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Rethink Farming - Sam Kenyon

Meet Sam, who farms in Glanllyn Farm in North Wales, producing meat in her lowland farm on the banks of the River Elwy in the Vale of Clwyd. Sam’s 160-acre holding comprises 60-acres of woodland and 55-acres of permanent pasture.

Key facts:

  • Sam’s flood prevention measures are key to climate mitigation and help to protect her local community from the threat of frequent floods
  • Nature-based solutions use the tools that nature already provides to address issues resulting from poor land management in the past
  • Sam has been farming at Glanllyn for five years and has been implementing nature-friendly restoration work for three

“For me, flood prevention is the difference between my business working well or failing.”

 

 

How do you deliver flood prevention on your farm?

Through riverbank restoration work, including stopping stock from accessing the banks and degrading soil and habitat. We have increased the cover of native trees, such as willow and alder, which successfully grow more habitat for wildlife, while improving soil structure through deep roots that hold the soil in place. Using fallen trees to help capture sediment has been a turning point in some areas of the riverbank. Our future plans include the creation of a flood basin – a 27-acre field taken out of conventional crop production and made into an area where flash flood water can be held back. The basin will include a wet woodland area to help catch sediment and to create a more diverse habitat, with a shallow ditch to one corner of the site and floodplain meadow grassland, rich in diverse plant species.

Put simply, if we didn’t work with nature and didn’t try to improve water flow and quality with our “slow the flow” approach, there wouldn’t be much farm – nor access to our woodland – left. The devastation previously caused here by practices that worked against nature has meant the loss of much soil and farm infrastructure (tracks, woodland and livestock fences) so that the farm was becoming unviable.”

What are the benefits?

Benefits were seen within a year. Winter and storms always highlight how well things have worked and I measure our impact by how much farmland is save compared to that which was being lost under the conventional mismanagement. I also measure the impact by how well wildlife survives each flood. We have seen how beneficial our approaches have been for a diverse range of birds nesting here for the first time in over 40 years and some of the species thriving here include kingfishers, pied flycatchers, barn owls, collared doves, hoverflies, bees, bats and more.

“With the lack of financial support and grants available for this kind of vital work to our river valleys, we can only afford to address the worst areas ourselves. It really is a race against time for this farm, and the wildlife that calls it home, and to turn things so it is safe and sustainable.”

There are other areas of field-edge river bank which desperately need work to help save many small aquatic birds, such as the moorhens, who, along with soil at the field’s edge, get washed away with each flood. We need farm grants suited to the practicalities of slowing floodwater using nature-friendly approaches as soon as possible because good riparian works along our river is long overdue.

How do you judge water quality or monitor flood risk improvement?

Water quality visually changes with the seasons. In winter, it is brown with soil. In spring, it is clearer and fresher with meltwater from up in the hills. Summer, it is full of algae. Autumn, it is a mix of these from week-to-week. Our local angling group do monthly surveys for indicator species of water quality here and keep me informed of their findings.

Flood risk improvement is judged by whether the livestock are safe when the river is in flood and whether trees have been washed out or have been managed correctly to keep them holding the bank together. We judge the soil washed away compared to the soil retained in areas where we have carried out restoration.

What have been the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is not giving up and selling up after each winter and letting the problem become someone else’s. Another challenge is trying to educate people that short-term thinking and approaches to land use are devastating our natural environment. The biggest learning has been how quickly nature and climate change are making our landscape uninhabitable – for us and nature, both in and out of the water.

Top tips?

  • Slow the flow
  • Hold water back
  • Learn about soil health, especially without chemical inputs which leak into our groundwater
  • Changing a farming mindset from intensive and nature-exclusive, to regenerative and nature-focused is absolutely necessary for the health and security of future generations
  • Growing crops, trees and habitat can repair a broken water system, but only when it’s the right crops and right trees in the right place, otherwise we will only add to the problem in the long term, not solve it
  • Create a patchwork of mixed crops to help buffer the effects of flooding and also create biodiverse habitats

Our freshwater system is only 3% of the Earth’s water. We need to prioritise solutions to fix our freshwater system, and to be able to live, grow food and support habitat more sustainably within that system. The water within our landscape should be seen as something more precious and providing than it is – not something to drain away as fast as possible so it washes everything out in its path.

What support do you need from the government to continue farming in a nature-friendly way?

An approach to seeing the landscape as a whole, not applying grants to farms that only think of the effects as far as that farm’s boundary. The Sustainable Production Grant, for example, is only really suited to big farms that are able to go more intensive – no matter where they sat within the landscape or at what height above sea level. Schemes shouldn’t be prescriptive and should suit farms in different geographical settings. An upland area scheme should be different to a scheme needed on lowland soils and vice versa.

By not being able to manage our woodland properly for healthy trees, due to prescriptive restrictions by an environmental agency, a flood earlier this year caused a landslide. If we’d been able to reduce the height of all the trees over a certain diameter at breast height we might have been able to save our soil and our woodland access track and stopped young trees from sliding down the bank into the river.

Secondly, encourage the public to buy direct from nature-friendly farmers and offering support for small family farms needs to be prioritised. Rural community matters – we are best placed to use local knowledge to support our natural environment.

What would your message be to the public to encourage them to support nature-friendly farmers? 

Buy local as much as possible and buy direct, where you can, from nature-friendly farmers working on climate change solutions.