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Whose land is it anyway?

By Rosewood Farm, Oct 11 2019 12:44AM

‘Why don’t you do a Knepp?’ is one of those inevitable suggestions, along with going organic, that crop up when discussing the difficult times faced by the industry with non-farmers. The idea of rewilding has captured the public’s imagination but although it remains poorly defined and ambiguous the underlying theme is one of relinquishing some human control of environmental and wildlife conservation to let nature restore itself.

It was whilst I was visiting the Natural History Museum in London earlier this year that I picked up a copy of Isabella Tree’s book Wilding, all about their journey from a failing dairy and arable farm on heavy Sussex clay to a wildlife utopia. Even though Knepp is 100 times bigger than Rosewood, many of their experiences seemed to be very familiar.

Exmoor Ponies and Dexter Cattle grazing at Rosewood
Exmoor Ponies and Dexter Cattle grazing at Rosewood

The law of primogeniture in England, until 1925, had ensured that family land was inherited by the eldest son. This tradition continued in many farming families until fairly recently and although it seems incredibly unfair on any younger and/or female siblings within a family, it did ensure that viable units of land holding remained intact when passed down to the next generation. Like many estates, Knepp Castle Farm has been passed down the generations in this way since 1787 to the current owner, Charlie Burrell.

My own love affair with farming started around the same time that Charlie took over the farm some 30 years ago, growing up in a rural community with two separate traditional mixed dairy and arable farms in our family which gave me a connection to the land that most people can only dream of. However, with farms getting ever bigger during the 1980’s & 90’s, the economics of the small family farm remained challenging and the lifestyle was far from lavish. However, ‘the farm’ was a constant in our lives and it took priority over everything - the thought that one day it might not be there never crossed my mind.

To say that I was discouraged into farming would be an understatement though. The farm wasn’t expected to continue into our generation and the careers advisers at school very much regarded farming as a very poor choice. However, spending time in hospital as a child had given me a sense of the fragility of life and a determination to start young, not taking the risk of leaving the opportunity to farm until some far-off day in the future that I may not see. So starting a farm without a farm was just the first step.

Farming itself is hard work, but farming without land can be even harder as it lacks security and encourages a short term approach. In 2002 my brother & I were able to pool our savings to raise the 50% deposit on what was to become ‘Rosewood Farm’, 37 acres of wet, heavy clay. Having land entirely under our control allowed us to do exactly what we wanted, and what we wanted was to ditch the fertilisers, shun the pesticides and use a small native breed of cattle than no commercial market would pay for. We had dreams of expanding to create a real, traditional mixed farm with pigs, sheep, chickens and even arable crops. Looking back it sounds crazy, and that’s because it was, especially because we had no money left after investing every penny into the land.

Bracken Horse by Gareth Dale, 1961
Bracken Horse by Gareth Dale, 1961

Gareth Dale, writing about the 1950’s, observes the reasons for the move away from this type of farming, and he wasn’t wrong. He goes on to say; ‘The drawback was that a variety of livestock enterprises, however small, demand a constant round of work and attention. The term “mixed farming” can be frequently synonymous with sheer drudgery.

On the other hand, Ian Newton highlights the importance of mixed farming for farmland birds, and how it’s loss has been a significant driver of species decline;

With hindsight I can only echo the sentiments of both writers - farmland birds thrived in the mosaic of habitats created by mixed farming and their declines have occurred as we have sought, through economic & social necessity, to manage the land using less physical labour. I think that much of what gets lumped in with rewilding is actually a desire for the ‘refarming’ of days gone by.

Our own niche developed when a change in farming fortunes meant that the floodplain meadows of the Ings were in need of the reintroduction of cattle grazing and our light-footed Dexters fitted the brief perfectly. By this stage we had already given up on arable farming, and the pigs were only offering variety to our sales offer, but, as past farmers have found, it made more sense to concentrate on the things we were good at and do them well.

The Yorkshire Ings is home to some of the UK's finest wildflower meadows
The Yorkshire Ings is home to some of the UK's finest wildflower meadows

The Ings are a unique traditionally farmed lowland floodplain landscape that was once widespread throughout the UK. The hay meadows once belonged to local farmers & landowners with the who cut and grazed them during the summer & autumn each year. This preserved the rich mosaic of wildflower meadows and the wildlife that depend upon them until they were threatened with more intensive farming in the 1970’s.

Today the Ings are owned by a combination of private landowners, conservation charities and the government body Natural England, which forms the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve. The majority of ‘our’ land actually belongs to the state as Natural England, with other areas in private ownership, all with SSSI status. Due to the nature of the floodplain and land ownership within it our ‘farm’ is spread out across many different land parcels, which makes management more challenging, time consuming and costly.

Many of our wildlife sites benefit from minimal disturbance by man
Many of our wildlife sites benefit from minimal disturbance by man

There has been a lot of talk of the need for changes in land ownership in recent months with prominent land reform advocates such as George Monbiot & Guy Shrubsole contributing to the Land for the Many report. Among other things, this includes a much needed (farming sustainable) reduction in land values, and the report calls for changes in the way land is owned with greater access for the public. However I share a grave concern with Simon Leadbeater that fragmenting ownership and increasing access to our wild areas will actually do far more harm than good for wildlife. Here in the Ings many people already assume that because some of the meadows are in public ownership that they have the ‘right to roam’ across them, causing great damage to nesting birds and other wildlife in these sensitive sites, especially when accompanied by dogs.

The great beauty of the Knepp Estate, as far as rewilding goes, is that it is a significant area (3500 acres) is all under the control of one man but, as Isabella notes;

This represents a huge hurdle to overcome for large scale rewilding - either we are expecting people to inherit large areas, be subject to inheritance tax and then purposefully devalue their land for rewilding or to buy land at inflated prices and plunge themselves into negative equity. It’s a big ask, even where passion for wildlife is strong. Many land reform advocates call for large tracts of land to be broken up into smaller land holdings through taxation though but rewilding 3500 acres is going to be far more difficult if 95 different landowners the size of Rosewood must be enthused versus one or two as in the case at Knepp.

The Ings also give rise to an added complication outside of our control - it floods! In the past different farmers would each have managed smaller areas of the floodplain with most of their land would be on the higher, drier ground. Today, with more people than cattle living in the traditional village farmsteads, the surrounding farmland has increasingly turned over to arable farming. This makes it impractical for us to easily move the cattle from one part of the Ings to another but the cost of replacing all the fences would be huge as both materials and labour have risen dramatically in the intervening years. As Isabella Tree notes in Wilding, perimeter fencing, even for a project like Knepp, is still prohibitively expensive without government funding.

In order to manage the floodplain effectively we need both sufficient numbers of animals to graze during the short window between haymaking and flooding, and the resources (land and/or buildings and hay) to keep those animals for the rest of the year. Just like rewilding, the management of the Ings needs significant investment of private funding that depends upon the willingness and ability for local farmers to give a little back to nature. At Rosewood, some three miles away from the Ings, we’ve done our best over the years to achieve as much as possible for as little as possible, but perhaps we’ve reached the limits of what we can do without significant changes to our personal fortunes and/or the rural economy.

It seemed that our luck had changed when we were gained planning permission to turn our farm office into a home, but it turns out that there was a sting in the tail. We explored the possibility of formalising our respective land ownership shares in order to give my family some security in the event of either my own or Paul’s deaths. Making the farm and house into two separate entities made a lot of sense. However, due to the wording of the permission any split, even in principle, would make the planning consent invalid.

This was a bitter blow, with the only option remaining being to sell Rosewood and start over again on a smaller area of land. Selling would leave us with even less non-floodplain land for overwintering the herd on and no buildings, forcing us to reduce the numbers of animals significantly.

Many of the problems with our food & farming system today are the result of capitalism - the pursuit of methods which create the most margin, rather than the most resilient farming systems, have changed the way food is grown and consumed. At Rosewood we’ve always believed that good food & the knowledge about how to produce it should be accessible to all, so rather than chase high end, exclusive markets, we‘ve tried to foster an honest and open approach in order to encourage more people to farm this way.

Over the past 24 months I’ve personally become much less of an active farmer, spending less time with the cows and wildlife I love to devote more effort to our end product. Our system relies upon direct sales - Dexters, for all their value in conservation grazing, are not in great demand due to the added per kg processing costs. Most conservation grazing/rewilding projects choose larger breeds such as the English Longhorn at Knepp or Belted Galloways as they both produce the larger carcasses that the industry is used to. Ironically the consumer seems to prefer the smaller joints from the Dexter and, of course, the taste!

The farming/sales paradox has destroyed many a small farm - the more successful your business becomes, the further you move away from practical farming. I’ve now reached a crossroads in my life where I need to decide - do I prioritise the beef or wildlife? I’ve sounded out just about everyone I’ve met over the past few months, wildlife peeps & beef customers and the overwhelming consensus has been;

Farming support, even for rewilding, is very much linked to land ownership whilst everything that we do depends upon the beef to pay the bills, but perhaps there is another way. Selling beef direct to the end consumer has always been the key to our business, so what if wildlife was the equally direct?

So, here’s the idea; if you like what we do at Rosewood, and want to see us continue doing it, please consider becoming a patron and (if you’d like to make an ad-hoc contribution and/or have reason not to use the Patreon website) feel free to use the Paypal Me link.

Thank you.

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