rich floodplain meadows

Case Study
flood management
floodplain meadows
species-rich grassland
regenerative farming
Farming Champions

All imagery: Joanne Coates © for the Nature Friendly Farming Network

Debbie Wilkins’ career has seen her explore the full spectrum of the modern food system. For years, she worked for corporate food giant Unilever as a research scientist specialising in proteins in ice creams and spreads. Now, though, she helps to run her family’s farm in Gloucestershire and has a passion for regenerative farming.

Norton Court Farm has been in Debbie’s family since her grandfather moved there in the mid-1930s. It’s a large operation, covering some 950 acres, and is almost a 50-50 split between arable land and pasture for dairy and beef cows. Debbie says that running the farm involves building on the work done by her father, Mike Smith, who she says was very much a nature-friendly farmer.

“He left grass margins all around the fields and let the hedges grow big,” she says. “He left the riverbank because the butterflies liked it. He loved seeing the wildlife and doing things to help it.”

Debbie’s interests initially took her away from the farm to university, where she studied chemistry and biophysical chemistry and did her PhD. Two decades after she left the farm, she returned home about 15 years ago and started getting involved. She became a partner in the business and now runs it with her mother following her dad’s death in 2022.

For me, when scientific knowledge and traditional practice come together, you get regenerative agriculture.

Debbie Wilkins

Debbie says she’s interested in taking nature-friendly and regenerative farming even further than her father was able to do and believes her background in science helps her to do this. “Regenerative farming is basically just traditional mixed farming,” she says. “However, we can use modern techniques and knowledge to take it an extra step. For me, it’s about marrying the two, the science I have learned and what I learned from my dad and from just being around the farm. For me, when scientific knowledge and traditional practice come together, you get regenerative agriculture.”

In total, the farm has around 500 head of cattle. Its 180 milking cows are a mix of breeds including Holsteins, Friesians, Montbéliardes and cross-breeds. All the calves from the dairy herd are kept, and around 75% come from beef breeds, enabling them to be finished for meat.  The others are replacement heifers which then come back into the herd.

The dairy cows enjoy rotational grazing with fresh grass every 12 hours, while the older young stock either follow them or enjoy aftermath grazing where Debbie has been making hay. Cattle under a year old rotate around fields divided into between 30 and 40 paddocks for the summer. Some cattle are able to stay out as late as mid-November when they graze in fields for a week or so at a time. Debbie has also experimented with mob grazing in a field previously used for hay production. In 2022, despite the wetness of the heavy clay soils in Gloucestershire, Debbie was able to have some animals outside all the way through the year.

While Debbie’s dad already had a nature-friendly approach to farming in many ways, she has introduced a number of innovations, particularly on the arable side, which now includes grass leys and forage rye for the animals to graze.

She has brought in a minimum-tillage system with direct drilling and is scrapping the use of bag fertiliser. She doesn’t put slurry on the fields used for cows grazing while also adding gypsum to try to aerate the soil, which is tight due to high levels of magnesium. The arable side of the farm grows winter wheat and multi-species spring crops, including peas, vetch and barley and now ensures there is always a cover crop to protect the soil, whether that’s a crop planted after the winter wheat or red clover mixed in with the cereals.

Debbie says her interest in regenerative farming started with soil health, prompted by a conversation about fungi. “When I came back to the farm, one of the first things my dad asked me was why we don’t have mushrooms any more. The meadows used to be full of them. As a child, the fields would literally be white with them, and we’d pick them, put them in baskets and take them to market. Since we have introduced more regenerative practices we’ve had more mushrooms, though still only enough for my breakfast when I go for a walk.”

Debbie has reduced her use of fungicides and pesticides as much as possible and hopes that by building up her soil health, she will be able to take the final step and remove the last herbicides currently used to suppress weeds. She has also reduced the amount of wormer used on the cattle to help the soil and reduced fly treatment by bringing in parasitic wasps after a trial showed the medicine halved populations of dung beetles.

She’s also involved in a research project to eradicate slurry from the farm entirely. She hopes to compost all the solids produced by the animals, extract nutrients from the liquid and put the results through a wetland system. She’s trying out the Bokashi system of fermentation to produce compost and also hopes to grow willow in the wetland to be turned into woodchip.

There‘s still more Debbie wants to do. Her dad remembers water voles living in the River Chelt that flows through the farm, and she wants to bring them back. She would also like to see curlews nest once more in the farm’s species-rich grass meadows. The farm has been home to quail for a summer in recent years, though so far, this was just a one-off.

The farm’s riverside location means adapting and being resilient in the face of extreme weather events is crucial. Previously, they could expect the River Severn to burst its banks every five to seven years or so, whereas recently, fields have been flooded twice each winter.

“Having the millions of litres of flood water on my farm stops local towns and villages and people’s houses from being flooded,” she says. “We then have to farm in a nature-friendly way to fit with that, creating species-rich meadows that we can get a hay crop from.”

There are more than 100 acres of floodplain meadows on the farm, which are one of the UK's rarest forms of flower-rich meadows, occupying less than 1,500 hectares in the UK. Debbie has been involved in the Flourishing Floodplains project as a farmer liaison for meadow restoration. Being in the Higher Tier Stewardship schemes enables her not to push the floodplains as hard agriculturally, while she’s also trying to keep the grass longer to get the farm through the increasing dry spells between the deluges.

With all the research and protection of habitat, Norton Court Farm shows how a working farm business can remain viable through nature-friendly approaches. Debbie says: “I want to be as nature-friendly and regenerative as possible, but the farm still has to produce food and be profitable, and I do that while working with nature rather than against it. Otherwise, I won’t be here.”