How to Prune A Heritage Orchard
Andy Howard from the Heritage Fruit Tree Company returned to Honeydale to teach us how to prune the fruit trees we planted in the Heritage Orchard last year.
Our trees were still in the formative stage, so required formative pruning, which involves making the shape of the tree that it will become when you start off with a maiden (a straight upward growth tree that's 1 year old that has been grafted and then had a full growing season.) From a maiden, via pruning, you can make a bush, ½ standard or standard, or cordons, espaliers, pyramids or ballerinas. With five of us working flat out we had most of the apples checked and pruned by lunchtime.
Bird Numbers Soaring
The bird species count continued to rise with a pleasing tally of 73.
We were still supplementary feeding with 10kg of seed every day and with spring rapidly springing, our bird expert Richard Broughton came to conduct a survey to check up on how the winter feeding programme was going. He counted a flock of 60 finches/buntings (mostly Yellowhammers and Chaffinches) on the feeding area. Interestingly, the birds were almost exclusively concentrated here, proving the importance of our programme of broadcasting bird feed throughout the hungry gap. It was clearly continuing to support large numbers of birds right up to the end of winter.
On the other hand, the sown (unfed) plots were totally barren, so we decided to continue the winter bird feeding programme well into May, when there should be enough new growth on the sown plots to provide alternative sources of food.
Richard also sighted a Sparrowhawk, Raven, Kite and noisy Kestrel in the area, which may have had their beady eyes on the owl box or the old crow nest in the tall ash tree and we were delighted to welcome Chiffchaffs, the first of the summer migrants to arrive on the farm.We also spotted a woodcock, a native farmland bird which likes wet and semi-wooded land, and has never been seen at the farm before.
Other native farmland birds residing at FarmED included a small flock of meadow pipits in the wildflower meadow. The resident stonechat which had made a home at the top of the farm was joined by three pairs which could regularly be spotted by the lake. And heard too. Their distinctive call does indeed sound like two stones knocking together and ‘chattering’.
The large numbers of song thrushes were more melodious.. We had several hundred fieldfares overwintering at FarmED but numbers of these had dwindled as they headed back to Scandinavia.
Last year we under sowed wheat with a yellow trefoil and white clover winter cover crop, and this year we direct drilled spring oats into the yellow trefoil and white clover. We topped it with mob-grazed sheep which worked on two levels, saving us from having to roll it and also adding fertility to the land through the sheep’s dung. It was the first time these fields had livestock on them for decades.
Though we wanted to encourage a wide variety of wildlife to make their home at Honeydale, and to introduce livestock back onto the land to improve soil fertility, sometimes managing all the different species of animals which now live on the farm proved a bit of a headache.
We guarded the fruit trees in the orchard from deer with tree shelters, and while doing their job effectively, the shelters created another problem. While they protected the trees from one species of wildlife,they made them vulnerable to a different one, as they proved to be popular nesting boxes for field voles. The voles destroyed 69 of the trees in the lower area of the orchard by chewing the stems, which was precisely what we were trying to stop the deer from doing! If less than 25% of the stem is damaged the tree can survive but the ground-dwelling voles at Honeydale had been very thorough, and chewed all the way around the stem, so sadly the trees could not be saved. We replanted the damaged trees with bare root saplings and some potted trees, putting woollen mats around them all to prevent competition from weeds until the tree roots are better established.
We tried to graze the heritage orchard with sheep to keep the grass, and therefore the voles, at bay. But the sheep were rubbing against the trees, stakes and guards and knocking them over. They also enjoyed pulling up the woollen mats, so we moved them to the permanent grassland where they could enjoy grazing around the ponds.
We cut the grass all around the trees to remove the voles’ habitat and though this seemed a bit harsh, unless we did this we would not have any trees, which would ultimately support a wide variety of wildlife, including voles!
We’re very much in favour of shallow ploughing at Honeydale, as an alternative to glyphosate and deep ploughing. Shallow ploughs are precision machines that need careful setting up so they don’t plough too deep and invert the soil, the theory being that soil biological material should remain on the surface of the soil where it can be utilised by crops. We had some teething problems with the setting up of ours, which delayed the ploughing of the stubble turnips area, but this was completed, and we waited to plant spring wheat when the weather allowed.
Making Sainfoin Hay While the Sun Shines
The sainfoin was cut with good hot weather and a stiff breeze, and was ready to bale after five days. The critical part of the whole operation was to dry the crop without losing the sainfoin leaves which improve the quality and the appearance of the bale, but which could become brittle during the drying process. After tedding the crop out, post mowing, we used an old-fashioned ‘Acrobat’ with a gentle turning action which worked well. We produced over a thousand bales from ten acres and we began looking to sell it in to specialist markets.
Spring Planting Update
As part of our eight year rotation we sow certain areas of the farm each year with cash crops or fertility building leys.
Following our experiment last year with sowing fertility building leys together with a nurse crop of buckwheat, we took the same approach again. Buckwheat acts as a quick growing and leafy cover and while the ley establishes beneath it, the buckwheat helps to retain moisture and offers shelter from the summer sun. This is important on our south facing, free draining, dry soils. However, we reduced the buckwheat to 10 kilos per acre this year as it was a bit too thick last year at 20 kilos per acre. The buckwheat was drilled to 1.5 cm and in a separate pass, the ley mix was broadcast and harrowed with a consolidating flat roller to finish.We also established cash crops. Spring wheat was sown at the end of April, undersown with yellow trefoil and white clover to improve fertility and provide grazing once the crop was combined in the autumn.
The other cash crop we’d grown was spring oats. We originally experimented with direct drilling into last year’s yellow trefoil and white clover that was left in place over the winter. The yellow trefoil and white clover was grazed tightly and oats direct drilled with the Aitchison drill at a rate of 250 kilos per hectare in mid April. But the lack of rain caused havoc. With a year‘s growth under its belt the deep rooting and drought tolerant yellow trefoil and white clover grew back far more strongly than anticipated and swamped out the oats. So several weeks later, and with only a handful of gallant oat plants soldiering on, the decision was taken to plough the field and resow from scratch. The oats started to look great.
Ryegrass and vetch was sown last autumn, direct drilled into last year’s oats stubble. It provided useful early grazing this spring for sheep. It was ploughed in March and a field scale bird food mixture was established. The dry weather had again taken its toll and the crop was thin. Weeds were present and we had to decide whether to leave the crop in or sow again. Much depended on how much rain was forecast.
The wildflower margins, were in their third year, running in 12 metre strips around each field. We started seeing a noticeable change in the balance of species present, from early pioneer species in the first couple of years, such as oxeye daisy and wild carrot, to the species that have taken longer to establish, like field scabious, musk mallow and meadow buttercup. They were creating a great habitat for pollinators, insects, hares and ground nesting bird species.
A fourth annual breeding bird survey was carried out in April-July 2017 and the report showed the farm gaining and holding onto more species than ever before - the species diversity has increased by an impressive 46% since the first year of survey (2014).
At least 35 species were resident on the farm and were territorial and breeding or had probably attempted to do so. This compared to 29 species in 2016, 30 in 2015 and 24 in 2015, giving a 46% increase in the species diversity in the three years since the first survey.
The number of conservation priority species breeding in spring increased to 14 species but the number of territories/pairs fell slightly to 50, which was back down to approximate 2015 figures after an increase in 2016, but still 8% higher than the baseline year of 2014.
The numbers of Linnet and particularly Yellowhammer showed continued declines from their 2015 peaks, although the number of Skylark territories had stabilised. Greenfinches had disappeared once more, after first arriving to breed only in the previous year. House Sparrows were again not recorded, and although a pair of Swallows arrived and began refurbishing a nest, they apparently did not breed for the second year running.
Conservation priority species that consolidated their recent colonisation were Mallard(probably breeding once again around the pond), Barn Owl (breeding again in the nestbox), Reed Bunting (three territories) and Grey Partridge (first confirmed breeding). Moorhen and Long-tailed Tit were confirmed breeding for the first time, and single pairs of Jays and Kestrels were both present and appeared to be holding territories.
A new species recorded on the farm in 2017 was Willow Warbler, with a singing male holding territory on the May visit, and a juvenile present in July (though this might have been a transient migrant, rather than evidence of breeding). Other new species were a pair of Tufted Ducks on the pond and several fly-over Herring Gulls in June. This took the farm’s total bird list to 79 species.
Combining the Control Plots
We took advantage of a break in the weather and combined our control plots of spring barley. It took us three hours to get the crop in, and it went to the Adams farm as we had no way of processing it, yet. Our perennial sowthistle problem in the spring barley plots restricted the yield. We harvested 4.5 tons, so about a ton per acre, which was not great, considering the cost of inputs - we used 2 herbicides, broadleaf and graminicide, nitrogen fertiliser and a fungicide.
Away from these control plots, we were using the time honoured low input/low risk method of farming, keeping detailed records of the results to make a proper comparison.
As part of our eight year rotation, we sowed stubble turnips and forage rape for the sheep to graze on over winter, once the grass in the ley has stopped growing. It also prepared the way for spring wheat which would be sown next spring.
As we found the crop a bit lacking last year we also mixed in some crimson clover to add nitrogen to the soil and to provide a higher protein content in the forage. This is not standard practice but as we wanted to build soil fertility we made use of any opportunity to put in soil improving legumes.
We were still experimenting with the shallow plough but it didn’t work too well, as it wasn’t inverting the old ley, so we had to use the conventional deep plough on this occasion.
A Stepping Stone
A busy few weeks, haymaking and harvesting, and we were also progressing with plans for the development of a Centre for Farm and Food Education. Work started on re-locating the entrance, with one of the first tasks being building a stone wall along the roadside.
H and Kelvin from local dry stone walling and fencing company ‘Sticks & Stones’ began building of the wall and it progressed slowly but steadily. It’s highly skilled and painstaking work and we could of course have just erected a fence here. But limestone walls are so quintessentially Cotswold and there was a wall at the entrance of the farm which had fallen down, so we wanted to rebuild it reusing the old stone.
Sainfoin, Herbal Ley and Hay
We let our field of sainfoin go to seed for retail through Cotswold Seeds. The seeds were beginning to ripen, albeit unevenly, but we were hoping it would be ready to direct combine at the end of September. It was a special landrace selection which offers fantastic diversity, selected over many generations. Unlike bred strains with are chosen for their stability, this variety of sainfoin was given the epigenetic freedom to adapt to its local environment.
As part of our rotation the wheat was late sown in May, undersown with trefoil and white clover for the sheep to graze in spring. We achieved a yield of 1.4 tons an acre, which we were very happy with, given that it was a zero input/no cost crop. The financial data was being professionally monitored by Farm Business Analyst James Turner from Strutt & Parker which would enable us to compare the new rotation with the control plots from the previous conventional, high cost/input system.
Two permanent grass fields, fifteen acres each of ridge and furrow, were cut for hay. It was baled and Sam had been tedding it for the past 4-5 days. Weather permitting, it might only need a couple more turns and then it would be ready to bale and feed to sheep and cattle over the winter.
This was thin when it was sown in April because of the dry weather, but it was looking a bit better now, and getting plenty of interest from our farmland birds already.
Development of Honeydale
After working closely with architects and West Oxfordshire District Council to progress the plans for the development of FarmED, we reached pre-application stage and Tim and Chris, our architects, began drawing up visualisations, taking great care that replacement farm buildings would be perfectly in-keeping with the landscape of the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Exciting times.
National Trust Workshop
Although the development of FarmED as a Centre for Farm and Food Education was in its preliminary stages and as yet we had no buildings and facilities to host events, we’d made great progress with the farm itself, and were already welcoming visitors keen to see the work we were doing on the land.
Ian led a workshop for the National Trust farm team and tenant farmers from all over the UK. Delegates came from as far afield as Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Wales in order to get a better understanding of using diverse leys, herbal leys and mob-grazing, particularly in relation to sheep. The farm walk and talk explored the health of the farm from the soil up, beginning with an exploration of the importance of managing the soil for fertility, before looking at establishing the ley. Grazing management, electric fencing, water, crop rotation and integrating plants, livestock and wildlife were also covered.
We welcomed 35 PhD students from Oxford University to Honeydale. This varied group of post graduates included specialists in water and insects and they were all interested in studying the diverse farm as an ecosystem. In the final days of September the water in the bottom scrape was successfully holding the water and providing a habit for many aquatic species.
Five members of the team completed a three day intensive course on soil microbiology, looking at everything, from the importance of soil microorganisms, carbon content, to compaction, soil sampling and the formation of humus .At Cotswold Seeds and Honeydale Farm we’ve always focused on the importance of soil and the use of seed mixtures, including herbal leys, green manures and cover crops to improve soil fertility, reduce the need for costly inputs and bring manifold benefits in terms of the health of livestock and profitability. So this was just taking it a few steps further. We planned to implement what we’d learned at FarmED.
Living Mulch Experiment
After two years of undersowing spring cereals with a soil improving yellow trefoil and white clover mixture as part of the rotation, the ‘Living Mulch’ experiment was designed to determine if an undersown soil improver could be left in place and direct drilled with another cash crop, rather than ploughed in.
So this year, once the cereals had been combined, the undersowing was left in place over winter, keeping the soil covered. It was grazed with sheep in spring and then direct drilled with spring oats. We were expecting the oats to germinate quickly and establish, however due to the very dry spring the established yellow trefoil and white clover mixture had access to moisture and grew back strongly while the newly sown spring oats were slow to germinate and were smothered out. We therefore had to abandon this part of the experiment and plough in the yellow trefoil and white clover and drill the oats again. We then broadcast another crop of yellow trefoil and clover and embarked on the second part of the experiment. Once the spring wheat was cut in summer 2017, the yellow trefoil and white clover were given the light and space to establish and in Autumn, when the mix was less aggressive, we direct drilled winter cereal into it and began waiting to see how it fared over the next few months.
Trail Plots and Game Cover Tests
We established 3 acres as a small trial area and have sown it with low growing grass mixture which will be marked out with plots and pathways in the spring.
We began using another area to test game cover mixtures for frost tolerance and winter hardiness, with different seed mixtures sown in strips across the field.
Finishing the Sainfoin
We finished the season by letting the sheep graze the sainfoin for three weeks, transferring the goodness from the plant back into the soil through their manure and stopping the crop going into the autumn too tall and proud. They were then moved to permanent pasture.