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 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 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 ‘...by 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!
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.