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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

Source


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, 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.



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


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