We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.
There’s an old saying that “the best manure is the farmer’s boot”, meaning that careful and frequent observation of your fields and crops is the key to farming. Every day, come rain or shine, we visit our grazing animals spread around the farm to see them all and make sure they are well. We observe how many are relaxing and chewing the cud, whether they look well-fed and contented or whether they are noisily complaining to us that the grass looks greener in the field next door.
While we’re there, we are also looking at what the grazing is like and deciding which field to move the stock to next, and when. We make plans, but nature doesn’t work to timetables and we need to be ready to respond to the unexpected: fields can be too wet to graze, different plants grow at different speeds around the farm, rare wild flowers bloom at different times, ground-nesting birds choose different places from year to year. Hence you have to take some time to watch what’s happening and make decisions as you go.
Whilst a walker through the farm might witness a serene scene of bucolic idyll, with cows calmly grazing or having a good scratch on a tree, to the farmer it’s more like an orchestra in full swing playing Flight of the Bumblebee and we’re on the conductor’s rostrum – except that nobody gave us a copy of the music for this year’s performance!
Since the beginning of pastoral agriculture this practice of balancing the needs of the livestock with the long-term well-being of the plants they graze and, as a side effect, benefiting all the other flowers, shrubs, birds and bugs that play their parts in the orchestra, has created the varied pattern of herb-rich pastures, scrub and hedgerows. It’s mostly a matter of judgement and timing, and mimics the movements of wild grazing animals, providing varied habitats by grazing unevenly, trampling some plants and opening up bits of soil with their hoof prints to allow long dormant seeds to germinate.
Native grasses and wildflowers thrive on unfertilised ground but most don’t compete well with the more vigorous agricultural grasses, so while ploughing and reseeding or adding fertiliser increases the amount of food for the animals, it also reduces the diversity of the sward. Our animals are able to choose for themselves from the variety available, able to self-medicate or just pick their favourite foods. They grow slower so have longer lives, and of course the meat from grass-fed stock is better for you than that of animals which are intensively reared.
When we started the conservation grazing endeavour at Cogden with the National Trust in 1995, we had the advantage of an open sward with little grazing following five years of rest after chemical intensive arable from the 1960s-1980s. There was a small area in the middle which we thought had been uncultivated since the war, a mosaic of habitats with a flora which justified designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) (an area of national importance, in this case for nature conservation) when they were first created. This has acted as a seed bank and, with judicious use of our Ruby Red North Devon cattle and the native breeds of sheep, we have been able to build a flora and fauna over most of the area which now rivals that in the original fragment and is very beautiful.
If it’s done properly, this work is an orchestra in harmony and very little else is required, but nobody is perfect and now and then some intervention might be required. This is generally to prevent certain weeds dominating or to control the prolific gorse and bramble to keep it palatable to the sheep and ensure there’s a patchwork chorus of shrubs, pasture and trees and not a monotone of grass. Then we need to fire up the tractor or enlist the National Trust’s volunteers. Our flail mower can cope with scrubby species if the ground is not too steep. It’s surprising how precise and observant you can be from the tractor cab, bashing back blackthorn and gorse but lifting the mower over oak or hazel seedlings and recognising the difference between the golden yellow of the valued St. John’s wort and the golden yellow of the invasive fleabane. Of course the volunteers are able to choose very carefully what they remove by hand, shepherded well by the Rangers who are as keen and excited as we are about the flora and fauna. We’d prefer to manage it without these imposed techniques but we like to think that it’s not really our fault; if only mammoths and wisent (European bison) still roamed our landscape this would get taken care of automatically as they crashed through the undergrowth – but then again, that might cause other problems!
The reward for all this careful thought comes especially during summer when the fields are bursting with a whole host of now-rare flowers. Of particular note is the dyers-greenweed with its small spikes of intense yellow flowers like tongues of flame which, along with woad, was hugely important for the dye Lincoln Green. This has spread from a few patches to cover large areas in many fields. Marsh orchids and yellow flag make a stunning show behind the reedbed. Butterflies and skylarks abound. Look down to search for the adder’s tongue fern in the grass or up to catch a glimpse of the peregrine watching you. Stand quietly with the gentle Red Devon cows chewing their cud and thank them for their part in the symphony.