Extracts from a Pasture for Life case study article, written by Fidelity Weston from Romshed Farm
FIDELITY Weston’s Romshed Farm straddles the heavy weald clay and drier Greensand Ridge, just outside Sevenoaks in Kent. The family owns 200 acres and seasonally grazes a further 50 acres or so in the immediate area.
Fidelity moved to Romshed in 1984, farming conventionally with 450 breeding ewes. Then in the year 2000 converted to organic with the Soil Association and reduced the sheep flock to around 150 Lleyn ewes. The family bought in Traditional Hereford cattle and have a suckler herd of 23 cows. They keep the young, finishing them when they are around 30 months old, so have around 60-70 cattle at any one time. Over the years they have also run pigs and poultry.
Fidelity says, “We have always placed biodiversity and conservation at the heart of our farming. Over the years that we’ve been here it is interesting to reflect on what this has meant to us at different times and how our approach has changed, such that it feels like a journey that is never finished.”
The farm is typical of this particular corner of west Kent – small well-hedged fields, heavy clay or poor greensand soils. We have all the typical birds, moths, butterflies, insects, birds, small mammals and fungi associated with this landscape and over the years we have focused on increasing it in every way but particularly on the diversity of our pastures.
In this wooded landscape it is the pastures that need to be encouraged more than anything – semi natural grassland has declined by 97% in the last 50 years with the associated decline of all the species that rely on it.
Over the last 38 years, we have taken specific action to improve the biodiversity. We have changed our mindset and approach to our whole farming system.
A livestock farm of our size is a journey of ups and downs and since those early days we have chased the grants in order to help keep afloat financially and to fulfil our aim of farming for biodiversity.
During the 1990s there was the set aside scheme whereby a percentage of land was put aside not to be farmed. You could also take on someone else’s set aside which we did giving us a large area of land that we did very little to except manage it for nature. It was a large open field and to our joy we had 5-6 pairs of lapwings nesting every year, the peewitting and dive bombing overhead becoming part of the joy of the summer season. There were plenty around then, they were in our neighbours fields and each year we looked forward to them arriving again.
But, it was also at that time that farming practices led to a dramatic decline of 50% across the UK with the greatest decline in the lowlands. Lapwings can now only be found in pockets of farmland across the UK and I believe they will be a sight that will never be seen again at Romshed regardless of how we manage the land. This is the matter of shifting baselines – our children will never value their loss as they never knew their presence. For me, this is a salutary thought.
Seeing what could happen to a field if you stop putting nitrogen or sprays on it opened our eyes to the possibility of converting to organic. When the set aside arrangements came to an end in 2000, the Government gave incentives to convert to organic so we took the opportunity to do just this.
For the first two or three years our hay crop took a nose-dive as the species that responded to nitrogen went backwards and the dormant seedbed of native grass seed took time to take over.
We persevered with encouraging the clovers back into our pastures and before too long our crop was back up to what it had been before and it was full of diversity, most especially in grasses. The fields now have many other species – most notably trefoils and vetches but a whole range of grassland flowers too.
My absolute top favourite is the grass vetchling which jumps out at you with its delicate cerise pink flowers. Our meadows are now awash with lesser stitchwort, knapweed, self heal, yarrow, a variety of trefoils and vetches and an astonishing array of native grasses. These lowland meadows are nowhere near as amazing as the chalk downlands or flood plain meadows but they are still a rarity and need to be encouraged.
It was during this period that the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) assisted us in a programme of hedgerow planting which meant that over 10 years we planted literally tens of thousands of hedging plants, gapping up every single hedge and joining up all our small woodland shaws with hedges so that the rare dormice we had in our woods could travel from one to another.
We have since then laid over 400 metres of hedges, with more to go, and been thrilled to find dormice in these hedges and they are now connected into the wider landscape.
In 2000 we introduced cattle onto the farm having reduced the sheep numbers significantly. We moved to higher level stewardship payments and through this put in 20 acres a year of spring planted cereals. Almost overnight the skylarks appeared, and the linnets and other seed loving birds arrived to enjoy our specially left bird seed margin. It is a thrilling sound to hear them high above the fields but at the same time, our beloved flycatcher which would arrive every spring and nest in a tiny wooden box housing a light sensor by our front door failed to arrive and we have not seen it since.
Also under Countryside Stewardship we established a species rich wildflower meadow with seed from a donor site that matched ours. The seed came with 140 species in it, we now have around 40 species in that field. Over the 15 years it has been in place its diversity has varied enormously with species coming and going according to the season.
We have hosted many meadow events and shared our seed with others. We are now hoping to spread this out further and having some seed back at Romshed from other sites.
The Pasture for Life approach is absolutely key to our biodiversity. If we did not have grazing animals on this farm it would quickly revert to woodland, of which there is so much in the area and our species rich pastures would be lost, along with all the food and habitat for a range of fragile grassland species.
Moreover, we have entered a new phase in our management and thinking and are now moving our animals regularly and feeding them with species rich hay outside over winter with huge consequences for the introduction of species to all parts of the farm. We can see the positive impact in such a short time.
We have entered a new Higher Tier CSS and are restoring another 5ha of species rich wildflower rich meadow. We have got electric fencing installed to fence off hedges and areas of woodlands, enabling the very important scrub to come back to the field margins but just as important putting in an infrastructure to the farm that will enable us to extend our rotational grazing so our cattle and sheep can quickly graze an area and move on. This keeps the land open and allows for grassland species to thrive but also gives the pasture time to recover, fully set seed if necessary and keep the biodiversity growing and enhancing.