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Rethink Farming - Sorcha Lewis

Sorcha farms within a conventionally managed landscape at Troedrhiwdrain in Wales. As upland farmers, Sorcha, and her husband, Brian, farm with nature to retain a traditional balance and to support biodiversity across their farm.

Key Facts:

  • After periods where the cattle are removed from the meadows, their livestock is returned to sites where they can help manage habitat for wildlife, including grazing Molinia grass which out-competes important grassland flowers.
  • Some of their nature-friendly approaches include adopting sustainable stocking rates, creating a pond, lowering inputs (including using bracken as bedding for stock and poultry, so they negate the need for straw or hay), and installing bird and bat boxes. The species benefitting from their approach includes ring ouzel, golden plover, small heath butterfly, tormentil mining bee, water vole, cuckoos and curlew, among many more.
  • They use organic manure on meadows in low quantities, manage traditional hay meadows (some a Site of Special Scientific Interest) with sensitive grazing and cutting schedules, retain rhos pasture (wet grassland), and plant ffridd trees as shelter for livestock, choosing local tree species that provide habitat and forage for birds, including rare upland invertebrates such as the Welsh clearwing moth.

“Embracing biodiversity means we retain the traditional balance between farming and nature. We play our part in combating climate change while enhancing our business and we’re able to share this with the public who come to visit and enjoy some of the precious species that can be found in an upland landscape.”

 

Why is biodiversity important to you as a farmer?

The Welsh uplands have been shaped over aeons by livestock. Many of our littler hardy Welsh Mountain sheep can be traced to the time of the Cistercian monks that farmed this landscape in harmony. Achieving this balance where nature is able to thrive is important as it provides so many benefits to society and we hope by showing the results on the ground this will help to encourage a more positive view of upland habitats and the part communities play in producing good quality slow grown food and have a positive role to play and continue to protect the environment.

How do you deliver for biodiversity on your farm?

We use only organic manure on the meadows in low quantities, managing traditional hay meadows (some a Site of Special Scientific Interest) through grazing and cutting at sympathetic cutting dates. We retain rhos (wet grassland/rush) pasture through appropriate grazing. We plant ffridd trees as shelter for stock, once established, but with tree species of local provenance that provide habitat for nesting birds, food resource for wintering birds and are good for a number of rare upland invertebrates such as the Welsh Clearwing Moth. We link together the landscape with surrounding farms to add connectivity for wildlife. We also plant hedgerows, which are soon to be laid, and manage these in a way that provides a good resource for local wildlife by over nesting and feeding in the autumn and over the winter.

We record the biodiversity and enhance where necessary – we have 20 years of orchid surveys. Understanding the importance of good soil management can encourage a wealth of wildflowers and fungi. The variety of wildflowers is beneficial in winter food for our stock. The meadows feed bugs and beasts over the summer and we can feed the stock on this species-rich mix. The variety of plant species forms a more robust soil structure that is more resilient to extreme weather.

Good grassland management is as important, too. Grasslands have such an important role to play in storing carbon and also providing for biodiversity. We feel by championing all the benefits our meadows have to the farm we can help to inspire others to create and re-establish their old meadows and ensure they are retained as an important part of the Welsh countryside. We have assisted with providing meadows for training courses and advice to groups starting their own meadow projects.

Our meadows run down to the reservoir edge and they help to slow the journey of the rainfall. The buffer between reservoir and meadow is one of the most important places for rare wildflowers and invertebrates for Wales and the UK. These are natural margins that remain uncut which is beneficial for pollinators after main meadows are cut.

The grass can out-compete other grasses and if not managed and flowers can decline, but the cattle can address a balance.

 What are some of the benefits of your approach?

In the short term, most of the approaches of farming in a nature-friendly way is that most of what we need is on the farm and we don’t need to bring things in. We use bracken as bedding for stock and poultry and dogs and we rarely ever have large bales of straw or hay brought in.

Long term, our landscape is highly designated for its importance to wildlife. It’s an extreme landscape shaped by topography and climate. The requirement and skills to live in a landscape like this have been passed on from generation to generation and lessons are passed through in stories from the generations before. Working on the catchment in a countryside management role prior to farming full-time, I noticed that much of the unique biodiversity throughout the 72 square miles I was surveying was on farm holdings. The confines of the environment had ensured that farming and nature had been working together for a long time.

We have been learning the ideal capacity for the number of cattle on the land and this makes the day-to-day management easier and within the constraints of hill life. We have seen benefits in our stock being healthier from reduced stocking numbers and from eating a diverse, herb-rich diet. We don’t suffer from foot rot or disease from holding higher stocking rates. When we introduced our cattle, we saw a huge difference in how they manage the more competitive vegetation, creating the ideal conditions for a diverse range of wildflowers to grow, which supports valuable invertebrates.

With worrying reports, such as the State of Nature report, we could see what had declined in our catchment and what we still had on our farm. Not wanting to add to more negative statistics, we made a commitment to continue to farm within the parameters of nature.

What have been the biggest learnings and challenges in improving biodiversity on your farm?

The biggest learnings have been how our farming methods can impact various species and getting our timings and grazing numbers right when the weather is erratic. The biggest challenges have been trying to access advice, which can be difficult.

I’ve learned a little bare ground isn’t a bad thing. One year I was very stressed about the mud around a cattle trough. Schemes have got you sometimes so tied up into the length of your grass and poaching is not good if you’re having an inspection. But what is the “acceptable” poaching level? However, this year I noticed that the house martins and swallows came around the trough outside the barn to feed on flies and there were lots of bees landing in the area. The martens collected their mud balls and started building a nest on the side of the house. It had been a tough year on their migration and many were killed in Greece by storms. So I have learnt that muddy areas and puddles are just as important.

Top tips?

  • Every farm has the potential to reduce its impact on the environment, as well as having areas that can be placed for nature which will benefit the farm and allow both to thrive. We all have a part to play.
  • Take a step back and look at your farm. What do you need and what can you leave for nature?  How can you connect these areas around the farm or maybe with nearby habitats?
  • Introduce herb-rich species, or if your grassland is improved, introduce herb-rich leys. Have margins for pollinating insects that stock can graze after once you get the cuts done.
  • Manage hedgerows sympathetically or restore old ones. Often I see the mushroom hedges in the countryside forgotten as an asset by the farmer. Hedgerows connect the landscape in such an important way.

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

Rewarding farmers who are delivering government goals for climate and biodiversity
is sensible. Farmers should be paid for this land management, as local knowledge is crucial in supporting any biodiversity recovery. Invest in support to local abattoirs, butcheries and community farm shops, which will put value into nature-friendly food, at the same time as shortening supply chains and reducing mileage.

What would your message be to the public to encourage them to support farmers’ delivery of climate action and nature recovery? 

  • Buy local produce that is fresh and sustainable and seasonal
  • Support the NFFN
  • Join farmers on open days and events to learn more and ask lots of question
  • Support farmers locally that make you proud and spread the word of farming with nature
  • Write to your local MP and ask for nature-friendly farming food to be available on plates in homes, hospitals, schools and supported in retail
All images by Sorcha Lewis