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Learn from Hywel Morgan, Plantlife’s Agricultural Advisor, about how and why he made the switch to nature friendly farming on his 230-acre beef and sheep farm at the western end of the stunning Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons National Park).
‘I used to do lots of cultivating, reseeding, and fertilising. This impacts wild plant species and soil health, and releases greenhouse gases. I also realised that they were only short-term fixes and never really paid for the cost of the stress and inputs. Often as a farmer you feel you need to be producing at all costs, but financially, the cost of bought-in inputs has increased way past them being affordable.
I changed the system five years ago, after a conversation with a Civil Servant who said that, in the future, farmers would be paid for more nature friendly farming. The transition was challenging, both financially and mentally: the peer pressure to keep farming conventionally was huge.
Post-war the mindset was all about production, and tenant farmers would have lost their farms if they didn’t meet demands. This doctrine has influenced generations of farmers since. It’s meant we’ve lost the connection between how and why we produce the food, and we sometimes forget the benefits of wildlife within the farm system.
Making the change has meant a large reduction in costs and I can see – and enjoy – the benefits of working with nature.
I try to keep everything simple. I have cut out chemicals and fertilisers. This helps to reduce soil fertility and then encourages the growth of wildflowers and other grasslands plants that need low nutrient levels. I’ve seen many more Birds-foot Trefoil, Yellow Rattle, Yarrow, and Plantain since making the change. I’ve also got loads of different species of waxcap in my fields now, some are even of regional importance.
My hedges are now allowed to grow taller and thicker, and only trimmed every three years. I have also planted a lot of trees and hedging over the last few years and created large pond.
Plants need recovery time after grazing so they can flourish. To allow this to happen I now do mob grazing, which is moving cattle in short bursts of high intensity grazing, and bale grazing, which is allowing livestock to feed off a whole, intact bale of hay. I have cut out bought-in feed apart for some hay, and focus on producing high quality, pasture-fed livestock.
I needed a better balance between grazing types, because sheep and cows graze in different ways, so reduced sheep and increased cattle numbers. Without the right management, sheep will nibble out pretty much everything, cattle graze in a less destructive way and are generally better for biodiversity. I’m always working to find out what balance is right for my land.
Government policy should reward smaller family nature friendly farms – it’s a reward for doing good things that benefit all of us. Banks and supermarkets need to support this move too as healthy nutritious food is part of the solution for climate, environment and peoples’ health. More farmer-to-farmer advice and support regarding regenerative agriculture is also needed to move to a sustainable future.
Achieving food security means eating locally and seasonally and certainly, we can’t have a stable food system when nature is in decline. I believe nature friendly farming should just be called “farming” and anything else should be called industrial or chemical farming.’
Discover how you can identify the mosses where you live, and read about Lizzie's challenge to learn 10 mosses!
Grasslands like meadows and parks are not just home to wildflowers, they are also an important habitat for waxcap fungi.
Ever wondered why we need to go out and count rare plants? Meg Griffiths reflects on a summer of lichen hunting for the Natur am Byth! Project.
What do the peaks of the Eryri mountains and our garden lawns have in common?
Robbie Blackhall-Miles, Plantlife’s Vascular Plant expert, explains how grazing works to protect our most species-rich habitats.
In Britain, agriculture is a dominant force in the plant communities we have, and our farm livestock is key in replicating the impacts of the constant movement of the wild herds of grazing animals that once roamed our countryside. Many, if not all, of our plant communities rely on some form of grazing or vegetation removal to ensure that they survive.
An understanding of conservation grazing, hay cutting and scrub management can help our most species rich habitats thrive.
Overgrazing is one of the key issues for Arctic Alpine species for example, but of course it is not necessarily the only problem. For some, like plants that live in Calcareous grassland, under grazing may as equally be an issue. Or maybe it’s the fact that the plant community isn’t being grazed by the right type of animal? Or is it that it isn’t being grazed at the right time of year? Or that when its grazed there isn’t enough of the animals that need to be grazing it? Or maybe too many? So many questions!
It’s a question I often ask myself, and one that came up when we developed the Tlysau Mynydd Eryri Eryri’s Mountain Jewels project that forms part of Natur am Byth!. With 10 very different plant species and 2 invertebrate species, we must think about multiple different ways to ensure these are all looked after.
For our tall herb species such as Alpine Saw Wort Saussurea alpina and the Eryri Hawkweed Hieracium snowdoniense we almost certainly need to consider grazing in the Autumn with cattle and maybe a short pulse of grazing in early May.
For the Thyme rich calcareous grassland, with its complement of rare eyebrights (like Welsh Eyebright Euphrasia cambrica), that is so important for the Eryri Rainbow beetle Chrysolina cerealis we probably need sheep right up until late April and then not again until a period in late August or September.
For Mountain Avens Dryas octopetala (pictured) we probably don’t want any grazers near it until the winter. If trees or brambles start to dominate a habitat, then we need a herd of goats but if we want some montane scrub of Juniper and Willow with tall herbs around the edges then the goats mustn’t get near.
By having a combination of all these grazing animals managed and moved into just the right places at just the right time of year we can certainly have a good ‘go’ at getting the conditions right for everything.
What is interesting about this question though is that it is also applicable to our lawns. #NoMowMay encourages us to leave our lawns un-mown for a whole month. We can extend it into ‘Let it bloom June’ but by then the daisies, dandelions and other short turf flowers of early May will have gone over and been outgrown by a multitude of other species.
How can we ensure we please all the species so we can please all our pollinators? Well, we can make a very good go at it by simulating some of those grazing animals with our strimmer and our lawnmower.
To create just the right tapestry of lawn heights in the garden we can use our mower to create paths through our meadow lawns, changing the flow of the paths (maybe missing out some of the special plants that may have colonised the uncut lawn) on a regular basis. This random cutting aims to simulate grazing animals moving through the landscape.
We can even simulate the different types of grazing animals by choosing different heights to cut the paths. If you want daisies again make like a sheep and cut it short, if you want Knapweed and Oxeye daisies to reflower later on in the season you can be a cow and cut some of them before they finish flowering, if you get brambles or nettles then browse them down to the floor like a goat.
By leaving some patches long, some patches medium height and some patches short you will make an interesting mosaic of different lawn habitats that suits as many different species as possible. At the end of the year, before the grass starts to go brown and drop its seeds, one of the most important things you can do for your lawn-meadow is to graze it down completely (just like a huge herd of bison on migration would do) and reset the process for next year’s #NoMowMay fun.
Whether its management of montane grassland and scrub for rare Arctic Alpines or a #NoMowMay lawn, conservation management is an important tool in ensuring we try to please all the species all the time as much as we possibly can. It isn’t a perfectly exact science, and it changes from year to year, and species to species, but the principles are there and for grasslands it’s really just all about the grazing (or mowing).
Nature Reserve Diary
Our Augill Pasture reserve is a shining example of mountain hay meadow habitat in Cumbria which needs careful year round management by the Plantlife and Cumbria Wildlife Trusts team. We hear from Nature Reserves Manager Andrew Kearsey about how we’ve been working to protect the reserve this winter.
One of the biggest issues facing our nature reserves is the ongoing management of Ash trees suffering from dieback – Augill is no different as the woodland there is about 10% Ash. Some of the ash trees were identified through our tree safety surveys as being diseased and close to footpaths and the car park.
Two of the diseased trees were overhanging the Augill Smelt Mill. Any limb shedding would cause further damage to this structure, which is on the Historic England Scheduled Monument At-Risk register.
We made the decision to employ a local firm of tree surgeons to remove both these trees and several other ash trees around the car park. This work was delivered working with our tenant for the reserve; Cumbria Wildlife Trust.
The trees were removed in Mid-January and I went recently to check on their progress. When I arrived they had cordoned off the car park and footpaths and had their climber in the larger of the two trees removing the higher limbs. By the time I left about 2 hours later, they had removed the majority of the limbs, while the ground crew had processed the brash and timber into log piles and brash windrows
Pony grazed meadows at Augill Pasture Nature Reserve. Image by Andrew Kearsey Andrew
The grassland at Augill Pasture is managed by grazing and unusually for our reserves it is grazed by ponies. Two small ponies were put on the reserve in October and were taken off recently, as the weather became very cold at the beginning of January. This grazing will have controlled the growth of the grass species, allowing the forb species enough space to grow as the weather turns warmer.”
Plantife’s Meadows Hub has everything you need to help you manage your meadow or grassland including practical step by step advice, resources, links to training days and expert knowledge
Only 3.2% of England’s land and sea is protected. This is why nature reserves are so important.
They are protected havens for wild plants and wildlife. Will you help keep them flourishing?
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