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By Rosewood Farm, Apr 21 2019 08:47AM

It was on the 25th March this year when I noticed, via Twitter, that a farm in Wales had begun mowing organic grass for silage. If you’re not familiar with the farming calendar, that’s very early, and with our focus on ground nesting birds I shared the news to point out that often the increase in birds of prey is blamed for the Curlew being in trouble, but in fact one of the greatest threats to the birds come from more intensive land use, mechanisation and earlier cutting of grass for silage, which was certainly the case for the demise of the Corncrake. The fact that the land in this case was organic, often regarded as being ‘good’ for wildlife, was a strange juxtaposition for me as a strong advocate for organic methods in farming!

There are, of course, almost as many factors in the decline of wading birds as there are opinions about them, and many of them will be discussed today on World Curlew Day but for the purposes of this article I’m going to concentrate on how we might modernise farm mechanisation to avoid killing off the Curlew.

We aim to avoid harming ground nesting birds here, including not mowing grass until much later in the season, but then we are blessed with having retained far more wildlife in the Yorkshire Ings. This makes us very aware that we could be responsible for wiping out the last of these iconic birds in England if we are not careful to avoid the mistakes of the past, for which we now have the benefit of hindsight.

Rosewood may seem like a special place, nestled in a landscape that time forgot, but change has happened here as much as anywhere else. We’re a commercial farm and we don’t receive any environmental payments from the government so all the work we do must be paid for by food production. The thing that makes Rosewood different is that we’ve set out with the intention of changing the food market to suit a wildlife friendly style of farming rather than changing our farming to suit the market.

We do still need to use machinery at Rosewood though, without which the farm would be neither physically nor financially sustainable. We aim to minimise machinery use as far as practical but with high wages and living costs in modern Britain we simply wouldn’t be able to manage the acreage needed to survive without a tractor. The farming of yesteryear involved a lot less machinery and a lot more people working on the land - between 1945 & 1997 the number of labourers working the land fell by 77% (Newton, 2017). This almost as stark a drop as 97% of our traditional wildflower meadows disappearing over a similar timeframe.

Why there are so few people working in agriculture today, like the reason why there are so few wildflower meadows, comes down to economics. Farming is a numbers game like any other and the less money you receive per unit of produce, the less you can spend on paying wages and taking care of wildlife, to balance this out, to a degree, cutting costs usually goes hand in hand with selling more which can, but doesn’t have to, have a detrimental effect upon wildlife.

Haymaking in the Ings, 1930s (Ralston, 2005)
Haymaking in the Ings, 1930s (Ralston, 2005)

Two world wars were a catalyst for change in UK agriculture - heavy losses in the Great War significantly reduced the number of men (and horses) available to work the land by 1918. During the Second World War farmers were called upon to use the most modern machinery to plough every bit of available ground to maximise food production & avoid starvation due to sinking of the merchant shipping that brought much of our food into the country. This even lead to attempts to grow carrots in parts of the flood-prone Ings, with predictably disastrous results and long last effects upon the biodiversity of the pasture. Blaming today’s farmers for these two events is ludicrous but often what’s seen an uncaring attitude towards nature stems from the multigenerational effects of those significant past events.

At Rosewood we are no more immune from these pressures than any other farm - I’m pleased to say that 2019 has got off to a good start for us as more people are actively looking for food that benefits their own health and that of the Yorkshire Ings so we’re busier than ever. But every silver lining has a cloud and over the past 12 months we’ve had to consider how to make best use of our time on the farm in order to achieve more output without harming our core principles.

In an ideal world we’d simply turn back the clock to how the Ings were managed for the majority of their history, cutting the grass by scythe & moving the hay by ox-cart, but the money needed to employ enough people at today’s cost of living would eliminate any revenue from food sales. The cattle naturally harvest their own grass in summer but simply leaving them to graze the meadows year round is impossible due to extensive flooding in winter. Many species of wildlife, birds in particular, thrive where they have a variety of different habitats for different needs such as feeding and breeding, so the annual hay cut is an integral part of keeping the Ings in top condition.

While some forms of mechanisation, such as the earlier mowing mentioned above, can be devastating for wildlife, others, like our ‘new’ bale shredder, has freed up significant amounts of time spent on menial tasks like forking hay with negligible effects upon wildlife. It is these kind of tasks we focus on to give us more time for tasks like checking the cattle, improving habitats and packing orders.

Not all mechanisation is bad for wildlife - the bale feeder at work
Not all mechanisation is bad for wildlife - the bale feeder at work

In the book ‘Wealth of Nations’ eighteenth century economist & philosopher Adam Smith extolled the virtues of the division of labour using the example of a pin factory to demonstrate that a great loss in productivity lay in ‘passing from one species of work to another’. Smith was less than convinced that his pin factory could be applied to farming but as we found when operating a single tractor, a great deal of unproductive time is lost in the simplest of tasks. Hitching and unhitching the bale feeder for loading, was actually taking longer than the machine was operating so our decision to invest in a second tractor this year has, counter intuitively, actually reduced our machinery & fuel use! During the summer, we’re also operating across several sites in the Yorkshire Ings, so machinery movements will now be reduced, which all helps us to avoid having to change in-field operations that may harm the birds, such as faster and earlier mowing.

Many farmers worry that wildlife friendly farming means turning back the clock to a long lost, less productive era, full of back breaking work and inefficient methods. The Farmers' Union of Wales recently said that ‘nature should not be prioritised at the expense of the rural economy’ but balancing the needs of wildlife in a thriving countryside needn’t involve consigning the Curlew, nor the tractor, to the history books.


Newton, I. (2017) Farming and Birds. London: Harper Collins Publishers

Ralston, C.S. (2005) Birds of the Lower Derwent Valley. York: Natural England

Smith, A. (2012) An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Ltd

By Rosewood Farm, Jan 13 2019 12:49AM

Happy New Year!

Once again another year has passed and guilt has transcended across the nation with people regretting overindulgence over the Christmas period by partaking in a different kind of unsustainability - the post Christmas lull where we forget to eat properly, or at all.

One group of people who don’t have that luxury of choice at this, or any, time of year are the homeless. As you may have read in my blog from earlier this year I’m keen to highlight the housing crisis problem across the countryside and the effect this is having upon sustainable food & farming. However, the problem is even more acute in our cities.

We’ve strived for many years to keep our costs and prices low at Rosewood to ensure that sustainably produced, wildlife-friendly organic meat isn’t the preserve of the wealthy and that everyone can enjoy the benefits of a high quality diet. This includes not wasting vast amounts of money on fancy (and unnecessary) packaging or expensive marketing but there’s only so far you can take this without sacrificing the business and your own wellbeing.

Kitchen for Everyone, York; providing meals for the vulnerable & homeless
Kitchen for Everyone, York; providing meals for the vulnerable & homeless

When you’re in a vulnerable position not being able to buy food, however, is just a small part of the overall problem - without the knowledge and facilities to store & prepare fresh food your options are severely limited making a healthy, balanced diet impossible to achieve. For many years it’s concerned me that we couldn’t do more to help as changing eating habits have seen us selling fewer of the roasting joints and more steaks and mince. You cannot just produce steaks on demand without utilising the whole animal so this can be a limiting factor, particularly for small farms such as ours. This is known in the trade as maintaining ‘carcass balance’, and whilst larger processors can easily divert excesses into manufacturing or export markets, smaller farm shops and butchers have limited options.

In the Yorkshire Ings the traditionally managed floodplain meadows were also suffering biodiversity declines due to an overall reduction in cattle grazing. Our little Dexters are the perfect size to graze the damp grasslands without damaging these sensitive habitats but the supermarket driven food system has increased the size of cattle leaving processors paying next to nothing for small carcasses. Undergrazing in the Ings wasn’t only reducing the quality of the meadows and the wildlife they support but also represented a huge waste of food that could/should feed people efficiently, as it has done for thousands of years.

The idea of cooking up the surplus joints and providing homeless folk with a decent meal appealed strongly to us but it was also frustrating as we lacked both the time and investment to do what was badly needed. It’s an issue that troubles many farmers in the UK - we want to produce food to feed local people, but to do so at a price that people can afford is increasingly difficult. Fortunately I discovered last year that we aren’t alone and the rise in rough sleeping in the nearby city of York prompted a group of dedicated volunteers to start Kitchen for Everyone (KEY) which has grown to expand services to the homeless and vulnerable of the city. I got in touch to find out how we could help and get the beef rolling, so to speak.

The Jersey milk vending machine at Elvington, near York
The Jersey milk vending machine at Elvington, near York

Meanwhile our friends at Greyleys Farm in nearby Elvington have been producing creamy Jersey Milk for over 50 years, and although dairy farms were once a common feature of the Yorkshire Ings, today they are few and far between. In 2017 Greyleys invested in a milk vending machine to offer locals the chance to buy the milk direct from the farm. Situated just outside York, in the village of Elvington, just yards away from where the cows graze from Spring through to Autumn, people come from all over Yorkshire to buy the milk. As we were passing we decided to offer our customers in York and the surrounding area a delivery service along with our meat boxes, cutting down on food miles & save them a trip out of the city. When I mentioned KEY to Helen at Greyleys she was keen to help and immediately offered to send a regular supply of milk every week.

I wanted to the same with the meat but although raising our prices was one way to fund a regular donation I didn’t want to put more pressure on our regular customers family food budgets. I knew that our customers would like to support giving more people the opportunity to eat sustainably so I have started to offer ‘KEY vouchers’. You can now buy these vouchers along with one of our meat boxes and as soon as we have enough vouchers to make up a box we’ll deliver it direct to KEY!

Kitchen for Everyone serves 60 meals twice every week
Kitchen for Everyone serves 60 meals twice every week

We hope you’ll also support KEY directly via the website and ‘like’ their Facebook page too - while many people will have already ditched their resolutions by the end of January, these guys are there throughout the year.

By Rosewood Farm, Aug 21 2018 12:57AM

Overgrazing is one of those words I’m hearing more & more as time goes on, and it’s begun to make me cringe every time I hear it. It’s a popular criticism of livestock farming but it’s overuse seems to have changed the meaning of the word towards any land management that is less than optimal for wildlife. In recent months I’ve seen ‘overgrazing’ used to refer to everything from severely undergrazed pastures to land that wasn’t grazed at all.

Of course the obvious solution would appear to be to graze fewer and fewer animals on the land. While this may achieve some objectives, such as succession to scrub and then eventually woodland, it doesn’t necessarily help us to conserve a variety of habitats, like the species-rich grasslands of the Yorkshire Ings, in good condition. In fact it creates the need for increased human involvement with tractors and pesticides replacing the animals to create a poor imitation of the grazed landscape that many wild plants, birds and mammals have come to depend upon.

'Sheepwrecked'; undergrazing by sheep resulted in growth suppression
'Sheepwrecked'; undergrazing by sheep resulted in growth suppression

When I say that we need more animals grazing the Ings to better manage the grasslands it often invokes lengthy justification of why animals are destroying the planet, starting with the notion of ‘overgrazing’. Usually it is not over-grazing so much as inappropriate-grazing management that cause problems. Focussing on numbers or stocking-rates really takes the onus off the management of those animals, making it possible to describe grazing practises in an easy, formulaic, but ultimately counterproductive, way.

Reducing grazing to a simple numbers-game ignores the many different variables relating to the land, seasons, climate and the animals themselves. The scientific method is useful in so much as it informs and influences our decisions, but on a day-to-day basis there are many thousands of tiny observations being made regarding the effect grazing animals are having upon the land, vegetation and wildlife that using science in isolation becomes cumbersome and overly focussed on certain aspects, such as numbers of livestock.

Naturally, as a grazier I would say that though, it’s in my best interests to keep animals on the land and not have my job outsourced to a central database. In truth, riding around the Ings in a tractor cab, out of the elements with a ‘machine’ that can be turned off at the end of the day and put away overnight/for winter is actually very appealing. Given the current trends in income from livestock farming there is little financial incentive left in grazing livestock at all, hence the declines seen in recent years.

However, it wasn’t always this way, 160 years ago the Ings were described as;

By contrast, the thin, chalky soils of the nearby Yorkshire Wolds were considered too poor for continuous cropping and sheep were employed to build fertility on an ‘outfield’ pasture for 5 - 7 years before being ploughed to plant a crop under the pre-enclosure open field farming system. Meanwhile the manure from domestic stock was used to fertilise & farm more intensively on the ‘infield’. Hay meadows in the Wolds were in short supply so some of the excess hay crop of the Ings would have found it’s way to the Wolds for feeding the beast that pulled the ploughs.

Today those fortunes appear to have reversed with vast tracts of the Wolds never seeing livestock but coming under the plough continuously. At the same time the fertile Ings lay under used and under appreciated by many modern farmers. So what’s changed?

Without doubt the most notable change has been the transition from Oxen, via Horses, to Tractors, which had a two-fold effect. Firstly, relying upon animals to till the land, meadows literally powered cultivation. By harvesting energy from the sun, grasslands were essential to turn solar power into traction to pull the plough but the move to tractors released many acres of meadow for other uses.

Ploughing on the Yorkshire Wolds
Ploughing on the Yorkshire Wolds

Photo credit

Secondly, the outfields of the Wolds built fertility with livestock until such time as it was worth going to the effort of planting a crop. Turning over the earth is a high energy ordeal and demands a high-output to justify it. Lacking the fertility provided by flooding, these were the original marginal lands but with the advent of synthetic fertilisers Wold farmers could regularly and predictably make it worth cropping the chalky hills.

These two factors seriously reduced the amount of grazing land required and increased the croppable area too. The transition of the Wolds largely from pasture to cultivation also had a devastating effect upon it’s wildlife. Birds and mammals that had previously enjoyed up to six years of undisturbed pasture found themselves competing with crops on an annual basis.

The common thread running through this agricultural revolution was Oil. The discovery of fossil fuels had kick started an increase in demand for food with industrial towns growing on the back of coal but fossil fuels were slow to power similar increases in the supply of food. It wasn’t until we worked out how to use Oil & Natural Gas that we could power the advance of agriculture to become (almost) completely non-dependent upon livestock.

This was achieved after German chemists Fritz Haber & Carl Bosch developed the high-energy Haber-Bosch Process in the early 20th century to ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air into a form useable as fertiliser. While this replaced animal manures & legumes as a source of fertility the development of the internal combustion engine and mass production of tractors by both Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson paved the way for the modern farming as we know it today. Together these two innovations, along with a multitude of others, have speeded up the pace of agriculture, allowing us to ‘borrow’ fertility from the past, via the carbon stores locked up millions of year ago in oil & gas to increase output over such a short space of time. This has mirrored the decline of both grazing and wildlife in the UK, as each has lost their value in a world that grows too fast.

The Yorkshire Ings - flooded with fertility
The Yorkshire Ings - flooded with fertility

Photo credit

The irony of the notion that we overgraze in a bid to produce more food is that it results in the exact opposite. A heavily grazed pasture lacks the means for a productive crop - even if you do fertilise it, it lacks the leaf area to harvest the sun’s energy and the organic matter to preserve precious water. Undergrazing is no more productive either as the pasture reaches a point where the taller, untrodden grasses shade out any chances of fresh, new growth.

Many people say that we can’t possibly ‘feed the world’ with meat from grazing animals, but right now I’m just trying to feed my family and preserve some of the last & best remaining floodplain meadow habitat in the country. Grazing more cows on these grasslands isn’t competing for prime farmland so it can only help to feed the world if more of us eat grassfed beef from the Ings. It also feeds a wealth of wildflowers and birds too, which looks (and sounds) pretty awesome to me!

By Rosewood Farm, Jul 16 2018 12:11AM

‘How do we make #farmingwithnature sexy?’ was the question posed by Beki & David of The Horned Beef Company on the ‘Farmers of the UK’ Twitter account last week. It’s not a new question, it has been rumbling around the farming world for some time now as we face the growing dual problems of a difficulty in finding farm staff and the average age of farmers steadily creeping upwards.

The farming press is doing it’s best to paper over the cracks with regular features of smiling young farmers now appearing in the Farmers Guardian with quotes such as ‘it’s hard work but it’s worth it’, but the truth is that it increasingly isn’t worth it. Farming isn’t sexy, it’s not even vaguely attractive to most young (and many older) people today.

There are some material problems in farming and the rural community that stand in the way for both new entrants to the industry and established farmers, but more about those later. First I want to discuss a much bigger issue - that farming has an image problem. No, I’m not talking about the rosy picture painted by supermarkets in their marketing making it looks better than it is, nor am I talking about the critics of farming painting a much darker picture. The problem comes from within the farming industry itself.

Farmers often see themselves as resilient and independant but the industry has more than it’s fair share of depression and suicide. Under increasing pressure to do more for less, market volatility and buyers contracts make it harder than ever for farmers to make a living, but few feel secure enough to be able to speak up. Of course farmers will talk to each other about the weather and the workload, but when they do it’s usually just an opportunity to demonstrate how well you are coping with the situation, not a genuine desire to talk about how you’re feeling. Even when we do come together we’re self-isolating within the social context and as a result mental health problems are rife in the countryside. Farming also comes out tops on rates of physical injury and death, doubling up to be the riskiest business to be in both mentally and physically.

For workers the hours are becoming less unsociable and more unworkable, particularly in the dairy sector. As herd sizes grow roles become harder to fill when staff are expected to start earlier and finish late. This puts further pressure on the available workforce with very few young families able to commit to such roles even with a desire to be working in farming. It’s almost Victorian.

So far so bad, it’s not sounding very sexy!

Often technology is blamed for our society becoming less social but the beauty of social media, and particularly Twitter, within farming is that it sparks conversations between people who may never meet in real life but who share the same interests, be that Curlews or combines. Of course there are no guarantees, as you can still hide behind a computer or a phone screen and pretend, but at the same time talking to someone in a similar situation who you know less well is often easier than talking to those closest to you.

Phil Latham; we cannot ignore our financial obligations
Phil Latham; we cannot ignore our financial obligations

So, getting back to the question of how to making farming, particularly farming with nature, sexy? I said at the time;

That response raised a few laughs, but I was serious. I think within that summary I covered all the basic problems of our mental, physical and emotional well being within farming today.

The housing crisis

The Campaign To Protect Rural England says that nearly half of rural households are going to be aged 65 or over by 2039 - we are facing the same problem within rural demographics as we are in the farm workforce. They put this down to a lack of genuinely affordable housing, as I touched upon in a recent blog, housing prices in the Yorkshire Ings have risen sharply whilst wages have remained constant. Many of the houses available locally consist of either smaller properties have been extended or new builds that are too big to start with, putting prices out of range of young people in local employment.

Here at Rosewood we have faced our own issues with housing as there was no farmhouse with the land when we moved here in 2002. A planning policy exists whereby you are allowed to build new properties on farms in the open countryside providing you can satisfy both a functional and a financial test. This involves proving that you a) need to live on site and b) that you have sufficient income to be able to afford to live here, in order to protect the countryside from unsuitable development. The irony is that, in most cases, the only way to meet both these tests is to establish an intensive livestock unit!

In his blog, Miles King recently criticised the Government’s relaxation of the planning laws so that “now you can convert an office into a residential flat without planning permission.” resulting in “Lots of low quality housing”. When our own farm office ticking over the 10 year mark at the end of last year it became eligible to be converted into a dwelling, without a requirement to fulfil the financial need - an absolute lifeline for nature friendly farming. However the planning system could still be significantly improved by recognising the value of non-financial benefits to be gained for allowing appropriate & genuinely affordable rural homes.

It wasn’t until the permission came through from the local council that I realised just how much the lack of a permanent home had affected me over the years. I suddenly felt that a huge pressure had been lifted and I was finally able to talk more about the real reasons that nature friendly farming is starting out on the back foot.

So, I’ve fairly comprehensively picked apart why farming with nature isn’t sexy, but the question was how do we make it so? How do we ensure that young rural folk have a roof over their heads, the money to live and the time to take care of the environment & yet still have enough spare to enjoy both intimacy & family time?

We can waste our time blaming the next generation for not wanting to work hard or for little money, but in doing so we ignore the fact that the goalposts have moved and many young people simply can’t afford to live in the countryside with what’s available to them.

I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful kindred spirit in Natalie who cares passionately for the Ings and it’s wildlife. Nat brought a new perspective and valuable fresh ideas to the area - without her insight we would not have introduced Corncrake Friendly Mowing, nor the identity of what is the Yorkshire Ings itself - a legacy of love and care for this special landscape.

Inspired; Corncrake Friendly Mowing in the Yorkshire Ings
Inspired; Corncrake Friendly Mowing in the Yorkshire Ings

The recent breakdown of my marriage has made me think again about the troubles that farming & wildlife are both facing right now. It’s important that we, working on the front line of conservation, actively engage with and inspire others to care and do something about the declines in both our traditional farming and wildlife. However, our ability to care for nature is not improved by ignoring our own well-being and that of those around us.

Farming & the countryside remains a (relatively) popular for school leavers, with rural colleges expanding, but even 20 years ago, when I was at college, I spoke to an examiner who admitted that we were giving kids false hope as suitable jobs simply weren’t there in the countryside, and it hasn’t got any better today. Many graduates go on to non-countryside related employment, losing the skills we have carefully trained people in.

We cannot rely upon an initial attraction to maintain the long term relationships that are vital for the future of our countryside. It may only take a small amount of investment to keep England’s only natural population of breeding Corncrakes in the Ings, but no amount of money will fill that void when they have gone and to re-establish a breeding population would be both expensive and not guaranteed work. And rural people are no different - we all need suitable habitat maintaining to enable us to stay.

Our problems don’t go away by keeping quiet about them and the public will not support us to do better if we keep insisting that all is well.

As we discuss the future of farm & nature funding we seem to be trying to tackle the symptoms rather than the root cause. The truth is that there are already many passionate young people out there in both conservation and farming who do still think the profession is sexy - they are simply lacking the ability to afford to do it.

Conservation shares many of the same problems with work & housing - the whole of the nature friendly sector shouldn’t need to rely upon the drive and passion of low-paid people and volunteers.

Rather than tackling rural funding problems for housing, farming, conservation and social care separately, perhaps it’s time for a more holistic approach. Let’s not subsidise industry, let’s subsidise people and ensure that those who want to provide all those ‘public goods’ that the market is unwilling or unable to support can do so. This is why I am increasingly thinking that the key to a truly sustainable future lies in a Basic Income for all.

Providing a more secure income would not only benefit farmers directly, but would also allow a more sustainable workforce to exist within the countryside. The current benefits system for out of work people actively discourages the taking on of short term and seasonal work, as well as pushing them towards a more urban centres. Finally, more financial security within urban areas could enable more people to seek out and support both nature and better food, further boosting the rural economy - what's not to love?

If we value people more they will work to produce the food and wildlife that we crave. Now that’s what I call sexy; Nature-Friendly Farming!

By Rosewood Farm, May 30 2018 03:02AM

The Guardian revealed yesterday that 'industrial-scale beef farming comes to the UK', and it's likely that this kind of reporting will lead to some people reducing their consumption of beef - but is that really the best solution?

Scenes like these will no doubt elicit strong feelings from the public about the welfare of animals contained within these 'feedlot' style rearing systems, but I tend to think that everyone is missing a trick. It may be that animals prefer to be in grass fields with hedgerows and trees for shelter, or they may actually enjoy having their food delivered to them in concentrated, grain form. Proponents of more industrial systems like to point to the fact that management can be better on a large farm that is able to monitor animals more closely and even partake in regular veterinary checks to ensure high welfare. As we cannot ask the animals which system they prefer, that argument is likely to run & run.

However, whilst we waste our time debating whether a cow prefer grass or corn, there is another factor that we cannot ignore - the effect that more industrial farming systems have upon our wildlife. Now, I'm a big fan of everyone eating more beef in order to save our wildlife, but I also stress that we need to be sure that the beef we eat does actually help to preserve declining wildflower meadows, and doesn't speed up their decline.

Recently I wrote about the plight of the Curlew, and if you have read the book that I recommended in the blog, Curlew Moon, you will already know about the effect that rapidly intensifying farming is having on birds such as the Curlew & Corncrake over in Ireland. The country the main source of UK beef imports & much of this beef supplies supermarkets & fast food outlets. Figures from the AHDB show that in 2016 the UK imported 263,500 tonnes of beef & veal, a massive 22% of our total consumption!

It's often suggested that increased industrial farming is driven by a greater demand for meat, but when we take a look at the long term figures for the UK we see that each of us are now eating 24% less beef than we were in 1961. Even accounting for the increased population we are still eating 11% less beef as a country. So if we are being told to eat less meat, is this actually contributing to more industrial farming? I think so.

The problem with eating less is that, with lower demand, the price of meat drops and farmers have to produce it ever more cheaply. As identified by The Guardian report, this indutsrialisation is driven by cost, not volume, and the less we eat, the more intensive farming must become to survive, with even less money leftover to make provision for wildlife.

People say to me that farms like Rosewood simply can't produce enough grassfed beef sustainably to feed the world at current levels. My response is always - not if we don't try to! I think that to encourage farmers to produce beef the Rosewood way we need to demand more, not less, grassfed beef. If we can produce it then everyone, including our wildlife, is happy. But what happens if we can't produce that much? Well, the demand would then exceed the supply so the market price is forced up and people eat less as a consequence - it's a real win-win scenario.

Eating less beef may be a consequence of a move to more sustainable production systems, but it is certainly not a prerequisit and buying less does nothing to encourage farmers to change. I also believe it is highly damaging to tell people to eat less because those most receptive to that message are already supporting farms like ours - a double blow on the back of low prices.

Rosewood Farm; when we say 'grassfed' we mean from birth to beef!
Rosewood Farm; when we say 'grassfed' we mean from birth to beef!

As a small farm selling all our own produce we do receive a higher price than if we took our animals to the local livestock market, however we lack the economies of scale that large retailers enjoy. Our customers, too, receive more individual attention, which all comes at an extra cost. I'm pleased to report that our sales are up by 27% year-on-year in 2018 BUT we're also serving more customers with the average spend decreasing which pushes up the cost of selling by one fifth!

I understand that not everyone can afford to eat Rosewood beef every day, but there are a few things you can do to help us out & keep industrial farming at bay;

1. Buy in bulk; the more you spend at once time, the lower our costs

2. Do more home cooking; buying a joint to slice up for sandwiches througout the week - you'll save money and avoid industrially produced meat

3. Return the packaging; not only does reusing our shipping boxes reduce waste, it also saves us money!

4. Share this blog with your friends - word of mouth is our best endorsement, and is our cheapest way to advertise!

Thank you.

By Rosewood Farm, Apr 28 2018 02:21PM

What a week it’s been! It started with the 2018 State of the World’s Birds report highlighting that even familiar birds are now at risk of extinction. Among the many reasons cited for this was agricultural intensification driven by ‘global demand for commodities such as coffee, cocoa, sugar, palm oil and soya’. Also called into question was the widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides, said to have a detrimental impact on seed-eating birds, causing weight loss & also affecting their ability to navigate on migration.

Good news for bees as neonicotinoids are banned
Good news for bees as neonicotinoids are banned

On a more positive note, conservationists universally cheering at the end of the week as the EU voted to ban the outdoor use of neonicotinoids. This was mainly due to the effect they have only both wild and domestic bees, vital pollinators for many of our crops. However the NFU were quick to deny this and declare that the alternative chemical assault they would release would be much worse. Insecticides that don’t harm insects seems highly unlikely to me, however, I have an alternative that is much, much better, but more of that later…

By mid-week Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall started Britain’s Fat Fight by telling us that 2 out of every 3 Brits are now overweight. The culprit, for a change, is sugar, and Hugh challenged us, and the companies who make our breakfast cereals, to use less of it - well done Hugh. As it happens our consumption of sugar has actually reduced by 23% between 1961 - 2011, but the worldwide sugar beet acreage increased by 70% over that time period as we switched from cane to beet sugars. One of the main crops to rely upon neonicotinoid insecticides is, yep, you guessed it; sugar beet.

Unlike sugar, over the last half century our appetite for vegetable oils has almost doubled, largely due to the demonisation of animals fats in dietary recommendations, with crops such as soy and oilseed rape (OSR) taking over to supply the burgeoning veg oil demand. OSR itself represents the predominant source of veg oil for the UK market and it relied heavily upon neonicotinoids, right up until they were banned in the crop by the EU in 2013.

This week was also a celebration of everything beefy for ‘Great British Beef Week’, with the ‘Ladies in Beef’ promoting the health & culinary benefits of including British beef in your diet. At Rosewood we’re also keen to promote the potential environmental & wildlife benefits too, providing you choose the right beef, of course!

It seems that beef has been public enemy number one from all sides; environmental, health and financial, for some time now. Although, no doubt, started with the best of intentions, this is having a devastating effect on the wildlife of landscapes such as the Yorkshire Ings, which evolved over thousands of years, shaped by the symbiotic relationship of wildlife and cattle grazing.

To put all of these figures into a dietary perspective, we may think of roast beef as the quintessential English dish, but we now eat nearly as much veg oil as we do beef, and still more than twice as much sugar!


So, back to that alternative. While we can call on the EU to ban pesticides, and food companies to cut sugar, maybe we should also consider our own influence on changing food & farming methods a little more. Regardless of whether you agree that neonicotinoids are killing our bees, there’s no doubt that many birds rely upon protein-rich insects to successfully rear their young. Finding alternative ways to produce & consume food without insecticides is vital if we want to encourage rich and diverse bird populations. At Rosewood we don’t use any pesticides to grow our grass and that’s one of the reasons why our insects, and birds, flourish as a result.

By Rosewood Farm, Apr 16 2018 02:10PM

So far 2018 has been wet, wet, wet, as was the latter half of 2017 when we lost many acres of grass that either didn’t dry enough to be baled, or never got cut in the first place. The wet conditions also meant that the cows came inside early this winter, munching their way through the forage at an alarming pace; we were hoping for an early turnout - no such luck!

Prolonged Spring rainfall has left the ground saturated, and even farmers on the dry-lands are struggling to establish their crops or let animals out to graze. Here in the wetlands of the Yorkshire Ings thoughts of turning out are still weeks away and we are this week having to muck out the sheds for the second time this winter.

Spring 2018; some grass is growing, but the ground is saturated
Spring 2018; some grass is growing, but the ground is saturated

As disastrous as the wet weather is for farming, one resident that seems to be enjoying it is the Curlew. This family consists of 13 different species, two of which, the Whimbrel and the Eurasian Curlew, visit Rosewood each year to feed and, in the case of the latter, breed. They are the largest of our breeding wading birds, known for their characteristic long, curved beaks, which they use to probe the coastal estuary mudflats & wetlands in search of food. However, elsewhere loss of suitable habitat puts the Curlew in Crisis [pdf].

One woman who has done more than most for the humble Curlew is Mary Colwell, a producer & writer specialising in conservation and the Curlew in particular. In 2016 Mary undertook a 500 mile walk from the West coast of Ireland all the way to the East coast of England, fuelled only by an intense passion and desire to do more for these troubled birds. Curlew Moon, the title of her new book, follows the progress of this inspirational journey for the ‘new moon bird’. Published this week, just ahead of World Curlew Day on 21st April.

Meanwhile, back at Rosewood, ‘our’ Curlews are returning; their calls can be heard frequently overhead as they visit our fields to feed and establish their breeding territories. A combination of loss of habitat elsewhere and the organic wet meadows here means that we are seeing them, and hearing the Curlee-Curlee call, much more often than we used to.

The UK is one of three main breeding grounds of the Eurasian Curlew, and land use changes (drainage of farmland and moorland), along with increased predation, is a major driver of declines in breeding success. Curlews prefer traditional grazed wet grassland on which to breed - grazed so that the nesting birds can easily see approaching predators and wet to enable the newly hatched chicks can find enough food without expending too much energy in searching for it. You’d never fit that huge bill inside an egg so the immature beak requires lots of worms and insects close to the soil surface. The species only lays a single clutch of four eggs each year and the 8-9 weeks weeks it takes for chicks to hatch & fledge is a very risky time for the birds & their nests.

Nationally breeding Curlew numbers have declined in England by almost 50% in the last 20 years but here in Yorkshire Ings area, the Curlew is one bird that is doing well. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been change - fewer nests are found in the protected floodplain meadows of the nature reserve, but numbers on surrounding arable land are growing. This shows the importance of a variety of habitats for the birds to thrive in the countryside and while the nature reserve acts as a safe haven for many species, it’s real value is in helping to repopulate the wider area.

So what can you do to help the Curlew?

1. Well, not everyone has suitable land they can set aside for Curlews, but you can help us to manage our land in the best way by buying our beef.

2. Listen out for the evocative call of the Curlew near you and support farms where they thrive.

3. Spread the word about #WorldCurlewDay on social media, sharing any posts on Facebook & Twitter.

As a thank you for helping us to raise awareness of the Curlew crisis, we have a copy of ‘Curlew Moon’ to give away. Simply 'like' our Facebook page & share the World Curlew Day post by 21st April to enter!

By Rosewood Farm, Apr 1 2018 10:33PM

Taking home the title of Ethical and Green Business of the Year from the Yorkshire Federation of Small Business Awards last month sure to be a highlight of 2018 for us at Rosewood. Win or lose, events like this provide an excellent opportunity to spread the word that the Yorkshire Ings exist and how important it is that they cared for and, most of all, used in order to maintain their special role in the survival of British and migratory wildlife. It was encouraging to receive so much interest in what we are doing from the Yorkshire business community.

Rosewood became the Yorkshire Ethical & Green Business of the Year 2018
Rosewood became the Yorkshire Ethical & Green Business of the Year 2018

If you’re not familiar with the Ings, they are the series of traditionally farmed floodplain meadows along the lower reaches of the River Derwent. Once common throughout the UK, these seasonally inundated wildflower hay meadows have largely been lost due to drainage and development elsewhere in the country. As a result the Yorkshire Ings are a very special haven for a wide variety of rare and threatened plants & animals which has led to this becoming one of the most protected landscapes in Britain.

What the Ings got to do with business?

The Ings were first designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1971 when they were at risk of being drained for cultivation and cropping. The SSSI area was expanded and added to over the years, as well as attracting other legal protections for it’s habitats and wildlife, including becoming a National Nature Reserve and a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance. However, although protected, the meadows continue to rely upon the annual cutting for hay and grazing with cattle & sheep to maintain their unique wildlife value - a role that depends to this day upon the business of farming.

It’s unlikely that the people who originally fought so hard to protect the Ings from more intensive farming could ever have anticipated the need to encourage farmers back to actively manage the land. At the time cattle numbers in the UK were on the up and these rich, fertile floodplains were in strong demand for hay and grazing alike. The biodiversity of the Ings had been created by farming them the same way for generation after generation - the prospect of abandonment seemed unlikely to say the least.

What changed was the economics of farming - grazing cattle on a floodplain is, by it’s very nature, a seasonal practise. You can’t leave cattle on the Ings year round, so maintaining land and buildings off the floodplain for the cattle to retreat to during winter & spring time is essential, and for this you need a prosperous farming business.

The rise of chicken as the meat of choice among the British public put further pressure on the meadows, and with pasture on the high ground increasingly being ploughed up to grow more crops, the cattle were left with nowhere else to go. Many farmers continued to keep some cattle to graze on the Ings during summer, even if it didn’t entirely make financial sense. Although you should farm as though you’ll live forever, none of us do, and the centuries old practise of grazing cattle on the Ings is now coming to an end.

To work out why cattle are now disappearing from the land we have to understand the three costs associated with business; The first, ‘variable’ costs, change with the level of production ie it will cost you twice as much to feed two cows as it does for one. The second, ‘fixed’ costs, largely remain the same regardless of output, for example, if you’re going to mow a meadow you’ll always need a tractor whether the field is 5 acres or ten. The third and final cost is the one that is often forgotten about (particularly in farming) and that is profit. Without profit you can neither pay yourself (nor your staff) a fair wage or reinvest in the infrastructure required to continue in business long term, and this represents a huge issue. With little, if any, returns above the fixed and variable costs, farming can continue in the short term, but the opportunity to maintain the infrastructure necessary to keep cattle on the Ings, such as fencing, has been lost.

Many local farmhouses and barns have subsequently been sold to non-farming residents, as older farmers retire with family unable to continue in the family business. The next generation of potential cattle farmers are faced with a severe lack of suitable housing, both for the animals and the themselves! This became apparent when I realised that local farms were paying the same rate, £10 per hour, as they were sixteen years ago when I quit working to concentrate on Rosewood full-time. I checked with the Land Registry to check what house prices in the region had done over the same period and was shocked to find that they’d risen a massive 259% - no wonder farmers are struggling to recruit staff with young people being forced to leave the area in order to survive.

House Prices v Farm Wages in East Yorkshire 2002 - 18
House Prices v Farm Wages in East Yorkshire 2002 - 18


The focus on preserving a place in the landscape for rare birds to nest is absolutely necessary but in doing so we completely forget to ensure suitable habitat for humans and livestock - both vital components for the future of the Ings. Awards are fantastic, but in order to continue maintaining the land in the traditional manner the rewards must be there.

The business of farming has served us well here for generation upon generation, producing food and a landscape bursting with wildlife, but perhaps it is time to accept that we can no longer rely upon legal protections and farm profits. In the time since the Ings were first designated a special area, once-common wildlife has declined nationally by 50%. Farmers do receive much of the blame for these declines, but it’s important to remember that farming is a business, and it’s entirely influenced what what we all choose to buy and eat.

Snipe; one species of breeding waders that benefit from our cattle grazing
Snipe; one species of breeding waders that benefit from our cattle grazing

The good news is that next month we’re heading down to London for the prestigious national finals of the FSB Celebrating Small Business Awards 2018. With us we’ll be taking the story of the Yorkshire Ings and maybe, just maybe, with the best small business brains in Britain all in one room, we can come up with a new way to keep cattle farming, and the rich diversity of wildlife that it supports, on the floodplain meadows of the greatest landscape you’ve never heard of!

Edited to add;

In case you were wondering London went well, very well, returning home with both a lot more people knowing about the Yorkshire Ings & the title of Ethical & Green Business 2018! Now we've just got to keep farming...

Collecting the award for Ethical & Green Business of the Year 2018!
Collecting the award for Ethical & Green Business of the Year 2018!

By Rosewood Farm, Nov 23 2017 01:46PM

If there's one thing that disgusts me more than environmental damage and animal cruelty, it's the processed food industry taking advantage of these things to feed us rubbish and sell it as a solution to our problems, at an inflated price. This week Joanna Blythman delved into the ingredients list of The Impossible Burger to try to work out exactly what it was made of. And that got me thinking, what if we decided to do the Impossible here at Rosewood Farm?

The Impossible Burger proudly claims, on its website, to be better for the environment because it 'uses 95% less land' than beef. So based upon that 'fact', we've crunched the numbers for our business and realised we could produce the same amount of ‘meat’ as we do now, on just 30 acres! Sounds pretty brilliant eh? Of course, we’d sooner give up meat than abandon the wildlife on some of the most diverse pastures in the country here at Rosewood so the cows (or other more appropriate grazing animals if you wish) would have to stay to graze the nature reserve and retain the boost we’ve seen in biodiversity.

There's only one ingredient in Rosewood burgers - grassfed beef!
There's only one ingredient in Rosewood burgers - grassfed beef!

Things started crumbling for the new Impossible Burger plan when we looked at another of their ‘facts’ though - that the Impossible Burger produces 13% of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) of beef. On 5% of the land. 13% of the emissions, on 5% of the land. So actually, more than double the GHGs of beef production per acre. Add the 95% of GHG emissions still being caused by the cows or wild ruminants which encroached to fill the grazing niche created by the lack of cows, and we have an EXTRA 8% of GHGs being produced. We’ll pass, thanks.

This reminds me of two commonly reported benefits of the world turning to plant crops as our only food source - 1) the reduction of greenhouses gas emissions and 2) global food security. Apparently, according to UN figures farming animals produces 14.5% of all human related emissions which we could eliminate if we just ate the food we feed to animals directly to humans instead. It seems simple - less animals = less greenhouse gasses, right? Wrong.

As Mottet et al discovered, 86% of livestock feeds are not suitable for human consumption at all, leaving a modest 14% that could feed people. Livestock are in fact utilising the waste from human-direct crop production and turning it into human edible food for us. The irony of so many emerging meat & dairy alternative products is that they create by-products that are fed to intensively reared livestock. Copra meal from coconut milk, soya hulls from vegetable oils, almond husks, the list goes on, are all sold back to the meat & dairy industry. I wonder how many people buying these products actually realise that they are subsiding the feed costs of the very industry they usually wish to avoid supporting?

The UN/FAO are tired of being misquoted on this issue, too:

As a farmer, it has always puzzled me as to why anyone would think that it is financially attractive for us to feed animals on crops that we could sell direct to humans.

Livestock don’t currently utilise the waste of livestock production in the UK as they do for crop production - we aren’t feeding butchery trimmings back to pigs and chickens, let alone cows and sheep (thank goodness). Instead, the waste from livestock production makes things like fat/tallow, which goes into our cosmetics and toiletries to name but one use. In crops, the oil we’d make soap out of is the product and generates waste itself, (up to 79% in the case of soy). In livestock, the food is the product and the oil is just the ‘waste’. Cows are really cool that way.

Another Impossible fact that just doesn’t add up is water use. In their recent film Stella McCartney claimed that it takes 2350 litres of fresh water to produce a single beef burger. The reason they attribute so much water to a single burger is that this includes all the water that falls, as rain, on the land that animals inhabit. It doesn’t matter if the water is ‘used’ to grow the crops, drunk by wildlife, is stored in the soil or flows straight into a reservoir, it’s still attributed to beef. Because The Impossible Burger uses less land it is deemed to be ‘responsible’ for less water, even though the water continues to fall on the vacant land. To calculate it in this way has severe implications for the water footprint of our beef, as our fields can be covered with six feet of floodwater in winter!

If we take out the water that remains on the land though, maybe drinking & processing water is still too much? Here at Rosewood we’re charged £1.27 per 1,000 litres by Yorkshire Water which, according to the McCartney figure, would mean each burger would cost us £2.98 in water consumption alone, and we’d only be able to produce 30kg of beef. Given that we sell our burgers for £1.20 each that would represent a net loss of £1.78 for every single one, just in water - that really would be an impossible burger!

In reality we produce much more than just beef burgers here at Rosewood, but let’s assume we didn’t, for the sake of simplicity. At current production levels the entirety of our water supply, including all the water we use domestically, amounts to 60 litres per burger or 1/40th of the amount claimed. At less than 8p per burger that sounds like a much more realistic figure.

Floodplain beef production & floodwater storage go hand-in-hand
Floodplain beef production & floodwater storage go hand-in-hand

Yet again the eco- friendly claims of the Impossible Burger all get a bit muddled, because it uses 74% less water than beef on only 5% of the land this means the Impossible burger has a water footprint 5 times that of beef. Price is important to us at Rosewood - a product can be the most sustainable thing mankind has ever seen but unless most of us can afford it, it’s a waste of space. We price match with supermarkets, thanks to our efficient system which grows cows purely on old pasture that can’t be used to grow crops on, and no middlemen. We had struggled to work out why Impossible Burgers cost, in their own words ‘as much as a high end beef burger’, given they are so supposed to be much more efficient to produce, but if they use five times as much water this might go some way to explaining it.

We’re not sure what kind of profit margin this ‘cost of a high end burger’ leaves for the Impossible Burger company, but we’re a bit worried if it’s a good one. Because that 95% of vacated land starts looking highly vulnerable if it is. What would stop unscrupulous corporations swooping in and serving Impossible Burgers at a vast profit to as many human beings as we could breed to eat them? Not much. If we converted more than 20% of this land to Impossible Burger production, given the 5x higher water footprint, we’d run out of water altogether. And if all of the land was used, we’d be producing an extra 8% GHGs for our troubles.

Luckily, we don’t need to convert to Impossible Burger production. While we do graze a large area of land with our cattle, the time they spend on any given patch of ground is relatively small, ranging from 2-14 days per year. So, in terms of land use over time, Rosewood rotational cattle grazing only uses the land for 3.8% of the time at most, even beating The Impossible Burger’s 5%, with just 20% of its water footprint and 8% less GHGs…

By Rosewood Farm, Aug 28 2017 03:00PM

The Corncrake (Crex crex) was once a common species in the UK and it’s hard to deny that modern farming methods are responsible for pushing the species to the north western fringes of our islands. They spend only the summer months in Western Europe, breeding here before returning to winter in sub-Saharan Africa. They are one of three globally-threatened species identified by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Corncrake (Crex crex); on the verge of extinction by the late 1960's
Corncrake (Crex crex); on the verge of extinction by the late 1960's

A secretive bird, the corncrake is more often heard than it is seen, preferring to creep and hide in long vegetation to avoid danger rather than flying away or crossing open ground. This is particularly the case when nesting or with young chicks that are unable to fly. This characteristic behaviour is the major reason why corncrakes have been so vulnerable to modern farming practises. Traditional hay cutting by scythe would start at one side of the field and continue to the opposite side. This, along with the time taken to mow a meadow, allowed the birds to escape through the uncut crop. Unfortunately the introduction of mechanical mowing, first by horses or oxen, and later the tractor, changed the way meadows were cut with continuous initial mowing around the outside creating open ground and cutting off their escape route.

Further changes included the cutting of meadows creeping forward into June or earlier, particularly as the technology developed to make silage, which requires less continuous dry weather, rather than hay. Although, as their name suggest, corncrakes were once associated with cornfields too, feeding on the seeds & insects in weedy crops, the advent of pesticides completely removed this habitat.

In 1992 a reintroduction programme was started by the RSPB on its reserve in Cambridgeshire. Along with conservation efforts in the Western Isles of Scotland, the numbers rose but their range remains limited. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Ings was the only place in England that managed to hold on to its natural breeding population, despite almost becoming extinct here in the late 1960’s, this has continued to the present day through legal protection of the habitat in the Lower Derwent Valley SPA.

Photo credit: David Hopley
Photo credit: David Hopley

- The photo shows method 1 in the centre with conventional mowing in the two fields to the right of the picture -

Modern day land management presents new threats for the Corncrake which protection alone is unable to address. The loss of cattle farming in Scotland seriously threatens the corncrake recovery and we are now in danger of finally experiencing the same effect here in Yorkshire. Although the birds prefer cover, they favour lighter vegetation that is removed at least annually by either cutting or grazing. Cattle grazing near hay meadows provides areas of longer vegetation for the birds to inhabit between the hay cut and migration. The recent decline of cattle grazing in the valley puts further pressure on the birds.

The good news is that while chick mortality is high, this provides plenty of potential for recovery of numbers by improving survival rates & encouraging fledging of second broods. Our cattle grazing in & surrounding the ings provides some safeguard against habitat loss but as we also manage traditional hay meadows we didn’t want to contribute to their declines. An internet search revealed very little practical advice or experience of ‘corncrake friendly mowing’ (CFM) techniques from anyone who had actually carried it out. All of the available guides contained simplistic diagrams of mowing patterns that didn’t really represent real-world scenarios. It was clear that if farmers like ourselves are to be encouraged to adopt corncrake friendly management then providing practical advice on how to go about it is an absolute necessity, so we decided to document our experiences.

Now, a word of warning to the casual reader who isn’t interested in carrying out CFM themselves- you may want to skip to the end as this is the boring technical bit;

The conventional methods begins by mowing a headland around the perimeter
The conventional methods begins by mowing a headland around the perimeter

We began mowing in mid-july using a four-wheel drive 72hp tractor and offset 1.64m drum mower. The traditional straight lines are easier to set & maintain by using the field edges as a guide when operating machinery. Starting in the middle and working outwards is a tractor driver’s nightmare but this was the first of three techniques we tried in an almost-square field of 12.77 ac (5.17 ha). We marked out a centre point by pacing across the field in a north-south and east-west direction, returning half the way back, then following the opposite trajectory to find where the two points met.

Cutting began by forming a spiral around an initial small square
Cutting began by forming a spiral around an initial small square

Cutting started with three passes on either side of the centre point in straight lines to create a central block of approx 10 m by 10 m. The next pass started on the right and continued around in an anti-clockwise direction and proceeded in a spiral until the edges of the field were reached. On three sides of the field this was reached at the same point, but the remaining side required several more passes. In order to avoid long distances of travel while not mowing, we took the decision to mow in either direction on the corners, returning passes in a clockwise direction requiring driving on the uncut crop. The field margins were cut as a traditional headland in an anticlockwise direction to maintain the uncut margins. The crop was spread after mowing then turned and rowed up conventionally for baling.

Method 1
Method 1

Although cut in a spiral, turning & baling were carried out conventionally
Although cut in a spiral, turning & baling were carried out conventionally

The second method involved a smaller 5.35 ac (2.16 ha) field of almost square shape with some trees and bushes within. Cutting a traditional headland on two opposing sides created an area for turning while the other two margins were kept intact. A mid point was cut between the two headlands forming a central opening followed by passes on either side in each direction. At first this approach involved some tight turns, and ended with some very long turns on the later passes. Although this makes for efficient method for very long, narrow fields, the square shape reduced the turning:mowing ratio to unsustainable levels.

Method 2
Method 2

As per the RSPB guide to CFM a round field containing a central pond or copse is the ideal shape for most efficient mowing but also one of the least likely shapes encountered, so I question its value as an example. Our final field contained a pond close to the margins of the south-eastern corner and was also the most challenging. Beginning by circling the pond in a clockwise direction, followed by subsequent anti-clockwise passes was reminiscent of the first example, however this created a large irregular area on the north & western sides of the field. With a conventional headland created on the western side and the pond margins on which to turn along the eastern side, we proceeded to mow conventionally, subsequently opening up several sections and mowing until a narrow strip was left in each. These were left overnight to give the birds chance to escape to the larger field margins under the cover of darkness.

Method 3
Method 3

This represented the most conventional method and followed a technique suggested by farmers on the Cowal peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Although differing little in terms of time and efficiency compared to conventional mowing, the break in mowing, depending upon the layout of the farm, may not be practical for efficient working. This may be avoided by flushing any birds manually, on foot, before completion of mowing.

Uncut strips were left overnight for corncrakes to disperse before mowing
Uncut strips were left overnight for corncrakes to disperse before mowing

It is commonly accepted that delaying mowing until August negates the need for CFM, giving breeding birds the chance to fledge before mowing commences. However this may not be possible later in the season due to time constraints. Staggering cutting dates also allows for a greater variety of vegetation lengths across breeding habitats, as preferred by post-breeding corncrakes and other ground nesting birds, than clear cutting over a shorter period of time. It is also less desirable for farmers to sit-out periods of favourable haymaking weather whilst awaiting an uncertain August.

Given the small numbers of birds present it is not possible to quantify the effectiveness of either method in terms of chick survival but RSPB figures suggest that survival rates increase from 40 to at least 80% with CFM. However, with knowledge of corncrake behaviour it is reasonable to assume that method 1 gives the greatest opportunity for escape. Whilst this represents a reasonable efficiency compromise, it may be less desirable to tractor drivers having to work in the round. The method is also limited to largely square fields containing few obstacles.

Efficiency of mowing by CFM method
Efficiency of mowing by CFM method

Method 2 is largely only practical for narrow fields, in which case it is likely that efficiency would rise significantly to almost 100% and the method does still provide good opportunity for escape.

In terms of efficiency method 3 seems hard to beat but it does still force corncrakes into an ever-decreasing island of grass and creates open ground, therefore increasing the chances of mortality. Flushing birds on foot before mowing also gives an opportunity to survey numbers for a relatively small decrease in efficiency. In this case 0.5 hours spent flushing would represent 87.5% efficiency.

If the breeding success and spread of corncrakes it is to improve it is important that farmers and land managers are encouraged to consider methods to reduce mortality alongside habitat provision. Any losses in efficiency also represent a financial cost to the farmer which must be taken into consideration otherwise this might lead to further abandonment and loss of favourable corncrake habitat.

UPDATE; Since writing this blog we're pleased to announce that a total of 8 calling males were present in the Ings in 2017 and as a result of the conservation measures this increased to 10 calling males in 2018! You can help us do more to increase England's only naturally occurring population of breeding corncrakes by donating to the Friends of the Lower Derwent Valley.

If you know of any alternative methods or experience of CFM please share & discuss them using the comments below;

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