Storm Katie tested the flood alleviation system to the limit and it continued to be satisfyingly effective. The first day of spring, the beginning of British summer time and the Easter weekend heralded the first signs of fresh growth on the farm. We introduced frogspawn from a local village donor to the ponds and scrapes.
The young fruit trees in the newly planted orchard, varying in height from 1ft to 5ft, were also beginning to bud, and the belt of mulch we laid around each tree was doing a good job at weed control. We kept the orchard area open with a tractor and flail mower instead of using sheep which had been traditionally been used to manage that field, but would damage the trees.
Some may have thought we were a little crazy to spin on green manure with a tractor some months ago, but the crop started to grow like mad! The Herbal Ley was beginning to grow too, and the sainfoin, chicory and birdsfoot trefoil were looking strong.
We were delighted to help with the planting of a pair of rare black poplar trees, Britain’s most threatened native timber tree, near the flood alleviation works. They arrived as part of the The Black Poplar Planting Project which commemorated the centenary of WWI, while also working to ensure the long-term survival of Britain’s native black poplar trees.
Between 2014 - 2018, the aim of the Black Poplar Planting Project, organised by the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group SW, a registered charity representing the region's farmers and landowners in the delivery of wildlife conservation, was to provide 100 black poplar saplings to community spaces. These were supplied in pairs, 1 male and 1 female, of genetically rare native black poplars.
Black poplars have a striking shape and colour and were a common sight during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when soldiers of the Great War would have been growing up. The Black poplars were utilised for timber for thousands of years, prized for their soft, white, shock absorbing wood. Commonly used for the handles of tools, axles of carts and even the butts of rifles, these trees were a common feature of Gloucestershire’s farmed landscape. They then fell out of favour in the 1850’s when more productive hybrids became available. This, coupled with the drainage of wetland areas, has caused dramatic population declines with the result that the black poplar is now Britain’s most threatened native timber tree.
These rare trees are now largely absent from our landscape and unknown to younger generations. This is why Gloucestershire FWAG felt this project was a fitting tribute to the soldiers that fell in the Great War, one which will serve as a long-term reminder for generations to come and reinstate a feature of our historic landscape.
The trees were planted in pairs to help preserve the UK’s genetic stock; the trees can be grown from cuttings very easily in the same way as willows; by simply placing a stick in the ground. However, growing them from seed is far more difficult. Firstly, both male and female trees are needed and the fertilised seed needs to fall on bare, wet ground and lay undisturbed until the following June when it will hopefully germinate. Due to these difficulties, for hundreds of years black poplars were simply cloned (planted from cuttings), with the result that the UK population has very limited genetic diversity. On top of this male trees were favoured because the females produce a large quantity of fluffy seed which was seen as a nuisance! This has left us with very few female trees and even fewer genetically individual female trees.
To ensure the trees planted by this project were as genetically diverse as possible, the project worked closely with the UK Black Poplar Clone Bank, as well as with Liz and Bob Taylor of Gloucestershire's Park Farm Nurseries, who kindly donated 100 trees.
Bird Report Results
The results from the Winter 2015/16 Bird Survey Report where mightily impressive. A maximum of 1169 birds of 47 species were recorded at FarmED during four monthly visits in the winter of 2015/16 (end of Oct to Feb).This represents a substantial increase in the number of species (+52%) and number of individuals (+139%) compared to the previous winter.
Highest numbers of birds overall were recorded at the beginning of the winter, with the arrival of migrant thrushes and finches in October. A gradual decline was observed as the food resources (berries, seeds) became depleted, followed by an increase at the end of winter as the migrants passed through again on their way back north and east.
The most abundant species were Linnet (maximum of 375 birds), Fieldfare (144) and Yellowhammer (108). Flocks totalling 566 finches and buntings (Linnets, Chaffinches,Greenfinches, Goldfinches, Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings) were present at the beginning of winter, dropping to less than 90 by the end of the winter.
New species recorded on the farm included Grey Wagtail, Stonechat, Brambling, Merlin,Mistle Thrush, Lapwing, Cormorant and Golden Plover, although the latter three species were only ‘fly-overs’. Red Kite and Raven were seen on most visits.
Skylarks, Bullfinches, Linnets, Goldfinches and Stock Doves were seen in much larger numbers than previously, likely reflecting the greater range of habitats available.The total number of bird species recorded on the farm since 2014 now stood at 69.
Managing a Ley with Electric Fencing and Mob Grazing
We planned out a new crop rotation on our arable land, dividing the area into an eight year rotation.
For the first four of these years, the land will be given over to leys, so our first spring job with the ley (a fertility building herbal ley) was to fence the eight acre field for mob (cell) grazing.
We chose electric fencing which is a cheaper, more effective, and very versatile way of containing livestock in any shape or size area. It is designed as a psychological barrier which sheep and cattle fear to cross, rather than a purely physical one. Portable electric fencing gear also allows for subdivision of pastures, mimicking wild migration patterns where predators keep herds bunched together and migrating as a group.
We used a semi permanent outside fence with portable electric fencing to make strips inside for maximum flexibility. The benefit of using a portable electric fence inside a permanent electric fence grid is that the portable wires allow you to change the size of the paddocks over the course of the grazing season as the grass growth speeds up, slows down, or becomes dormant.
We used our flail mower to mow a strip a couple of metres wide prior to staking, as its important to make sure that plants are not touching the wire, otherwise the electricity will go to earth rather than to the animal.
It was hugely satisfying to bring thirty ewes and sixty lambs from Nigel and Ed Adam’s farm and watch them emerge from the livestock trailer and begin grazing the lush ley.
PM Visits Honeydale
Prime Minister and local MP, David Cameron visited Honeydale Farm to see the natural flood management works, and learn how such schemes on farms can help prevent flood events downstream.
Addressing the controversial issue of paying farmers to flood land, the approach demonstrated at Honeydale uses less land and has a lower financial cost than other methods.
Mr Cameron was met by the owners of Honeydale Farm, Ian and Celene Wilkinson, before listening to short talks by Dave Gasca, Hydrologist from the Evenlode Catchment Partnership, Hilary Phillips of Wild Oxfordshire and Sharon Williams of the Wychwood Project, which helped plant the trees surrounding the newly formed water catchment pond.
Experts were on hand to demonstrate how the simple scheme here, if replicated over a large number of farms, would have a significant effect on the fifteen million people further down in the Thames Valley.
Mr Cameron was then taken on a short walk from the spring head down past the ponds and dams to the scrape, which gave Ian Wilkinson the opportunity to explain how, as a landowner, it is extremely beneficial to have the ‘natural capital’ of water on the farm. However in order to have it, technical advice was required (from Vaughan Lewis of aquatic resource consultancy Windrush AEC Ltd) together with capital funding from the National Lottery via the Cotswold Rivers Trust which helped pay for the work. Without these, it wouldn’t have happened. Sharon Williams also made a plea for government to make the RPA Basic Payment Scheme work better for the environment and Countryside Stewardship schemes less complicated, less competitive and easier for all farmers to access.
Vaughan Lewis was not able to be present, but was keen for Ian Wilkinson to stress that techniques are available to make a real difference to reduce flooding and these also have multiple benefits in terms of reduction of nutrient and sediment runoff to rivers and increased carbon capture.
‘Their usage could have real financial benefits to our collective economy,’ aquatic consultant Vaughan Lewis said. ‘Despite this, we currently have no mechanism for delivery at a strategic level, so what is needed is a well thought out and funded mechanism to allow implementation of natural flood management measures at optimum locations to maximise benefits. This could be via a modified agri-environmental system or perhaps a simplified version of Dieter Helm’s Catchment model.’
Mr Cameron, MP for Witney, said: ‘Flooding has such devastating effects and has been a big challenge in West Oxfordshire. I was pleased to accept the invitation from my constituents to see the natural flood management works undertaken at Honeydale Farm and how they are working.’
Testing the Water
Following our participation in last year’s Thames Water Blitz, organised by Wild Oxfordshire and Earthwatch, we again tested the water at Honeydale. The tests determine levels of nitrate and phosphate and a range of samples were taken across the ponds, dams, stream and spring that comprise the new flood alleviation waterworks on the farm.
The nitrogen levels were high and the phosphate low, which is what was to be expected based on last year’s results. But we were fixing our own nitrogen with sainfoin, green manures and grass leys so were confident that our new farming system would not be adding to the problem, and was a method that should, over time, help to reduce water soluble nitrogen in rivers.
Mob-Grazing Moving On
Once the electric fencing was all in place, we began moving the sheep, thirty ewes and sixty lambs, every day. It only took about twenty minutes a time. After two weeks the sheep knew what to do, and as soon as the fence moved and they could see their way open to lush ungrazed herbal ley, they walked on through, following each other just like...sheep!
Every two weeks we mowed under the fences with the Allen Scythe to make sure the grass did not grow too tall to touch the wire and earth it.
We also addressed the issue of bringing drinking water to the different areas as the sheep were moved. We installed a bowser with a 1000 litre capacity, pumped full from the spring, with plastic tubing running in a loop around the field with branch lines into each area. All we had to do then was to move the small empty trough each day, and as different fields were given over to pasture in the rotation, we could simply move the water pipe to the new areas.
We plough the fields and scatter
Our arable fields were planted with Summer Quick Fix green manure which we over-wintered and ploughed and then power harrowed, rolled and planted with cereals; spring wheat, spring oats and spring barley. After sowing the spring wheat we sowed our standard mix of yellow trefoil and white clover under it as an intercrop. This would act as a soil improver and would be grazed after the wheat had been harvested.
The No Till Crimper Roller is standard farm machinery in arable America but as far as we were aware, our experiment at Honeydale Farm was among the first times that one had been used in the UK.
As the name implies, the Crimper Roller offers a way of terminating cover crops with no till; by avoiding the need for spraying, mowing and ploughing, it’s a much cheaper and faster method. It relies on having a bulky cover crop which is then crushed, the flattened plants forming a mulch on top of the soil which keeps weeds at bay and also allows new seeds to come through. Ingenious!
The trick to controlling our winter cover crop of rye and vetch involves finding the ‘Goldilocks Moment’ when the plants are just right to terminate, in other words when they are old enough to remain flat once rolled, but not too old to seed.
We rolled one trial strip in our cover crop to start with but as we suspected, we were a little too early and some of the plants looked likely to recover. We planned to repeat the process weekly until we determined the correct stage to terminate.
We didn’t kill the rye and vetch in week 1, so we attached a drill onto the back of the crimper roller to drill in the crop as soon as the previous one had been crimped (and hopefully destroyed).
Show us the Honey
We extracted and filtered the very first batch of honey from one of our very full, hives.
After being allowed to settle for a week, the honey was put into jars. We chose not to heat treat or pasteurise Honeydale Honey, so it would be raw and contain all of it's natural goodness. Although we’d never planned to sell this first sample harvest, we could say that it tasted absolutely fantastic with a deliciously sweet, fresh and well-rounded flavour with a lovely light-golden colour.
A Novel Old Idea from Arthur Young
We’d sown buckwheat as a companion crop for the herbal ley in the first reseed of our new mixed farming rotation. The large leaves of the buckwheat act like an umbrella, effectively shielding and protecting the new ley and stopping the sun burning down on the bare soil and drying it out fast as the seedlings come through. The buckwheat would be killed off by winter frosts, leaving only the grass. It’s an ingenious method but it’s actually an old technique, observed and recorded by agricultural writer Arthur Young back in the 1800s.
Before sowing the grass we sowed the buckwheat at a rate of 20 kilos per acre. At this rate the buckwheat was open enough to leave space for the grass. If it was denser, the grass would be smothered and at 15 kilos per acre, our first sowing, it was too light.
Our combine was busy with our control plots of spring barley. The yield was similar to the previous years, at 1.5 tonnes per acre. As we only had 6 tonnes of grain we delivered this to the neighbouring livestock farmer to mill and mix it for winter feed.
Oat So Complicated
Back in May we planted a small acreage of spring oats at Honeydale. We intended these to be a low cost and low input crop which would provide porridge oats, a wholesome, whole food product but the process of turning spring oats into porridge oats is fairly complicated as it involves removing the husk before steaming, rolling and milling.
Woodland Trust Workshop
A delegation from The Woodland Trust visited Honeydale Farm as part of its Oxfordshire Focus Area Workshop, looking at the region’s particular challenges and opportunities. They were joined by Alistair Yeomans of the Sylva Foundation and Sharon Williams, Wychwood Project Director and member of the Evenlode Catchment Partnership. The group were interested in the natural flood management project at Honeydale, and how it has involved the planting of trees and creation of areas of wetland to deliver NFM. Farmer and MD of Cotswold Seeds, Ian Wilkinson, along with manager Paul Totterdell discussed crop rotation, tree-planting and natural flood management in the wider context of diversity on the farm and how trees and water can be used as natural capital, bringing a range of benefits.
Wild Trout Trust Awards
"Incredibly smart work" is how the judges of the Wild Trout Trust Conservation Awards described the Natural Flood Management at Honeydale Farm. Ian Wilkinson attended the awards ceremony at The Savile Club in London along with other nominees. The Wild Trout Trust is a conservation charity that supports and encourages projects to improve and protect habitats in and around rivers and lakes, and nominees were chosen for their practical work to improve wetland habitats for trout and all wildlife across the UK and Ireland.
Supplementary Farmland Bird Feeding Project
In partnership with other Oxfordshire farms, we conducted an experiment to determine the best way to provide food to support farmland birds during the winter hungry gap. We compared the effectiveness of growing wild bird plant mixtures, with regularly distributing extra supplementary bird food. Both of these feeding options are available as farmland stewardship options so we wanted to find out which had a more positive effect on farmland bird numbers.
The farmland stewardship options are part of the UK Government’s commitment to reversing the long-term decline in the number of farmland birds. The UK Farmland Bird Indicator is made up of 19 species that are dependent on farmland, and not able to thrive in other habitats. The turtle dove, grey partridge, corn bunting and tree sparrow have declined by over 80% and the overall average change for the 19 species is a 48 per cent decline since 1970.
The aim of supplementary feeding is to provide a regular, constant source of food as a lifeline for farmland birds, all the way from early winter to mid spring.
At Honeydale the standard wild bird plant mixtures of seed bearing species like quinoa, fodder radish, cereals and mustard was used as a control, to show the numbers of farmland bird species that use it as a food resource. We also looked at how long these plants provided seed into the winter months. Ideally, this resource would provide seed from December to March, however in reality they are often exhausted and depleted by mid winter.
Supplementary bird feeding is a newer idea, whereby farmers distribute bird seed regularly, in specific areas which are often within the blocks of wild bird plant mixtures.
We monitored both the control plots and the supplementary feeding area to count the numbers of birds and diversity of bird species using the resource. The supplementary feed was distributed every 2-3 days to begin with and by late December was provided every day.
We hung two large seed feeders in the blackthorn hedge,to provide songbirds with protection from predators such as sparrowhawks. The feeders were filled with a Hungry Gap Mix from Well Fed Birds containing wheat, barley, black sunflowers, millet, red millet, canary seed and linseed. A ton of this seed was purchased, to last for 100 days. Ground-feeding birds such as linnets, blackbirds and fieldfares were also catered for. Ten kg of the seed was also hand-distributed over a strip of the Summer Quick Fix rapid cover mixture, an area of which was flattened as a feeding area several weeks before.
Richard Broughton of CEH conducts regular bird surveys at Honeydale and monitored the effects of the project. We observed blue tits, great tits and a solitary yellow hammer while setting up the feeders, but we hoped to see more birds on the farm once they had time to realise there was a regular food supply.