Rewilding and More

I attended a conference titled ‘Re-wilding Dorset’ last week. I stayed overnight with Bevis Trust Trustee Kate Hall, whose husband Tim is Farm Manager on the Cranbourne Estate. This estate formerly had a shoot based on farmed gamebirds but recently Lord Cranbourne has decided to switch solely to wild indigenous Grey Partridges. Whatever one’s views may be on gamebird shooting, managing land for wild game certainly has knock on benefits for other wildlife. The gamekeepers come down hard on foxes and corvids, allowing many species to flourish with reduced predation pressure. Meanwhile the habitat is managed for partridges with beetle banks, wide fallow strips alongside hedges, and wide bare headlands that allow the young partridges to dry out in the sun. A wet spring with sodden vegetation is deadly for chilling young partridges, and they need plenty of high protein insect food in their early days. These conditions also suit lapwings, which we saw, and maybe – who knows – stone curlews will return. Some of these habitat management techniques were pioneered by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, based on systems used in parts of Europe where game-rearing is not allowed.

The whole Dorset area has gone upmarket, with mums in Range Rovers driving kids to school. So I called in at Ashmore, up on the downs, where I had lived as a child in conditions similar to Bevis, in Richard Jefferies’ book. This too has been twee’d up. It looks beautiful, but the school is long closed and many of the houses are holiday cottages, with big money having taken over the manor houses. The old dewpond in the centre of the village now has neatly mown banks. As a five year old I used to bring the cows up the lane and water them in the pond, before bringing them in for hand milking. One of my first jobs was to collect duck and geese eggs and wash them ready for sale. The geese lived in wooden arks by the pond and were almost taller than me. When I peered into the darkness of the ark I was greeted with a terrifying hiss. After one gander chased me up the hill on my tricycle an old gaffer told me that the best thing to do was to get a big stick and hit him on the head. But I could never get close enough! The churchyard too, where my younger brother had got his head stuck in the railings, has been neatly mowed to a perfect lawn. No room any more for the slow-worms that I used to collect. I looked in the glebe field where my pony Sooty used to live, under the eagle eye of the school mistress, Miss Canavan. There used to be two Guernseys in there and sometimes I would help make the butter in the little cottage across the road. The old folk were only too happy for us energetic youngsters to take a turn on the handle until the butter started to go slap-slap.

The conference was a useful forum for meeting people although much of the content was a little woolly, with people struggling to identify what they meant by ‘re-wilding’. The term has got itself a bad name because there is so much focus on wolves and lynx. While there may be scope for an experimental wolf pack up in remote Allladale, the concept of wolves in England and Wales is not realistic. The pressure on land, and the attitudes of people, could not cope with them. I’m reminded of a CITES conference I attended in Nairobi some years ago, where the British contingent were earnestly banging on about elephant conservation, preaching to the locals. After the session, a delegate from one of the African countries said to me: ‘It’s all very well but we have about 10,000 surplus elephants causing immense damage to the habitats and to the impoverished farmers whose crops are wrecked. Could you take them in Britain?’ I had visions of 10,000 elephants being off-loaded from Heathrow and rampaging down Slough High Street before dispersing across southern Britain. The fact is, we want these charismatic animals, as long as someone else puts up with them. Let’s keep them where they belong – on TV.

So one of the questions I asked at the conference was: How many of the delegates were farmers? It turned out there were three of us, and only one was from Dorset. Had the conference been advertised in the wrong sector? Re-wilding can become hopelessly idealistic unless the people who are responsible for the land are fully engaged from the start. National Trust plans for re-instating parts of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath are great. But as for the private sector, it looks right now as though Lord Cranbourne’s efforts for wild Grey Partridges is the best show in town.



I’m spending far too much time lurking in the bushes by the water with my field-glasses hoping to see a female exposing her nipples. Hang on! It’s not what you’re thinking (those days are well over). The thing is, beavers have their kits about now but for six weeks or so they keep them safely in their burrow or lodge. So the only way to know if they are breeding is to see if the females are lactating. Hence the lurking. Problem is, beavers are not notorious nipple flashers. When they are swimming or on the banks you can only see their backs and you have to wait until one stands up to reach a dangling piece of willow. The other problem is that male and female beavers look the same – you have to squeeze their anal glands to tell them apart. So when my patience is finally rewarded and a beaver stretches up, just because I can’t see any nipples doesn’t mean they don’t have young. I could be looking at a male.
We have three pairs of beavers on the farm and they have to be kept strictly apart because they are very territorial and will have horrendous fights. With a licence in to the Welsh Government to re-introduce beavers in Wales (see ‘Projects’) we will need all the captive-bred beavers we can get, so we are keeping our fingers crossed for some breeding. All three pairs are looking very organised with their burrows and lodges, so I keep my field-glasses at the ready.


Oak Before Ash…

…in for a splash. Ash before oak, in for a soak. So the old rhyme goes. After the wettest winter anyone can remember perhaps we are due a dry summer. We can only hope that we will continue to enjoy ash trees here but we are already seeing signs of ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, formerly called Chalara fraxineus) in some of our younger trees. Diseases such as these are very good reasons to make sure any stock you purchase comes from a reputable home-grown source. Even better, try growing your trees from local seed.

Come what may, at least we will have ash for fire wood for the foreseeable future. In this case, the old saying holds true ‘ash be it wet or ash be it dry is fit for a king to warm his slippers by’.




Farm Payments and More

We’ve just completed our Single Farm Payment application. Some people think farmers are rolling in it, and who knows, maybe the barley barons in the east are doing very well. Here in Wales, the story is very different.

About 15 years or so ago, the farm payments switched from headage payments (paying per head of sheep or cattle on the farm) to area payments (how many hectares are being farmed.) On the retrospective base date that this happened, we had just let out most of our land for grazing tack cattle and for silage and this meant that the payment quotas went to those temporary tenants and none to the farm at all. After a decade of no payments, we decided that we would have to buy quota to farm our own farm. This cost us £37,000.

When you get quota of entitlements to payments you are then subject to a growing handbook of compliances and inspections. This gets more onerous every year.

Last year Rural Payments Wales decided to run the whole process online, even though many Welsh farmers do not have computers or an internet connection. The online system collapsed and they changed back to a paper system a few weeks before the closing date. This year they only accept online applications, which basically means that you have to use an agent, because the whole process is so complex and the penalties for even the smallest errors are onerous. Our NFU agent, Peter Williams, patiently explained all the latest details for us.

The applications are based on maps, that can be seen online but you cannot print them off, so if you have no internet you cannot access them. Previously all updates of the maps were relayed up to Aberystwyth in note form to be entered on the main maps. And the Tir Gofal (stewardship) maps were different to the SFP maps, with different field numbers and habitats categories. So nothing matched. Now at least they are all under one map and can be updated by the farmers themselves.

We were on Tir Gofal for ten years, and under this scheme we had to run down the fertility of some of our fields to promote wild flowers and we were not allowed to mow hay before 15th July. All great stuff in theory. The reality is somewhat different. Wild flowers do not magically appear in fields, all we got was buttercups that the livestock avoid. By July all the seeds of the grasses have dropped so the protein value of the feed is low; all you have left is old dry stalks – basically old rope. And nobody makes hay nowadays anyway, it is all silage. Contractors can be in and out to make silage in three days, whereas hay takes longer to air dry and many years the hay crop failed due to wet weather. Sometimes you could not even burn it. So the only option was to graze those fields all through spring, which defeats the whole object of the exercise. Now Tir Gofal is finished and the fields are back to normal farming, a wasted exercise all round.

The thrust now is to put less funding into farming and more support into conservation. This supposedly is the theory, but it does not translate into reality. Last year we had to map every tree within each field boundary, so that its shade area could be deducted from the claimed field area. What a performance! Then RPW realised that this was simply incentivising farmers to cut down the trees to save their payments, so at the last minute, having done all the work, we were told to abandon it. On our farm, we have planted all the odd corners with trees, and made new woods and ponds. These total 30% of the land area. None of this land is eligible for farm payments. We only get paid for land that is in ‘agricultural condition’. For example, as the best farm in Wales for Brown Hairstreak Butterflies, we have fenced off several hectares for blackthorn for butterflies. As a result we get penalised for this by deducting the area from our farm payments. So the incentive is not to have wildlife but only grass. And our payment is due to halve over the next five years, from £9,437 to £4,737. We get a 25%  ‘greening payment’ on top and this is due to increase over five years. This of course will not persuade the average farmer to become more wildlife friendly.

Fifteen years ago we decided to plant up some areas into new woodlands and applied for a Woodland Grant Scheme. But again, compliance is the name of the game and we ended up with a contractor planting regimented rows of imported ash (which now has ash-dieback disease) and larch (which is subject to Phytopthera.).  Now we are being told to chop it all down and replace with a broad mix of species! We learnt this lesson the hard way and instead we grow our own trees from seed and plant them out randomly, no rows, no monocultures.

But why farm at all? The average Welsh farmer’s wage is about £4.30 per hour for a 60 hour week – no minimum wage for the self-employed. Bottled milk is cheaper than bottled water and dairy farms are going out of business everywhere. Most of our food is imported into UK from other countries that do not have the same welfare standards as us, and whose farming is often at the expense of precious wildlife habitats. Paradoxically land prices have escalated so it is almost impossible to get into farming. The average Welsh farmer is close to retirement. Bovine Tb is now running totally out of control. So we have a perfect storm for farming. Farming is also a multi-skilled job, and most farmers have themselves been brought up on farms. It is not something that you can easily pick up, and even the agricultural colleges are changing most of their courses from agriculture to leisure industry. Once a skilled workforce is lost, it is an uphill struggle to revive it.

The human population is increasing every year. Food demand is increasing but the prices as a percent of income have never been so low. 18% of food is wasted. It is not allowed to be re-cycled for pig food.  Many farm margins are in negative. Wildlife in the farmed landscape is paid lip service only. Farmers are urged to ‘diversify’ which is politic speak for ‘get another job’. We are wrapped up in red tape and sapped of all initiative.

Will Welsh farming go the Monbiot route and become abandoned land, returning to Wild Wood filled with Bison (don’t forget to double ear tag them and get them in for Tb testing)? Or can Wales be self-sufficient for food while at the same time enriching its wildlife heritage? This is what the Bevis Trust is all about.


Habitat Creation

Over the weekend we saw the first dipper on the farm. This engaging little bird was not on our species list and the fact that it has now appeared can most likely be due to the beavers creating the type of habitat favoured by the dipper. We have also had a whimbrel passing through recently, though I don’t think the beavers can take credit for that one.