Neil was born and brought up at Hill Top Farm, Malham in North Yorkshire, where he now farms with his partner Leigh. In 2003, as part of a conservation grazing scheme, Neil re-introduced 20 Belted Galloway cattle to join the Swaledale sheep flock. This proved to be a defining time in terms of farm ethos and mind-set, as he sought more sustainable and environmentally friendly production methods.
Why do you support nature friendly farming?
We support nature friendly farming because it is better for nature and for wildlife. Agriculture has impacted on natural wildlife populations over the last 30-40 years, and not in a good way. I would like to do something to reverse this.
Farming used to be a part of nature – or even a product of nature. We were working with nature to produce food. In recent years this has changed. We are now working against nature to produce more, or grow things at unnatural times of year. This has put the farming industry in a worse position.
We have chosen to focus on the natural and sustainable farming route on our farm. For us it is not only a more profitable way of farming, but also more sustainable, from an environmental and economic point of view. We are more likely to be still farming in 10, 20, 100 years’ time if we don’t try to work against nature. Unsustainable practices have a finite lifespan.
What nature friendly farming approaches have you implemented on your farm?
We have reduced our overall stocking density. Fourteen years ago we had 800 sheep. We have reduced this and also brought in cattle. We now have a breeding herd of 30 cattle and 190 sheep. The farm averages 120 cattle and 300 sheep on farm at any time, over an area of 1,100 acres.
Our upland farm is 80% above the moorland line, so we raise breeds particularly suited to this environment, including hardy Galloway Cattle and Swaledale sheep.
We now manage the land for wildlife and biodiversity. For example, we mow our meadows much later in the year. They are now cut in mid-July at the earliest, which means they have a minimum 10-week period in the summer without grazing. This creates a habitat for ground nesting birds and allows plants to flower and release their seeds.
What impact has this had?
By reducing the stocking rate, switching to cattle grazing and changing the times of grazing, we have changed the environment dramatically. Botanically, it is very different. A lot of plants have returned, including rock rose, birds eye primrose, scabious, wild thyme, spearmint, bluebells. We never used to see these species.
We never used to have barn owls, now the RSPB ring chicks every year. I used to see a hare about once a year, now see a hare one in three days. There are also more skylarks, redshanks and curlews.
Reduced stocking pressure has also allowed the grass to grow longer, which may help prevent flooding downstream. We have also put in several mechanisms for natural flood management.
Reduced stocking density has had a positive impact on our profits. Overall output has decreased, income from agriculture has decreased, but we have become more profitable. This is because the costs of production are so much less. Fewer sheep means we don’t need to buy in concentrates or feeds. We don’t need extra people to help on the farm. We turned this farm from a loss-making to a profit-making enterprise. And this is before you take any support mechanisms into account.
Why does nature friendly farming need government support?
We need to change direction. Farming, farmers and the environment are not in good position. Government support for nature friendly farming would change the goal. The current goal is food production, which is important, but this should be done with the environment and nature at forefront of our minds.
What’s the value of bringing farmers together in the NFFN?
Together we can show government that there are farmers that support nature friendly farming which can have a positive impact on agriculture, wildlife, nature conservation and landscape.
There is currently a misconception that you have to be either or – you are either a commercial farmer or a nature friendly farmer. My belief is that to be a successful commercial farmer you need to go down a nature friendly route. It’s not just a binary choice, the two are inextricably linked.
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