I recently visited a small holding which specialises in rare breeds, as part of my research into the practicalities of integrating wildlife friendly practices in modern farming.
Hazeldene Farm is situated in the picturesque valley of Asheridge Vale in the Chilterns AONB. The Chilterns are renowned for their grass chalk lands, chalk streams, ancient woodlands and commons. “Agriculture has been taking place in one form or another for thousands of years and today farming practices account for 75% of the total AONB land area making a major contribution to the appearance of the Chilterns landscape” (Source:http://www.chilternsaonb.org)
Hazeldene was a working farm that grew wheat in the 60’s and in it’s more recent past the fields were used as paddocks. Liz and Steve Batemen took on the 70 acre small holding in 2006. When Liz and Steve came to Hazeldene their main objective was to run a quality farm using organic principles which produced healthy and wholesome meat. Since being at Hazeldene they have also improved some of the habitat for local wildlife by planting a herb garden much loved and visited by bees and creating a large pond with shallow edges which on the day I visited was teaming with frog spawn.
They have concentrated on rearing rare breeds which are all free range and fed on non GM foods. They currently specialise in Traditional Herefords cows, British Lop pigs, Oxford Down lamb, Marsh Daisy and Ixworth chickens. Rare breeds are slow maturing and so go to slaughter older than commercial breeds, and when they do go to slaughter Liz has made sure that they do so with as little stress as possible, opting for a family run private kill slaughter house. The Herefords will be with Liz for 2 years compared to 1 year for a commercial breed. Likewise the British Lop pigs will be with her for 8 months compared to 3-4 months and the lucky Oxford Down lambs get a whole year of frolicking in her green fields before going to slaughter rather than the measly 4 months a commercial breed lamb would get. However, that means rare breeds cost more to feed and care for. In theory this is balanced out by the animals commanding a higher price at market for their meat as it has a better flavour due to the longer life span. Unfortunately, Liz told me this isn’t always the case. To help balance the books Hazeldene Farm now operates a farm shop, a recently opened cafe, has plans to open a plant shop and is home to an artist studio.
The cows, pigs and lambs are grazed across the 7 fields in rotation, one field on the farm incorporates a sloping sun trap and has been designated meadow land with Higher Level Stewardship and restrictive winter grazing between August and April. Liz only allows winter grazing with the Herefords on the slope as they are small hoofed and less destructive on the ground thereby minimising damage to the meadow plants that thrive there. A private survey of the land was organised by Liz when she first took on the small holding. This was then verified by a second survey undertaken by Natural England when they awarded the Higher Level Stewardship to the sloping meadow. This formed part of the FEP (Farm Environmental Plan) that Natural England carry out for a fee. The remainder of the farm has been designated Entry Level Stewardship and as such follows an annual topside hedge cutting practice to protect nesting birds. In addition Liz and Steve are currently undertaking native hedge laying on parts of the farm, including the reinstatement of Hawthorne, Blackthorne, Elder and Hazel.
Although financial help is available once land has been awarded HLS and ELS via an annual fee paid to the farmer or landowner per acre, and Liz receives an annual payment for school visits to the farm, my impression is that small hold farming can be a somewhat hand to mouth existence. Whilst Liz and Steve started out with the best intentions of running an organic farm it proved immensely costly for them to be part of the Soil Association scheme that is required to use the phrase ‘Organic’ on their produce. Due to the heavy fee costs required to be part of the Soil Association they were forced to de register after only a year. They have continued with the same practices as under the scheme and are committed to the organic ethos.
As a new cattle farmer Liz had to register with DEFRA for a holding, herd and flock number – a registration scheme required when housing animals – however although Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs is the first port of call for most new farmers for those wishing to pursue farming practices which incorporate considerations to local wildlife Natural England are probably worth contacting.
Through sheer determination Liz found the right information and schemes that suited her business model, with consideration to local wildlife. Much of this information was garnered from other like minded small holders that were friends. What’s seriously worrying is that modern day intensive farming techniques introduced in the 60’s have had a devastating effect on our local wildlife and wildlife habitat.
The first port of call for any new farmer is DEFRA but the reality is that they are only offering commercial advice on how to maximise profit without any considerations to promote more wildlife friendly systems in farming. It leaves me wondering what hope do we have for getting a change in policy or farming practices across the UK to help our wildlife?