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Follow us for updates of life, food & wildlife on the farm here in the Lower Derwent Valley, Yorkshire.

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, May 15 2017 10:43PM

The week started on an enormous nature-high for us here at Rosewood. The biggest breakthrough yet in our entire time here; an unexpected vindication that we were correct in our hunch that ditching the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which in theory paid us to do better things for nature, was the right decision.

Elsewhere, things aren’t going so well as two pieces of news show. The first story made The Times when People Need Nature founder Miles King flagged up the destruction of a piece of precious chalk downland grass - the stuff that’s famous for its rare and delicate butterflies and flowers. It was sprayed and reseeded with a far less diverse grass mixture that will feed livestock better, but can’t ever hope to play host to said butterflies.

The news has reached the national press!
The news has reached the national press!

This isn’t unusual of course, as the second story showed - the much less widely reported output from the Organic Research Centre which spoke of the abandonment by farmers of High Nature Value (HNV) grasslands [pdf] over the next five years. I almost spat my tea out when I read that, as I have been witnessing and talking about this exodus for the last five years! We’ve already lost 97% of our unimproved grasslands but it’s just not as newsworthy to neglect them as to spray and grub them up, so few notice the loss.

High Nature Value grasslands are pretty self explanatory, they provide a lot of nature bang for your buck….the trouble is, they don’t provide much buck for your bang! They’ve been around for a few thousand years though, what’s changed? My answer would be that there’s a piece of the puzzle missing - you guys! In the past, these grasslands fed us, they produced our beef, cheese, woollens and mutton, making a good stab at providing a good portion of our diet and clothing. They were important to all of us.

Moving away from these old fashioned products made a lot of money for importers, oil companies and so forth, but the loss of the old grasslands was noticed, you can rest assured. The government and conservation bodies have tried to plug the gap left by consumers by subsidising these grasslands, giving farmers money to keep them going - so long as we stuck to the rules, we could have some money. I think after about 20yrs of that though we’re finally realising it hasn’t worked. We can come up with complex reasoning about it but basically, we’ve run out of money. The taxpayer can’t afford to buy food AND keep throwing money at keeping all these habitats going, not with the NHS buckling under pressure and economies slowing down and so on aswell.

So why not put them back together? Food and conservation? Our grasslands are lost without you!

In 2013, we didn’t renew our Countryside Stewardship Scheme when it ended, and we didn’t replace it with any other subsidy. Our home land at Rosewood is not under any protection and is now not subsidised either, we’re totally reliant on you. Under the scheme, we had to stick to a hard and fast rule of not grazing before a certain date in the year. We had been chafing against this for a few years but still, we were hesitant to graze any earlier even after it ended - we’re supposed to be nature farmers and it felt naughty, even though we know our grazing system is gentle on the land. This year, we finally plucked up the courage and grazed the land concerned unprecedentedly early, and due to the size of our herd, we were able to graze it quickly, 100 Dexter cows getting 20 acres trimmed, fertilised by dung and moistened by pee in a matter of days.

1% of the UK population of Whimbrels on a single field
1% of the UK population of Whimbrels on a single field

And what happened? That nature high I was talking about. The whimbrels came. Whimbrels are a red list species, they’re like a smaller version of the curlew and pass through on their way to Iceland from Africa every year. We know they visit the nature reserve we graze and that they are extremely fussy about where they eat and frankly, it wasn’t even on our radar that they would come to us - we have never even laid eyes on one on the reserve - so we were bowled over to spot 31, a full 1% of the passage population, poking about among the cowpats on our land.

Or should that be your land? Because let’s face it, one day, no matter how rich we might be, our grip on the land will loosen and we’ll be gone forever. The land will remain, and if it keeps its value to the public the incentive will be there for some other human to come along and keep doing what we did, and the whimbrels can keep coming. When a farmer sprays off some HNV grassland, he’s not acting alone.

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