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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.

By Rosewood Farm, Jan 7 2016 11:56PM

This might not be what you were expecting me to blog about this month but when asked (it's one of the unfortunate hazards of being around the sustainable ag community) if I was taking part in veganuary this year, I declined. The #veganuary website asks, Why take part in Veganuary? Well, why not?, so I thought I'd summarise some of the reasons why you too might decide to give it a miss;

1) January is one of the worst months to rely upon plant based foods

Think about it for a second, in conservation, when do we feel the need to feed wildlife most? That's right, winter. Food is in short supply for our wild animals at this time of year and it is during these months that many animals die for lack of sustenance. Humans, on the other hand, have developed sophisticated food production, storage and transport techniques that allow us to eat exactly what we want, when we want it, but this does come at a cost.

2) It's not seasonal

We're always being urged to eat more seasonal food, for a variety of reasons, and it makes sense for us to eat whatever is available in abundance at that particular time of year. Our vegetable crops are at their most naturally productive during summer, so you'd think they'd schedule a month for eating more veg when there is naturally more available, but apparently not.

Image credit;
Image credit;

On the other side we have meat which, as a natural food for humans, would tend to be consumed in greater quantities during winter when alternatives were less available. At the same time, a limited plant based food supply encourages more hunting to protect the valuable crops and stores from all the other creatures that are struggling to survive the winter. The temperatures (usually!) tend to be cooler in winter, which makes for easier preservation and storage of meat too, so if ever there was a time to eat meat, it's now .

4) It drives imports

You may be thinking that the seasons don't apply any longer and we can produce everything we need from plants, in which case have a look at some of the recipes designed to tempt your tastebuds this month. Chickpeas, Coconut, Tomatoes and Tofu - not exactly your usual homegrown favourites from the garden in January, or indeed any time of year for three out of the four. So how far does your meal have to travel to reach you, and is it really ethical to be importing so much water in fresh produce from arid regions?

Image credit; Holy Cow vegan recipes
Image credit; Holy Cow vegan recipes

5) It drives exports

Britain has quite a wet, cold climate that isn't so great for growing annual crops year round, but it is a wonderful climate for grass! About 65% of our agricultural land in the UK is grassland so we are capable of producing a lot of meat at home. The trouble is that we can't just change our land and climate to suit changing diets, so our farmers continue to rely heavily upon livestock to produce edible food. A switch to less meat, particularly in winter, gives them fewer options to continue making a living from the land. One solution is to export what we can produce in order to pay for what we can't.

Exporting food just to import alternatives is hardly sensible, even if you don't care about the environment or animal welfare. We believe that animals should be killed as close to the farm as possible, which is why we use small, local abattoirs, just a stone's throw away from the fields where the animals graze.

6) It's dull

OK, so maybe you don't feel the need to import all your ingredients and already buy everything locally. In the UK that probably means you have a few dried pulses, winter brassicas and selected root vegetables to make a meal from. Far better to give it a go in the summer when there's often a glut of fresh produce available, so much so that we end up feeding the excesses to animals because we can't possibly eat or store it all.

Image source;
Image source;

7) Wildlife suffer

We have a climate suitable for growing grass but we've still lost 97% of our wildflower meadows over the past 100 years. These are important habitats for a wide variety of insects, birds, plants and mammals and often the last haven for biodiversity in otherwise arable landscapes. Our grasslands are very important threatened habitats for winter visitors too, with waterfowl and waders enjoying the seasonally inundated wetlands as safe places to feed and spend the winter. Grasslands have developed over thousands of years of pastoral farming but to date there have been few efforts made by the vegan community to support these habitats.

Winter visitors to the Lower Derwent Valley
Winter visitors to the Lower Derwent Valley

8) Farmers suffer

Farming, particularly with livestock, is a 365 days a year job - animals can't be turned off for a few months. Winter is the most expensive season for farmers, at a time when animals require greater daily care and attention while they are not able to be out grazing. While every farmer needs to make a profit to feed both his/her own family and to reinvest in the business, more often than not it is cashflow, rather than profit, that means a business ceases to trade. With many abattoirs and markets closed over the Christmas period, January is an important time to start selling livestock and produce again.

9) It drives factory farming

A commonly held belief is that reducing the amount of meat we eat is beneficial for animals and ourselves, but as a recent assessment from the US Food & Drug Administration showed, we're eating less meat but using more antibiotics to produce it. By cutting back on consumption there is a negative feedback loop where the farmer receives less money and therefore has to produce more, for less. Most likely the smaller farmers simply have to cease production enabling, larger industrialised units to increase their size & economies of scale.

10) It was very carefully planned to be this way

They were correct, January was the ideal month to capitalise on the post-Christmas lull as both personal finances and mood are at an annual low. It was obviously not chosen to make the most of the wonderful food we can produce seasonally and sustainably in this country.

So, rather than indiscriminately cutting out a whole food group at the worst possible time of year, I urge you to take a look at the food you buy each week and consider just how much you do know about how and where it was produced. All meat and dairy sold in the UK can be traced all the way back to the farm or farms where it was produced, veg and manufactured goods are a little harder to follow. Vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, I challenge you to do this for at least one item of food this week (and don't make it too easy by choosing the last of the winter greens from the garden!). It may not be immediately apparent from the labelling and you might need to ask your suppliers for some more information, but what better way to connect with the food you are eating?

Once you've discovered where your item originates, call or email the farmer to talk and learn about your food. Ask if it would be convenient to visit the farm sometime and really reconnect with it's origins. I hope, for your sake, that this means a short journey into the local countryside, rather than buying a plane ticket to the other side of the world!

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