Pasture for Life case study: Bella Lowes and Mill Barton Farm

Extracts from a Pasture for Life case study article, written by Bella Lowes from Mill Barton Farm

MILL BARTON is a small farm of approximately 100 acres in mid Devon. Not all the land is contiguous: every part of it is going through a different phase of reversion from either intensive high input mono crop grassland, or high input fodder cropping.

Like many farms in this area, we are lucky enough to have deep, generally unspoiled valleys (or goyles), home to closed canopy oak woods, alder and willow scrub, water courses of all shapes and sizes with the associated flora.

We farm to Pasture For Life and organic principles but are not formally accredited with either.

We are in the Culm Measures, meaning there is a seam of clay very close to the surface. Twinned with high rainfall, this area can retain both its water and its nutrients extremely effectively. Temperatures remain fairly mild, with high rainfall and no more than a couple of weeks of frosts. In the summer, we very rarely see temperatures over 30 degrees.

Since moving here in 2003, thousands of native trees have been planted to extend and connect established hedges, copses and woodland. Nearly all of this has succeeded to become healthy semi-mature woodland which we run our cattle through twice a year. There are nearly 6kms of hedgerows, some of which are newly planted and all of which are in a 10 – 20 year cut and lay rotation. Tall, thick, species-rich hedges are such a powerful tool to help mitigate the biodiversity crisis.

In the past couple of years we have dug multiple ponds and shallow scrapes, not only to provide water for our livestock where there are no permanent toughs but also to encourage more aquatic life – certainly dragon flies are an essential predator during fly season. The invertebrate hatches also provide food for swallows, house martins and swifts and in turn, they predate the flies which can become a nuisance to our livestock.

Due to historic land management practices here, the clay is severely compacted in places and has suffered from significant topsoil depletion. However, it is recovering.

In areas which are a few years into their restorative process, we see classic meadow species such as birdsfoot trefoil, lesser trefoil, ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle and red clover, as well as more Culm-specialty species such as common valerian, angelica, hemlock water dropwort, ragged robin and devil’s bit scabious. There is a lot of willow (goat and white), alder and hazel as well as more established oak and beech. The bird life at Mill Barton is also spectacular and we regularly see roe deer and foxes and more sporadically red deer and hares.

All through the spring and summer, the cattle are mob-grazed around the farm: we use single strand poly-wire to place them where we need them. We don’t write a grazing plan because we have learnt that we stray from this almost straight away!

We do aim to leave land for at least 50 days between repeat grazings. Instead of writing a plan, we respond to what we see in front of us: early in the year we need to keep them away from some of the wetter flushes, and later in the year we want to get the sward down really tight to allow us to hand-seed the ground behind them.

We follow the cattle with horses – they cross graze extremely effectively and as a result, our parasitic worm burden is practically zero. We never worm any of our animals unless there is a clear issue, at which point we assess before administration.

High input grassland has pervaded the south west resulting in the near elimination of species-rich swards. Pioneering “weeds” such as docks have proliferated as a result. At Mill Barton we see their role as essential. With very few deep rooting perennials in the sward early in the process, these “weeds” are important nutrient cyclers, essential nutrient-filled forage in the early season and they provide food for birds, caterpillars and other invertebrates.

Over the past couple of springs, which have yielded very little grass growth, the cattle are provided with healthy, tannin rich fodder by leaving the docks, and, even when moved into new paddocks, they will not leave them.

We leave as much standing forage over winter and through the summer as possible. Not only is this important fodder for the cattle that remain outside, but it also provides incredible habitat for invertebrates and over-wintering birds such as snipe and woodcock, which we see and hear from the early evening into the night eating from the dung of the out-wintered cattle.

There is a symbiosis between the birds and the cattle.

Before the swallows arrive in spring, the mob is followed around the farm by wagtails and robins, as well as various corvids who sift through the dung before the soil warms up enough to allow the worms to get active. When the swallows do arrive they forage everyday, without fail, around the cattle.

In late autumn, when the herd is still outside, we occasionally unroll species-rich hay bales from one of the restored meadows on the farm for them to eat. This method has definitely helped a few species encroach into the fields with very low species diversity. We have learnt that one of the best methods of increasing species diversity is long rest periods after hard-grazing (which allows seed fall or provides areas we can seed ourselves).

Moving the cattle everyday, even the ones left out over winter, means that we circumnavigate the farm twice a day, every day.

This allows us to feel the changing seasons and see the micro alterations through the year. Each time we enter an area previously grazed, we look for changes and try to identify patterns – year on year we become more intuitive.

Our long term goal is to increase our herd size in accordance with what the land can support and to keep them in the landscape 365 days a year. To achieve this, we recognise that diversity, in all things, is resilience, and that abundance is a reliable indicator of the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

We recognise the role of large herbivores in the landscape year round as essential: their grazing and browsing habits as well as their herd behaviour, and so we see the beef we produce as a by-product of the essential work that our cattle are doing to restore the land they roam.

Read the complete case study – and others – on the Pasture for Life website

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