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By Rosewood Farm, Aug 15 2017 11:45PM

I woke up this morning and stared at the computer screen. There on Twitter was an appeal by the Wildlife Trusts urging us to support the Perry Mead Wildflower Project. I thought about the wording - a phrase I’ve used many times myself over the years, and what it means.

Essentially it is a very dry statistic 97% is almost all of our wildflower meadows, gone. The 1930’s is recent enough to be shocking, but far enough away to be forgotten - you’d need to be at least 83 to remember those days with any certainty. Most people, indeed most farmers, alive today do not have much contact with wildflower meadows - most of our food production seeks to eliminate unwanted ‘weeds’ aka wildflowers, as they are of little [financial] value to the crop.

To myself, however, this figure is shocking, I acutely feel the need to save these meadows for future generations. I sat back and considered why this might be - my immediate thought was that my mind is both logical and scientific. The fact that this blog hasn’t won the prize for the most boring piece of text on the internet is down to my proofreader and biggest critic Nat. She may have an equally logical mind but it is complimented by being visual and linguistic, which takes the dull edge off my writing. So I reconsidered the statement though her eyes and realised that it had nothing to do with the language but my own experience.

Having grown up in the Yorkshire Ings, and subsequent return after brief spells away, I’ve now come to realise that we’ve retained something very special here - our wildlife. We tend to think of ‘wildlife’ as animals, the big game of the African plains or Amazon rainforest, forgetting that it is, or was, all around us. Wild flowers may seem pretty tame next to large carnivores but they are no less important to our overall experience of the countryside and if you no longer see them it is easy to forget that they were ever there. When you visit the Ings you are not only seeing wildflowers, birds and animals, you are stepping back in time to immerse yourself in the sights & sounds that our great grandparents took for granted.

Ragged Robin was once a much more common sight in the meadows of England
Ragged Robin was once a much more common sight in the meadows of England

Later today I sat down again to read an article shared by one of our partners in the Yorkshire Ings, Natural England. The question they were asking was is it ‘time to change how we talk about it to show the love?’ The author of the article was environmental Marmite himself George Monbiot - he doesn’t always get it right, but today was different. The article, Forget ‘the environment’: we need new words to convey life’s wonders is all about the effect of linguistics on our natural world. I couldn’t help but feel that Mr Monbiot has identified a problem that we all need to overcome.

On this note, I was using twitter again the other day to discuss the #EnvironmentalSucess hashtag that has been highlighting the value of British farming to the environment. In response to a tweet about the value of wildflower arable margins I mentioned how nice it would be to see ‘whole fields full of flowers again’. I had meant that I would like to see more wildflowers allowed to flourish within the crop but the farmer mistook my intention as replacing the crop with wildflowers. Again, we had fallen victim to linguistics - I was envisaging making arable crops as biodiverse as our grasslands while he was thinking I wanted to replace his crop with ‘weeds’.

This is a perfect example of what Natural England were referring to when they said;

While Mr Monbiot may not agree with a financial value being placed upon the natural world I can see the need for it.. As recent reports show, the public already vastly overestimate farming incomes (oddly I couldn’t find reference to this in The Guardian newspaper) so there is little wonder that there is an expectation for farmers to deliver more.

Wildlife is an asset to any community and it’s important that those encouraging it to thrive are valued so that they might continue to do so. Many businesses benefit from a community that is rich in wildlife with visitors spending their hard earned cash to experience nature first hand. Property values will reflect their location and local jobs may be created on the back of nature, despite no direct investment in its upkeep.

I can’t help thinking that we waste too much energy disagreeing about language. In a world where costs are high and returns low we, as conservationists and farmers, must have a three-way conversation with the general public so that we may shape our language to better understand one another.

Meanwhile at Rosewood we still struggle to define ourselves - on Facebook we are categorised as an Environmental conservation organisation while Google has us down as a Butchers and Bing has us as a Farmshop. None of the three categories are incorrect, but neither do they give the right impression of who we are or what we do. Farmers is the most accurate term, but at the same time it is the least informative. How do you describe Rosewood to your friends?

By Rosewood Farm, Jun 4 2017 09:54PM

You may remember my blog back in January, detailing my concerns about David Attenborough’s excellent series, Planet Earth II. I also mentioned how we didn’t catch the whole series when aired and I particularly wanted another chance to see my favourite habitat and episode from the whole series; Grasslands. The opportunity came when I selflessly invested in the DVD along with a subscription to BBC Wildlife magazine for my wife’s Christmas present.

Despite working alongside it day in, day out, I much prefer reading all about the wildlife I see right here on my doorstep. The Lower Derwent Valley is home to such a rich diversity of mammal, bird, and insect life as a result of being managed continuously in a very traditional way for more than 1000 years. All of these animals depend upon the flood meadows, pastures and woodlands that make up the most complete example of a semi-natural floodplain ecosystem left in the UK, and I feel that it continues to be a much under-appreciated landscape.

The Yorkshire Ings have some of the finest examples of wildflower meadows
The Yorkshire Ings have some of the finest examples of wildflower meadows

The June edition of Wildlife magazine didn’t disappoint me, with an article by BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham dedicated to wildflower meadows. As Chris says, up to 98% of our natural grasslands have already gone in the space of just 50 years. I highlighted this in my last blog, about how these High Nature Value grasslands are very special. What makes Rosewood Farm extra special is that 95% of the 450 acres we farm are traditional, species-rich meadows.

Meadows are currently missing their champion - both veganism & reduced meat consumption are on trend with many celebrities at the moment and this is bad news for our wildflower meadows and grazing livestock. As a result, with fewer animals on farms, meadows have lost their reason for being and are instead being turned over by the plough to grow the foods that people demand more of.

But why have other farmers given them up?

In tough economic times, farmers have to weigh up the value of the grass produced from these meadows against the cost of time and fuel turning them into hay and grazing them. In better times for farming, more intensive cropping elsewhere may have subsidised, to a degree, the work but now it’s much harder to justify continuing to do something that you know represents an added cost to your business.

A couple of things changed for farmers in the post war years that made mono-cropping easier and altered the fortunes of traditional meadows. The first was the availability of selective herbicides in 1945. You are probably familiar with the most notorious of herbicides - Monsanto’s RoundUp, which kills any plant it touches (unless the plant is genetically modified to withstand it). Instead selective herbicides work by allowing certain plants to be killed whilst leaving the crop unharmed. By eliminating competition from other plants, the crop thrives and any fertilisers applied feed only the crop and not the ‘weeds’.

The plastic perforated drainage pipe killed many a meadow
The plastic perforated drainage pipe killed many a meadow

The second change was the invention of the perforated plastic drainage pipe in the late 1950’s. This made drainage of farmland far cheaper and easier than ever before and as a result land that was once only good for damp-tolerant perennial plants such as grasses can now grow a whole variety of annual cultivated crops.

Continuing with the article, my hopes were built up when I read the line ‘the only way we can hope to preserve these species-rich places is…’. However, hope turned to dismay at an opportunity lost as he continued ‘ visiting and celebrating them’. I’m all for spreading the word about how important grasslands are to wildlife and to us all, but the only way, seriously? I think not. The best way we can preserve meadows in the long term is to maintain their value and continue the traditional use that created them in the first place - with grazing animals.

Breaking with my habit of only reading about our local wildlife, I moved next to another article in the same magazine titled ‘Of Bison & Burgers’, which was all about how the demise of the both the wild bison of North America and the Great Plains on which they grazed. This resonated with me as it sounded very much like the loss of traditional grasslands from the previous article. However, the author of this piece proposed a very different solution for the preservation of wild bison - eating them!

The Ings are Yorkshire’s Great Plains
The Ings are Yorkshire’s Great Plains

I didn’t realise until the very end that I had been reading an article by Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming, but I felt that he had grasped the crux of the problem far better than Chris Packham had. If we are to preserve a landscape, and the wildlife within it, influenced by man for millennia, it is wishful thinking to expect a totally hands-off approach to achieve the same results. This is what they have found in America’s Yellowstone National Park, one of the few remaining places you can still find wild bison, which culls the bison to avoid them becoming over populated and suffering due to lack of grazing.

Philip also highlighted another crucial issue - the fact that whenever a solution like eating wild bison becomes popular, a whole host of cheaper pseudo-versions spring up to take advantage of the ethical reputation of the name without going to the bother of supplying the genuine article. This has happened too in the UK, when ‘grassfed’ beef became the latest ethical cuisine. The problem for the consumer is that 100% grassfed can mean anything from our 1000-year old hay meadows to the latest varieties of mono-cultured ryegrasses sprayed with liquid nitrogen fertiliser and various herbicides to ensure that ‘weeds’ (or wildflowers, as we know them) don’t take hold.

Most marketeers of grassfed meat will wax lyrical about the value of traditional wildflower meadows, but how many actually feed their cattle on them?

Rosewood is all about supplying the genuine article. We have built everything around preserving our local Yorkshire landscape of wildflower meadows by turning back the clock on cattle farming. This starts with breeding cattle of the right size that can traverse the damp ground damaging neither the soils nor the plants. Careful management also ensures that our pastures provide the ideal habitat for insect and birdlife that once existed in abundance, before the advent of pesticides. Our cattle feed only on grasses & wildflowers grown without any artificial fertilisers or pesticides, including our own hay made right here on the farm.

You can celebrate our wildflower meadows and help to keep them alive. Throw a party or go for a picnic but don’t forget that the food on your plate has the biggest impact upon the landscape around you. We’ll happily keep preserving the meadows here at Rosewood for as long as you keep buying the beef.

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