Protecting the environment is an important part of how we farm.
It is a double-edged sword; by farming, we degrade the environment but that is true of most modern-day living.
There are nearly 7 billion people in the world and they need to eat so we use the land to produce food to sell and make a living. Or try to.
Let’s bring it back to the farm; we look for ways where we can farm the land and protect the environment.
Growing clover is a good way to do this. Clover fixes atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates by bacteria in its’ root nodes. White clover also helps break up the soil.
Having a good crop rotation improves soil organic matter which is locking up carbon and reduces the amount of sprays used.
Livestock can turn grass, which humans cannot eat, into something they can like meat and milk. Although cattle do produce methane which is a powerful greenhouse gas, milk and meat can be important parts of a balanced diet although we tend to eat too much meat and milk products. Diet is an interesting subject, but not one we are qualified to advise on.
On the farm we farm both food crops and wildlife crops; as there are areas suited to one or other and sometimes both. Where we can grow good crops of grass or cereals we try to do it well. In areas of the farm where the soil is difficult or unsuitable for modern machinery, we work to provide wildlife habitats. When we can we leave grass and clover a bit longer between grazing or cutting so the clover flowers and provides pollen and nectar for long-tongued insects such as bumble bees and butterflies.
We aim the produce different habitats in different areas. There is no single habitat that suits all wildlife. For example; on the south side of a hedge, we establish a flower-rich margin as this would get more sun and produce more nectar and pollen for insects. Whereas on the north side of the hedge which is shaded, we establish a tussocky grass margin which is good for voles and shrews and provides shelter for over-wintering insects.
Some of the environmental work is supported by the government called agri-environmental schemes which pay for some types of habitat management.
20kw of panels were put on the southwest-facing roof of the cow shed
in March 2013. For half the year they produce a good quantity of electricity but once the days shorten the amount falls rapidly. We try to use as much as possible; in summer some is used for milking morning and afternoon and for heating water. Also for grain drying but there is still a lot that is exported to the national grid.
We get paid for what is exported but at a much lower rate than we pay to import electricity, we also get the Feed In Tariff on all we produce and it is this that makes the panels economically viable.
In 2015 we put in a 60kw biomass boiler to heat the farm house, a rented house, the meeting room where visits are hosted and the water for washing the milking equipment.
The boiler burns air dried logs from the woodland. This happens in two stages; the logs burn in an upper chamber and the hot gases are sucked into a lower chamber where more air is blown in and the volatile gases ignited. Then the hot mixture of air and CO2 goes through a heat exchanger and heats the water in a 4000lt buffer tank. This is a fast and furious burn that is very efficient; about 96% of the calorific value of the timber is stored in the water and the flue gases have very few particulates and nitrous oxides. This water is then pumped round to various heat exchangers when heat is required.
We get Renewable Heat Incentives on nearly every kWh (Kilowatt hour) produced.
Our own schemes
We have created a reedbed system to clean or ‘polish’ water draining from outside yards. There is a settling pool where suspended material can drop out of the water then a gravel bed in which common reed grows. The water passing through the gravel and the reeds take up the nutrients and also pass oxygen into the water which allows bacteria the break down the nutrients without depleting the soluble oxygen. The water then goes over a small weir to add more oxygen before joining the ditch.
This has cleaned up the ditch compared to before the Reedbed was put in, in 2002. The settling pool has to be cleaned out and the nutrient rich spoil is spread on the fields. The reeds have to be cleared each year or they would dies and rot and the nutrients would go back into the water.
We are thinking of growing willow instead as it can be harvested and used.
Hedgerow tree pollarding
We have started to pollard, cut off branches about 2m from the ground, some hedgerow trees. At 2m it is too high for livestock to eat the new shoots. From trial and error, we have found that we need to leave one good-sized branch after pollarding to act as a feeder for the tree while it is growing new shoots and leaves. Once these get going the feeder can be cut too.
Pollarding was common practice; in the autumn branches were cut and thrown into fields for livestock to eat to fatten them for the winter. The timber was then used for building, fencing, tool handles or firewood. The pollarded trees then grow more branches and after a period of time, depending on the species of tree and the use for the timber, the process was repeated. Some of the country’s oldest trees are pollards.
We have been managing woodland coups (areas) for many years now.
Coups are coppiced, which is cutting trees off at the ground to harvest the timber and allowing them to re-grow so that after a few years they can be re-cut, much like pollarding. These are smaller timber up to 150mm in diameter. In the past, we have used this material for making charcoal.
Unfortunately, we have had some poor summers for BBQs and most people now have gas BBQs, so demand for charcoal has been poor. But now all the logs are used for the biomass boiler. The coups are rotated around the woodland so there is a varying age structure and areas where all the trees are cleared allowing sunlight to reach the woodland floor and encouraging the ground flora to thrive until the trees grow back but then other areas have been cleared.
The main tree for coppicing is Alder which likes the wet ground of this semi-natural ancient woodland called The Alders. When my father was young, gangs of coppicers would come and cut the alder to make the soles of Lancaster clogs. They moved around the region returning when the alder had re-grown. Alder timber is very chemically resistant and lasts well if fully submerged under water. Alder charcoal is also reputed to make the best gunpowder; little wonder that a large army base is at Aldershot.
Not all the woodland is coppiced much is left to grow standard trees, large trees for timber or veneer with an understorey of hazel.
As well as the Reedbed the farm has 8 other pools which are fenced off from livestock and managed for wildlife.
We have hosted some training for species recorders from Preston Montford field center on water boatmen. The farm has 13 different species, one of which lives entirely in fresh cow pats.
We have also found great crested newts and signs of water vole. It great to have these red-listed species but we now need permission from Natural England to do any management around these pools.