Friends of Lambourn Library welcome Rosie Kindersley

On Wednesday 16 November 2022, the Friends of Lambourn Library welcomed Rosie Kindersley, who talked on “Sheepdrove Organic Farm – Farming for Conservation”. Watch the video of her talk or read the summary below.

Please note: the image used in the video to illustrate a corn bunting was actually thrush. Please see RSPB description of corn buntings here.

About Rosie and Sheepdrove

Rosie Kindersley claims she is neither an ecologist nor an agronomist, but she spent her childhood at Sheepdrove, and in those days the family never went on holiday. This was the seventies, and she was obsessed with Flower Fairies, and saw the last Harebell disappear from the wayside as the impact of industrial farming really started to show.

A few basics about Sheepdrove

The farm has 800 hectares of land, certified organic in a stewardship scheme. The initial aim was to repair the environmental damage to the land from post-war agricultural policy which promoted intensive farming practices reliant on artificial inputs. Since going organic in the 1970s, the present owners have restored features such as hedgerows, trees and dew ponds back to the landscape. The farm now has:

  • some 14 kilometres of hedgerows – most of which were planted without any state funding; at the time, the received wisdom was that the nature of the Lambourn Downs was an open landscape free of hedgerows;
  • plans for more hedgerows;
  • some 16 hectares of broadleaf woodland, a mixture of plantations and shelter belts;
  • some 50 hectares of lowland calcareous grassland, the rarest habitat in Europe; the first thing we did when we took over Bockhampton Down in 1995 was to restore it to species rich grassland;
  • an historic landscape of both farming enclosures and post-war industrial farming.

Since going organic, we take our inspiration from past practices when people lived and worked more harmoniously with the natural world. In the past, the land was intensively occupied and used; the lynchets and the remains from the roman and iron ages stand as a testament. In 2000, the Millennium Wood, also known as Jonathan Porritt Wood, was planted to offset carbon emissions. This was a rather early and pioneering example of carbon offsetting with tree planting on a farm.

Sustainability and Production

Sustainability is the core tenet in our approach to agriculture. All nutrients are recycled, reused and remain on the farm; the farm operates a circular closed loop system, so that nothing much is sold off, and all straw and hay remain on the farm, although we sell the grain and the livestock. Nothing much is brought in, except some horse manure from Clive Cox, who is one of our nearest neighbours. Neither oil-based fertilisers nor pesticides are used.

The farm practices regenerative techniques such as growing wheat with nitrogen-fixing beans which preserve the soil as a habitat for a healthy ecosystem of micro-organisms and a storage sink for carbon. The farm operates a six-year rotation cycle. A period of three years in a fertility building herbal ley provides quite a bit of clover and other nitrogen fixing plants. Livestock encourages root growth by nibbling and enriches the soil by pooing. A period of three years as arable land then follows.

In the past few years, Helen Browning of Eastbrook, chair of Soil Association, was the main grazier at Sheepdrove, but although some of her cattle will be overwintering in the cattle sheds, soon it will be mainly sheep at Sheepdrove again. The sheep breeds include Cheviot crosses from the original Sheepdrove flock, Hampshire, and Derbyshire Gritstone.

The farm grows organic grains which are sold commercially:

  • Winter Oats;
  • Winter Rye;
  • Spring Wheat/Beans;
  • Wild Farmed Wheat.

A key features of nature friendly farming is conservation and health. The farm has both healthy plants and livestock and looks after the extraordinary world beneath our feet. The largest life form on the farm is a fairy ring; when walking up the steep hill to South Fawley, look back towards the lambing sheds and you can see the ring on a field dotted with thorns. It is now called The Rough.

Hedgerow management

Between December and March but especially in January and February, the hedgerows provide berries and bushy shelter for animal life. The farm practices rotational hedge management so a hedge is cut once every three years and is allowed to grow untrimmed for two consecutive years. The aim is bigger and bushier hedges which have more flowers and fruits for wildlife, extra food and nutrients for farm animals and a better structure to provide shelter and safe passage for the multitude of wild things that depend on these iconic features of the landscape.

Around the field margins and edges, hedgerows provide a reservoir of habitat for the flora and fauna. The ideal is a six-metre strip along all the edges of each field so that is twelve metres in total. This we don’t currently have, so this is work in progress. Good hedgerows provide direct economic benefits when farming. Studies show that farms with good field margins increase crop yield over time. This results from better crop pollination and pest control on arable land. Hedgerows and trees provide a species rich pasture which is better for livestock. The hedgerows provide shelter and better nutrition.

Pollination and Bees

The farm encourages pollinators which love clover. A wildflower strip around a cornfield provides annuals such as poppies, corn marigold, cornflowers plus phacelia which is highly favoured by bees and other pollinators. Best of all is the permanent pasture, the hay meadows. The second piece of land acquired for the farm, was immediately turned in to a hay meadow by Rosie’s mother, Julia. It was not big, but Julia planted cowslips and today if you stand there in spring, it’s a sea of cowslips. Radiating out from that point you can see the cowslips spread out in all directions across the permanent pasture to the edge of the farm and beyond. Recently, Devils Bit Scabious and the Harebells have returned, although they are yet to be found on the waysides.

Now that we have spent all this time building up fertility, we need to wind it down! Conventional farms spray to get rid of nitrogen fixing plants. As we do not use sprays, we have to take advice on how to reduce the fertility!

We are working with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust on the Shrill Carder Bumblebee (SCB):

  • The closest SCB record we have is from 1991 and is around 18 kilometres distant;
  • The closest current record of the SCB is on Salisbury Plain.

We have a bee walk at Sheepdrove monitored by Bumblebee Conservation – Save the Bumblebees. A volunteer training and information day is planned for April 2023. There is a bumblebee identification training evening and a bee walk for those interested in getting involved in monitoring species. The long-term aim of this is a wider project connecting habitat across the Berkshire Downs, working with partners and developing a project that would deliver for the Shrill Carder Bee which is very much at risk. The last sighting in our area was in 1991 around 18 kilometres away.

On the subject of bees – if any of you would consider signing a parliamentary petition or writing to your MP on the subject of asking the government to set ambitious pesticide reduction targets, please let me know!

Rewilding

A recent conservation project is a rewilding or renaturing area in the centre of the farm. The aim at the farm is a mosaic of ecosystems, as nature thrives in mixtures, usually called biodiversity. We are working with Rewilding Britain and so have put in place a robust monitoring programme to measure outcomes. It is a project funded without any third-party intervention or contributions.

Rewilding is a long-term business like all nature restoration; however, at our first Annual Rewilding Review this October, the ecologists who undertook the invertebrate, butterfly, ornithology and botany surveys were able to confirm that compared to the adjacent control field, a wider variety of species, in greater numbers were recorded as the more varied habitat was preferred. Specific beetles and spiders, key indicators of environmental change were also recorded.

Wildlife and the Corn Bunting

The Corn Bunting is not an iconic farmland bird like the grey partridge, the lapwing, or the curlew. It is a brown nondescript bird that likes to perch on the highest point of the hedgerow and sing. Corn Buntings, like all farmland birds, need a mix of open grassland and arable land. This is the reason that livestock remains a key element in sustainable farming.

The North Wessex Downs is the centre for the Corn Bunting; nationally, the population has declined by more than ninety percent; it used to be one of the commonest farmland bird species. Researchers are interested in the song of the Corn Bunting because it’s a learnt behaviour – they learn from each other just as we do. Corn Buntings learn songs really accurately from each other; every two years they update their songs and all males in a dialect area will update their songs and this is unique, and the only similar example is the humpback whale. Corn Buntings have dialects in one area, about the size of a farm, sing the same three songs and those in another area sing a different three songs.

Researchers are studying bird song as an indicator of the stress of the population. The question they are asking is how human practices, for example farming practices, shape those changes. Bird song is very sensitive to stress; birds learn to sing when they are young, in the same way we learn to speak. If the birds are not thriving, if the stress hormones are high because of environment such as lack of habitat or pesticides or perhaps other stressors like isolation, they don’t learn well. The most poignant element in all this is the parallels with people – think of the lockdown children whose speech was delayed. Apparently, there are bits of the brain that we share with songbirds that we do not share with other primates.

Habitat creation

One of the radical changes we made at Sheepdrove is the provision of water. So far, we have created two dew ponds, we are about to create another, and we hope to continue until we have a dew pond in every dip. We need planning permission for every new pond. Why should there be planning obstacles in the way of pond creation on farms?

Creatures live and breed in the water and others use ponds as drinking places. Ponds were once a common feature of the farmland landscape, routinely managed like hedgerows but, post-war, many ponds were filled in to reclaim land for farming. Standing water is a scarce commodity on the chalk Downlands. Dew ponds were originally created to provide a source of fresh water for grazing sheep and are key iconic feature of the Downs. Local author, Nicola Chester describes it well in her book “On Gallows Down”:

“Romantic and mysterious, dew ponds are the only source of water up here. There are no springs, rivers or natural ponds. Rainwater sheds quickly off the smooth-domed hills, or percolates slowly through their chalk to refill aquifers that run the chalk streams in the valleys far below. For a place that was once the sea, it is exceedingly dry.”

However, no habitat creation project so brilliantly demonstrates the power of biodiversity net gain as our wastewater treatment. It takes all, and I mean all, the wastewater from our venue, farm buildings and cottages, and turns it into swimming grade water that returns to the aquifer clean. Using the power of plants, we provide a new wildlife habitat and a space for nature. It’s our favourite wedding photograph spot and honeymoon stay!

It is surprising that this solution for wastewater treatment is not more widely spoken of and implemented. The technical term is constructed wetland. Such wetlands for the treatment of waste waters or for habitat creation are commonly referred to as “reed beds”. Imagine, if every new warehouse had one? Or every shopping centre? It’s a win-win situation; a space for nature that delivers a real functional service for us. We have a small pond which treats the water at the farmhouse and farmyard. It used to be a dump full of barbed wire and empty plastic sacks.

Natural burials, Events and other uses of land

We have a natural burial ground at Sheepdrove, and we have the Events Venue.

There are other local natural burial sites at Acorn, Henley, Westmill run by the Liz Rothschild and at Ibworth near Kingsclere. The Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Wildlife Trust is planning burial grounds. Conventional burial uses too much land, cremation releases too much carbon dioxide, yet more than three-quarters of people choose cremation which releases about 400 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide, plus toxic fumes from things like tooth fillings and other bits of surgery. Burying often leads to embalming fluid seeping into the soil and coffins are made of unsustainable materials. A natural burial ground allows a meadow or a woodland, or a woodland in progress, to be preserved for nature and to become a local green space for the community. You can still have a funeral in a church, or you can choose a memorial at the graveside.

When we talk about farms diversifying, we talk of glamping, farm stays, weddings and other events; all of these have their place in opening up the countryside for visitors but pose challenges in terms of sustainability. Celebrations of life, sustainable weddings, workshops, retreats and conferences are all hosted in our operationally net zero green events venue at Sheepdrove.

Editorial comment

This note is a summary of the talk given by Rosie to the friends of the Lambourn Library. The text is strongly based on notes provided by Rosie, and when editing the text, the aim was to remain faithful to the notes, while rendering the text as a continuous document – Ed.

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