There are always surprises in Farming and our first surprise came when Cotswold District Council Health Department served notice on the spring fed water supply to Honeydale. Typically for this area, the water contained high levels of nitrate so was deemed unfit for human consumption, meaning the first digging on the land was to install the new water pipes.
Jim and Wendy Pearce, who farmed Honeydale before us, had sown malting barley, a relatively low input crop, for many years, so we wanted to continue to observe the land by sowing the same again. We settled on the tried and tested ‘Tipple’ variety with the hope that it would make the malting premium at harvest. It was then a case of rolling in and leaving. N fertiliser and a grass, weed and broadleaf herbicide application followed in April.
Livestock, Polytunnel and Wildlife
April was a busy month...
The first lambs arrived at Honeydale to graze two of the three grass fields. We wanted to manage and maintain the grass but didn’t want to commit to having any livestock ourselves, so it was very convenient for us that the local farmer needed to graze his lambs. The grazier, Nigel Adams, told us it was the first time he’d seen sheep on that land for as long as anyone could remember. Prior to that it had been grazed by cattle.So in one way we’d begun to make the first gentle changes to the way the farm was used.
We also employed a firm to construct and fit out the polytunnel and then we planted sainfoin, grown from seed and sourced locally. Sainfoin is a plant we are very passionate about at Cotswold Seeds and with which we have a strong history. Robin Hill, who founded CGS 40 years ago, always believed that if we could select the right strain with the right persistency and regrowth, sainfoin would become as popular as it was a hundred years ago. It fell out of popularity due to the intensification of grassland farming, with greater use of nitrogen which promoted ryegrass, but now with the nature of farming changing again, we believe sainfoin should enjoy more days in the sunshine!
Jodey Peyton and Richard Broughton both work at the CEH (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) and are the government’s expert advisors on birds and experts. They came to Honeydale to conduct baseline surveys, to record the wildlife on the land before we started to make changes. Richard established that there are 30 species of birds, breeding and feeding at Honeydale.
The control plots of barley were fertilised and sprayed.
Owls, Ponds and Cats
The ‘barn owl men’ who visited in May described themselves as being like the famous trio from ‘Last of the Summer Wine.’ Ian Anderson was involved with the Ministry of Agriculture, Farms and Fisheries but all three were retired and devoted hours to helping to protect barn owls. There were known to be barn owls in the local area so we put boxes in our trees to encourage them to nest at Honeydale.
Pascale Nicolet is an expert in freshwater habitats and advised on how we could create wet areas, scrapes and interlinked small ponds, to attract more wildlife.
We inherited six feral cats with the farm, which the local cat rescue centre caught and neutered, so they could live out their days at Honeydale, keeping the rats and mice down.
Tree Planting and Planning the Buildings
We began working on plans for the autumn to plant native deciduous trees, shrubs and hedges over a seven acre area on the northern edge of the farm.
We also started talking to architects. The buildings at Honeydale needed replacing and our vision was to develop a farm and food education centre for sharing knowledge amongst farmers, land managers, the scientific community, college students, right through to school children.
Soil Test Results
The test results showed our soil contained an average of about 4-5% organic matter, which was about what we’d expected, though it was slightly higher on the grassland. The soil was relatively alkaline with a higher Ph on the arable ground. P & K levels seemed fine and we didn’t want to apply fertilisers or manures during the first year because we wanted to observe how the crops fared at this benchmark level before we started making any changes.
Bird & Mammal Survey
We received the results of the first bird and mammal survey, from ecologist Dr Richard Broughton from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, following his visits to Honeydale earlier in the year.
The main aim of the survey was to collect baseline information on the breeding bird community of Honeydale Farm. A secondary aim was to record any mammal species and activity where possible, through observation of animals, tracks and signs. The scientific report, which extended to 30 pages including mapping, made fascinating reading.
The bird community of Honeydale Farm was shown to be rich and diverse, with a total of 44 species recorded. Of these, at least 24 species were found breeding on site, 9 of which are of conservation interest as a nationally declining species.
For its size, the farm had particularly good populations of three bird species which are of conservation priority, having undergone serious national declines in recent decades: Yellowhammer, Linnet and Skylark. These were the most important aspect of the birdlife on the farm.
At least five (and possibly seven) bird species used the farm buildings for nesting: Swallow, Collared Dove, House Sparrow, Great Tit, Pied Wagtail (and possibly Wren and Blackbird).
Of the mammals, six medium-large species were recorded: Roe Deer, Muntjac Deer, Fox, Badger, Brown Hare and Rabbit. A further three species of small mammals were recorded (Common Shrew, Bank Vole, Mole), although the survey was not geared to sampling the small mammals, and other species almost certainly occurred on site. Grass Snake was also recorded.
Good numbers of Brown Hares were present on the farm, mostly in the barley fields, and as a declining species these were the most valuable aspect of the larger mammal biodiversity.
There was some excellent habitat for farmland birds and mammals on the farm, including impressive ancient hedgerows and the unimproved grassland of the rich and beautiful meadow field.
Some enhancements were shown to be possible, such as targeted nestboxes or agri-environment options (field margins and plots), although maintaining some of the existing key habitat features was likely the most important efforts that could be made to securing the bird and mammal conservation interest of the farm.
The 70 ewes were sheared on one very hot afternoon. The flock of commercial sheep belongs to the Adams family who run a traditional mixed farm in Leafield, so son, Ed and his friend Ollie Coster, took charge of the shearing while father, Nigel, pushed the sheep into the shearing pen and our Sam rolled out the fleeces and put them into woolsacks. The wool was sent to a central depot, from there it was marketed by the British Wool Marketing Board, which coordinates the collection and sale of wool from registered producers. It was heartening to hear from Nigel that the lambs were doing really well on the permanent grass at Honeydale.
The Hay Meadow at Honeydale is permanent, low input unimproved grassland which was currently part of an Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme (ESA). When we first bought the farm, the meadow was filled with grasses and as winter turned to spring, cowslips, lady’s smock, red clover and meadow buttercup came into flower. Jim, the farmer, had told us that there were orchids in the field but was a lovely surprise to see so many, literally hundreds of Pyramidal Orchids and Bee Orchids. We even found some sainfoin and field scabious and lesser knapweed too.
Making Hay and Combining Barley
We brought in our first Honeydale harvest.
Nigel Adams, who grazes his sheep at Honeydale, brought his mower and tractor to cut and bale the hay meadow which produced 130 round bales and a further 40 small bales. The hay was cut on one of the many hot sunny days, so conditions were ideal, and Nigel was pleased that it made really well and was of good quality to use as animal fodder for the winter.
Our malting barley was combined with the help of the Swinbrook estate who arrived with two big tractors and trailers and a 10.5 metre combine complete with drivers.
The barley straw was baled and sold on to farmers in Wales for livestock bedding, as we didn’t have a requirement for it.
The 12 month baseline cycle we had been following in order to observe the established practices on the farm before deciding what changes to make was now complete. What was particularly important about the barley for us is that it had only been in the ground for four and a half months. During the rest of the year the pattern had been for this field to be left as stubble. While this was an easy and low input method of farming it meant that the soil was left inactive for nearly three quarters of the year and this was something we wanted to change. We began planning to grow as much green matter as possible, to improve the soil and produce greater quantities of food.
Living on Honeydale over the summer months, Sam had the chance to see what was growing in the polytunnel and observe the changes on a daily basis.
The Cotswold Common sainfoin plants had established particularly successfully, with some coming into flower. Our plan with this crop was to harvest the seed to preserve this important landrace.
The majority of the cover crop examples had also taken and the cornfield annuals flowered well. The buckwheat was the first to get going and had now gone over, making way for other species such as borage and annuals like crimson and persian clover.
The dwarf sorghum and millet got away quickly though and the sunflower and quinoa were catching up.
From our spring sowing the earliest wildflowers to bloom were the hawkbit, musk mallow and yellow trefoil while the self heal and lady bedstraw were just starting to come into flower. The yellow rattle and cowslip did not germinate because they needed to go through vernalisation (cold snap) first.
Weaning the Lambs
The ewes and lambs were weaned earlier in September, with the ewes being taken to another pasture on a neighbouring farm in preparation for tupping in the near future. The lambs that had been kept on the Honeydale pasture looked extremely healthy and some had been moved to the adjacent hay meadow. The fields they vacated had greened up well during the warm autumn so would offer some first class early grazing in the spring.
We embarked on the creation of a new wildflower area at the top end of the farm, along with a shelter belt of trees to produce a low storey shrubby and glades habitat for farm and woodland birds. The stubble was cultivated by power-harrowing and the seed was then broadcast from a quad bike and rolled in with a heavy flat-roll.
Filling the Hungry Gap
We had a visit from Dr Alan Larkman, Chair of the Oxfordshire Ornithological Society, and Louise Spicer and her colleague Claire from BirdAid - which offers a lifeline to birds during winter - who were working together within the Wychwood Project to promote supplementary feeding.
Providing supplementary food for seed-eating birds, such as the Yellowhammer, Grey Partridge, Tree Sparrow, Corn Bunting, Linnet and Skylark, has been shown to significantly increase their chances of survival during the winter months.
From the middle of December to the middle of March, seed-eating farmland birds can struggle to find enough food to sustain themselves. This is known as the ‘hungry gap’ during which natural food sources and sown bird survival mixtures are often exhausted, leaving the lives of some seed eating species in the balance, especially in harsh freezing winter conditions and cold springs.
New environmental stewardship schemes provide funding for supplementary feeding but, like many other farmers and landowners, we were funding it ourselves, using our small seeds - including millet, linseed, oilseed rape and radish.
Half of the land at Honeydale was stubble now - a mix of Barley Volunteer (and Barley Grain) mixed with Field Madder, Dwarf Spurge, Chickweed, Speedwell, Field Pansy, and Rough Hawkbit, on which the small farmland birds had been feeding, so we were supplementary feeding on these areas where the birds seemed to be most comfortable.
Louise was delighted to tell us that Corn Buntings have been sighted by a cyclist further down the valley, so hoped they might visit Honeydale soon.
Ornithologist Dr Larkman was also very excited to see the mature hedgerows at Honeydale which he described as ‘a great asset for the bird community.’ We began looking at how best to manage our own ‘hedge fund’, with plans to retain a large area of the hedges and rejuvenate a small percentage by ‘laying’ them, thereby promoting traditional agricultural skills.
Supplementary Bird Feeding Update
The long, mild autumn we experienced in the Cotswolds resulted in there still being plenty of berries and other fruit available for farmland birds to feed on and we noticed that some of the supplementary bird seed had therefore not been needed and remained on the ground. To reduce this wastage we cut back the amount of seed sown to just under a kilo every few days until the temperatures dropped and we had evidence that more of the seed was being consumed in the feeding locations. When temperatures started falling to -1°C at night, the farmland birds were more and more in need of the extra food.
Successful shelter-belt establishment
The shelterbelt on the northern edge of the farm established well, with a uniform covering along the entire length. We expected some barley volunteers in the establishment phase, but were looking forward to seeing the wild flowers in the spring.
The Sainfoin in the polytunnel slowed down its growth for the winter but we had generally seen a good take of plants. However there did seem to be some difference in the growth habit with the majority growing to a low height, with a large basal rosette of leaves. A few had a much more upright growth habit and it was generally those that flowered over summer.
The usual management technique is to cut or lightly graze a crop of Sainfoin at the end of the first year of establishment to encourage new growth and remove any dead or dying leaves. We saw some evidence of down mildew on a few plants, which were to be removed during cutting. An Allen Scythe was used to cut the crop at approximately 7 cm, after which the cuttings were removed. We carried out similar management on a small patch of Sainfoin outside the polytunnel.
The wild flowers were also cut back in a similar manner to the Sainfoin after they had finished flowering in October. Since this was carried out we had some of the species, notably Wild Carrot, Autumn Hawkbit and Ragged Robin, putting up new flower heads. It showed that the cutting, rather than decreasing the flowering ability, has actually increased the amount of flowers produced by the plant - the Wild Carrot produced 2 flower heads over summer and after cutting in October had 17!
The sheep had temporarily left the Honeydale pasture to allow the grassland a period of rest and recovery which would then provide an ‘early bite’ of fresh growth in the spring. It would also help to reduce the worm burden in the soil by stopping the input of worms in the animal faeces for a period.
Planning and a Planting
Nick Mottram from The Wychwood Project advised on tree and shrub planting at Honeydale and amongst many great ideas, he suggested that we should speak with Tim Shardlow, Forestry Director, from Nicholsons Nurseries in North Aston. Tim was really helpful and detailed a planting scheme, which began on the seven acres near the road. This was designed to provide a shelter belt to the four trials fields as well as a very useful, warm habitat for insects, birds and most mammals - except deer.
Roe deer are present at Honeydale and whilst they are pleasant to watch they were definitely not welcome in the new woodland and were excluded with fencing to stop them eating the new planting. We called the woodland, Rebecca's Wood.
Otherwise, December was a relatively quiet month. The farm felt wintry and exposed and the birds less shy, venturing out to find food as it turned colder.