16/12/20 – Sam Kenyon
Let’s Talk Hedges
One of the jobs which can be carried out on the farm from late autumn to late winter is hedge planting. For a livestock farmer, it might seem mad to be out in a cold field, with no protection from the elements bar the clobber we left the yard in. And to dig in and turn over the soil, at a time of year when every blade of grass for our wintering flocks or herd is vital, it might just seem madness on a level too far.
But planted now, the roots of those small but potentially mighty plants have a better chance of establishing while the soil is moist. And that protection we so wish we had from the elements is exactly what we’re planting for the future generations of our livestock and crops.
Before this year I hadn’t really thought of hedges as anything but a field boundary, a home for a little bit of nature and something that needed cutting back each autumn. That was until I sat in on a talk at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.
The ORFC, opposed to the OFC had more facial hair, dirt under nails and less brogues in attendance – and that’s not necessarily referring to the men there, so needless to say I felt I was definitely at the right farm conference! And I’ve so many good reasons as to why I want to plant more hedges in the right places now – and they are all livestock, pasture, environment, pollinator, bird and mental health related!
Here at Glanllyn we’re putting in two hedgerows this winter, and the cost of one is partly funded by the Woodland Trust’s scheme called MOREhedges. If you’re a farmer or landowner thinking of planting hedges, I really recommend looking in to this – the application was simple and quick enough to complete that even I managed it, and like many farmers I know of I’m recognised for a lack of patience with sitting at a computer and box ticking paperwork.
So, sticking with the livestock first, the shelter a good thick hedge offers my livestock in any weather can not be underestimated on a health and welfare level. The animal is more comfortable and able to regulate body temperature better, whether it’s shade in summer that is needed or shielding from the driving wind and rain in winter. Maintaining a more even use of their body energy results in positive effects for their overall health and growth, and with the sheep here at home that means fewer shepherding problems. Also, the same healthy growth traits can be said for the pasture.
I’ve noticed that the herb rich sward grows thickest and more lush in the lee of the existing hedges, it seems this is mostly due to naturally improved soil conditions. The roots of the hedge plants open up the soil structure enabling more carbon and water to be stored, as well as other nutrients. I’m convinced that the leaf litter from the hedges is also a winner – it is natures compost afterall!
We now don’t cut the hedges every year, instead we leave them to grow wild until it looks like the tops are growing away too much from the base. Wildlife needs cover and a thick filled out base to a hedge is important for small mammals such as field mice or hedgehogs – we need a healthy structure not only for stability but to keep predators out too. Seeing increased numbers of pollinators, bird life, flowers and berries is like a soothing balm to the normal everyday pressures of running the farm. And anything that helps my mental health is definitely welcome on this place.
Planting more hedges will not only benefit wildlife but will reduce water run-off and soil erosion. And not cutting back the existing hedges has meant less fossil fuel is burnt, it’s also resulted in more native food for an increased population of native birds. Plus I’ve learnt about migrating insects finding cover in our hedges and that these amazing tiny bugs that travel thousands of miles are veracious predators of crop pests – nature is not just beautiful, its functional and accomplishes so much more than we give it credit for. We just have to let it live alongside us.
One of the key speakers had said to think of the growing area on a farm in 3D tiers, that not all the growing area was at ground level and nor were growing conditions dependant on just what we added the soil.
I hadn’t thought about levels within the structure of the farm before, just mostly the acreage of fields, but it really opened my mind and my eyes – I started to look at the place differently. I could improve growing conditions for my crops (lamb, hay and haylage) whilst working for and with nature too, and once I got thinking from this different perspective – to include more nature on different levels and to let it do what it does best – create a sustainable food producing balance, I found I had renewed energy and motivation for the farm work I love.
Images by Sam Kenyon
12/08/20 – Sorcha Lewis
This Blessed Landscape
Our Welsh uplands are some of the most beautiful in the world. From the pastures and hay meadows of the valley bottoms to the rough grass, heather moor, blanket bog, woodland and crags, these habitats have been shaped by geology and climate, and influenced by man over thousands of years. You can trace the genetics of a countryside in this landscape. These deep connections give our land a special place in our hearts.
I am Sorcha Lewis and I live and work in this blessed landscape on a tenanted upland hill farm in the heart of the Elan Valley, Mid Wales. I came here for work, fell in love, married and stayed. My husband, Brian Lewis, farms 580 hectares of mostly open land (and some ‘in-bye meadow and rhos) within a watershed catchment with reservoirs supplying water to Birmingham. Our stock is mostly “Elan Valley type” Welsh Mountain Sheep hefted on these hills for generations. We have also introduced a small herd of shorthorn/ Hereford cattle which help us manage the vegetation and provide organic manure for the meadows. We are not formally organic but our farm input from chemicals is minimal, using no herbicides or artificial fertilizer.
Lockdown has been tricky. Usually after a long winter our neighbours are a welcome sight and gathering is greatly looked forward to throughout the year. Hill farming can be lonely, so it’s a great opportunity to socialize. This year however, those involved with gathering the sheep from the surrounding hills left promptly for their homes.
Still, it is a beautiful time on the farm as the orange and brown winter veil blooms yellow and green in spring promise and birds arrive from other continents to rear their young. I stand in the empty hayfield at the start of May after lambing when the sheep have been turned off and it is hard to believe that soon everywhere will be filled with the hypnotic rhythms of summer; gentle drumming of pollen heavy bees and other insects busying through the vegetation, birds on the wing promising the earth in song to mates waiting to bring new life into the world…
In April the curlews come to feed, in May the cuckoo calls and June sees the energetic swoop of swallow and martin catching food for their growing young in nests around the farmyard. The meadows, rhos and ffridd are choked with fantastic wildlife: orchids, globeflowers, small pearl bordered fritillaries, Welsh clearwing moth, water voles and a wealth of birds…
This dry Spring is such a contrast to the last 12 months. The reservoirs are slowly shrinking, although the storage capacity of our uplands is greater than all the water held in the reservoirs. Our meadow soils cope well in the really dry weather. With their mix of grasses and deeper rooting flowers they are resilient when fields elsewhere are burnt yellow. We struggle more with wetter Summers because hay needs 3 – 5 days to dry and it is a tricky balance. Our meadows generally get cut in August/September, which allows plenty of times for the plants to flower and set seed. At worst we can bale as haylage, though we favour the small bales as they are easier to take out to stock on the hills when the weather is bad. Then, Autumn touches the meadows and it’s the turn of the waxcap fungi to enjoy the short sward. Soon it will be a cold Winter’s day again on a remote hill when cutting the baler twine frees the smells of last summer with a promise of summers yet to come..
Traditional field names are clues to the pre 1900 landscape. We have a field called Cae Lloi (Calves field) where just yesterday our young shorthorn cow, Marbles, took herself to give birth. Most farms have a Cae Ysgubor (barn field) in the hills (barns for housing cattle and the harvest). One of the old fields – now drowned below the cold water of the reservoir – was called Dol y Bont (Meadow of the Bridge). I guess it would have been full of globe flower, meadow thistle and butterfly orchids as the remaining water margins are now.
Here in Wales the most important field name which gives the value to the importance of herb rich flower fields, is that of Cae Ysbyty (Hospital Field). Here you would put a poorly ewe or cow to graze on the herbs they need and “mend up”. Plants have medicinal properties, e.g. natural wormers, that beasts utilise and even now reduce the need for chemical intervention.
These rare upland hay meadows are incredibly important genetic resources. Hardy grasses and herbs, adapted to take up minerals and resist harsh weather, hold vital benefit to us and to farms and landscapes everywhere. Precious wildflower meadows in the UK are as important as the Amazonian rainforest.
I would like to see Wales and the rest of the UK lead in turning around their decline. I would like to see some more science to back up what we know here on the hills about the value of our meadows. The benefits which the uplands deliver are undervalued and at risk. The intricate and vital connection between upland farming, wildlife and landscape, is so important to our futures. New policy should reward managing, restoring and recreating new meadows.
I am heartened by the amazing work I see done by farmers through the NFFN across the UK and the many more voices which give me great confidence and hope that there will be support for reforms to agriculture policy that works for everyone.
This lovely video gives a sense of the heritage and wildlife on a typical hill farm. Gilfach (Cosy Nook), was restored by the local Wildlife Trust and is in the next valley to us. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4XEBAgIYFE
Images by Sorcha Lewis
Wales’ Global Ecosystem – an Insect Blog from the Ceiriog Valley
The more we look, the more we realise how much important stuff is going on connecting distant ecosystems.
I am going to tell you a story about an insect we see daily through the summer in the Ceiriog Valley. The marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) is around 12 – 18mm long. She ably demonstrates the global role our Welsh valleys and mountains play in the biodiversity of her global environment.
“One Ceiriog Valley morning in late summer a tiny, new, marmalade hoverfly awoke and felt a feeling in the air, was it a shortening of the days, perhaps, or a chill wind, or a change in the light? She knew she had a different purpose to her parents. She needed to journey south to find a warm place to lay her eggs. The Valley was getting too close to winter. “
Millions of other marmalade hoverflies, other flies, butterflies, beetles, dragonflies and birds do exactly the same thing. They head south across Wales and England, Norway and Finland, France and Germany, Russia and the Middle East, towards the Mediterranean basin and beyond.
“As she reached the Pyrenees, favourable winds in French valleys funnelled her up and over the col into Spain, where she rested a while to feed before carrying on southwards. Exactly how far south she could have ended up, researchers are not sure (yet) but there is a reasonable possibility that she flew well into Africa before settling to lay her eggs on the green vegetation and live out her remaining days under the sun.
Her children and grandchildren stayed local until weeks and months later the urge to move made the newest generation follow the spring ‘green wave’ north. This journey was a different, multi-generational, journey, not a ‘one fell swoop’ like great great great…. Grandmama’s. Each new generation would move a little further north as new food sources grew.”
Hoverfly larvae are voracious predators of aphids and other plant eaters, so lag slightly behind the first appearance of green shoots; hatching to coincide with burgeoning food populations. Adult hoverflies are nectar eaters and important pollinators (like bees except that most bees do not migrate).
On their journeys north, migrating insects inadvertently carry grains of pollen which can improve the gene flow between plant populations across the continent. This is a vital component of biodiversity and one which migrating insects are often responsible for performing.
“At last, in May and June – several generations down the line – the tiny hoverfly that was hatched in the Ceiriog Valley last summer has returned, or at least her genetic material has, to pollinate my plants and lay eggs enough to build a new army of larval predators to eat the myriad aphids and other small plant predators in my garden and hedgerows and crops.”
Millions of insect migrants migrate across Europe every year. Many, if not most, provide immense but often unrecognised services. Almost all our fruit and vegetables are pollinated by animals and the health of our plant populations relies on good genetic diversity. Migrators also deposit nutrients in the inevitable rain of nutrients when they die. Nutrients circulate across countries and continents every year as migrants breed, eat, move and die. Indeed, in the far northern permafrost migrating insects may be the primary supply of nutrients.
Political boundaries are irrelevant to migrating animals, but human practices in farming, building on landscapes, use of pesticides and herbicides and soil health often create boundaries that restrict biodiversity. However, farming methods can also maintain, expand or create habitats, refuges and havens.
New discoveries about insect migration reveal in sharp focus the global nature of our farm environment and the value of maintaining and reinstating good habitat to support this movement of pollinators, plant genes and pest controllers.
We share our farms with insects who live on a continental, even global scale, tied intimately in with the way land is managed across thousands of miles. Nature friendly farming, and the types of farming systems that the Network is trying to encourage and mainstream, play a vital role in helping our insect allies.
For more about work on insect migration, follow the Genetics of Migration Lab on Twitter which has links to public talks and interviews to listen to when relaxing after a hard day, through to scientific papers for a wide-awake moment.
This is science at its relevant best, connecting with the public (and welcoming questions!).
Photo credits: Will Hawkes
About the author, Sarah Hawkes.
My home is in the Ceiriog Valley. I work lambing seasons on a neighbouring farm with 500 ewes. I grew up in rural Somerset where I worked for the Waldegrave Estate in the cheese dairy and farm office before a spell in London. My background includes working with the invertebrates and amphibians at London Zoo, studying natural history with the Open University and a fair bit of travelling looking at amphibian communities in the far east, Australasia and NW England.
Welcome to the first ever NFFN Wales blog! As a steering group we thought a monthly blog would be a good way of keeping members in touch with what we are up to on our farms and our thoughts on current political events that will affect the future of farming.
I am Hilary Kehoe, the NFFN Chair for Wales so I’m starting things off with an introduction to my farm in North Wales, why nature is so important for farming and food production and why we need a new agriculture policy that rewards nature friendly farming.
The Family Farm
My husband and I manage Tyddyn Isaf, which overlooks the Menai Straits near Bethesda. We have mountain rights on Llanllechid common for our Welsh Hill flock and graze our Highland and Belted Galloway cattle and Manx Loughton sheep on nature reserves from Pwllheli to Bangor, Anglesey and the coast below the farm. We also run a countryside contracting business with two of our grown-up children which incorporates our grazing livestock into management of the nature reserves for the Wildlife Trust, Local Councils and holiday parks.
With the right grazing our animals create conditions for a range of species and habitats such as grassland waxcap fungi, breeding waders, leeches, wildflower meadows, wetlands, sand dunes and heathland. The sheep and cattle are finished slowly and are marketed through local butchers or as premium meat through local sales. Although we are not registered as organic the farm is run on organic principles with no fertiliser, herbicides or pesticides used.
Nature Friendly Farming Benefits
Although it’s been awfully dry recently, we find that the deep-rooted native plants in our species rich grasslands help the land withstand the dry weather, whilst more intensive ryegrass fields get burnt off. The wide variety of herbs growing in species rich swards also control worms, which we only treat for after testing the animal’s dung. This also makes for better tasting meat! The wide variety of herbs in our grassland and wild lands increases the omega 3 and linoleic acid in the meat which enhances its flavour.
Plenty of tall trees in our hedgerows (which we manage on a 3-year rotation) provide shelter from the sun and bad weather. The healthy soils, hedges and trees on the farm also sequester carbon, absorb water and reduce flooding. For us, nature friendly farming just makes sense. As the UN stated in their recent report on Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture;
“Biodiversity makes production systems and livelihoods more resilient to shocks and stresses, including to the effects of climate change.”
As you can see, our family is passionate about our way of farming with wildlife. Even though there is a lot of cattle herding and boggy tiptoeing involved, we can see the benefits around us and delight in watching for the latest earthtongue fungi, flowering orchid or lapwing chicks. It is great on the nature reserves to engage with visitors and explain why the animals are there and what they are achieving. (They can also be helpful in locating the odd lost cow!)
Everyone can play a part
All farms, whatever their system, can be nature friendly – whether it is by creating wider headlands for wildflowers and connectivity for voles, bats and birds; planting a wider mix of species into productive grasslands, or planting copses and managing hedgerows in a more wildlife friendly way. Small changes can be great for nature with minimal effect to the farm, and often yield unexpected improvements to farm performance. Have I piqued your curiosity? If so, click here for advice on Nature Friendly Farming.
A new Farming Policy
Whilst the UK Government is developing an Agricultural Bill, the Welsh Government is also busy developing its own farming policy for Wales. Without thriving biodiversity, the ability of our land to keep producing food is under increasing threat, so this is a great opportunity to design a new policy that rewards nature friendly farming that helps maintain and enhance our wildlife and natural environment.
Promoting agroecology, regenerative agriculture, nature friendly faming (whatever you want to call it!) and rewarding farmers for helping nature to thrive, instead of making payments to intensify food production in inefficient and polluting ways, is a better choice for food production, communities and the environment. I feel very strongly that we must work together as nature friendly farmers with local people and organisations to encourage the UK and devolved Governments to support farmers to work with nature, rather than against it – before it’s too late.
Your support is vital in order to achieve this change. If you’re passionate about farming and nature, then why not join the Nature Friendly Farming Network? You can sign up as a farmer or a nature lover (for free!). Every voice counts.