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.
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.
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.
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...