Fifty years of nurturing nature

  • 28.06.2023
  • article
  • Arable and Horticulture
  • Biodiversity
  • Measuring Sustainability
  • Rebecca Holden

SFT CEO Patrick Holden and his wife Becky Holden farm 300 acres in West Wales and produce a raw milk cheddar called Hafod with the milk from their herd of Ayrshire cows. Here, Becky reflects on the thriving biodiversity on their hill farm and the interconnectedness of the farm and nature.

This year, the 18th of June marked half a century since Patrick arrived at Bwlchwernen. It’s been 50 years of seasons, cycles and interactions between plants, animals and people on our small magical hill in West Wales. There was much for him to reflect upon on that day, and as he found himself working in the copse behind our threshing barn amidst the birdsong, he started to tune in to the unexpected and extraordinary repertoire of what he thought might be a nightingale. In West Wales, that would be a rare thing indeed – in 2020 news of a nightingale song heard in Machynlleth made it into the County Times! Nightingales are generally found in broadleaved woodlands, south of a line drawn between the Humber and the Severn. The warm dry spring we’ve experienced this year may be attracting these birds, found commonly in Mediterranean countries – but we can also dare to hope that the varied habitat and abundant insect life on our farm is a factor.

The 50 years of farming at Bwlchwernen, according to the interconnected principles of health, ecology and a circular economy, have not only stewarded the farm’s natural biodiversity as a complete and thriving ecosystem, but also created the conditions to increase and improve its biodiversity potential. Our farming is based on the interdependence of all life on the farm, from the bacteria, fungi and microorganisms in the soil, right through to the nuisance flies, tail-swishing cows and thriving swallow and bat populations that feed on those flies.

We are a part of nature, and this interdependence informs every farming decision. Take the example of a hedge: it serves as a boundary, windbreak, shelter in a storm and shade in summer, and while being an important ecosystem in itself, it is also habitat for diverse flora and fauna. The cows will browse it for nutrition and medicinal healing – different plants at different times of the year. It is an excellent example of how something that is good for the farm is also good for nature. In the last couple of weeks our ‘messy’ hedges have been a heady mix of trailing rose, elderflowers and honeysuckle. However, if we over-manage a hedge or intervene by planting a single species or mechanically trimming the hedge too severely, too often or too early in the autumn, we risk suppressing its biodiversity potential.

It’s not just about hedges and field margins though, our in-field biodiversity is as valuable as the woodlands, watercourses and hedges. Our permanent pastures are beautifully diverse with plant mixtures that change and evolve over the years. We reseed with herbal leys in our arable rotation, which is a seven-year rotation moving around about half of our fields: combinable cereals for two years, then a year of oats/peas/barley cut as an arable silage in July and undersown with an herbal ley, which will be fertility building for the next five to six years. Herbal leys are a mixture of herbs, legumes and grasses, normally 12 to 20 species; ours include cocksfoot, chicory, red, white and sweet clovers, fescue, burnet and yarrow. Patrick has been using diverse seed mixes since he started at Bwlchwernen in 1973. The diversity that the cows graze and eat as forage and the cereals in the parlour, is the ‘blas y tir’ or ‘terroir’ that makes their milk taste sweet and our cheese unique.

The biodiversity generated by the farm’s productivity exists together with the biodiversity that flourishes naturally, they are not mutually exclusive – our traditionally managed hay meadows are alive at the moment with invertebrates, birds and mammals. We farm 300 acres, and each field has its own unique identity, character and distinctiveness.

We realize that we can’t be complacent and are grateful for every opportunity to collaborate in order to capture and establish baseline data to track our state of nature. For example, the West Wales Biodiversity Network visited us in 2011 and did the most valuable species audit that I have had to date. It poured with rain and the wind howled the whole day, so they captured mostly plant information. But as experts in vascular plants, lichens and lichenicolous fungi, bryophytes and rusts, smuts and mildews, they found and identified a wealth of species. They sent me a list that I treasure and refer to often. On that wet day in May, they identified 105 species of lichen, the miraculous symbiosis of a fungus and an algae. Lichen are barometers of the quality of the surrounding air and are sensitive to nitrogen and ammonia, so it was heartening that our working dairy farm is lichen friendly.

We’re also working with the British Bumblebee Conservation Trust doing whole-farm surveys of pollinators and their habitats. Walking around the farm with experts in pollinator identification, moving at a slow careful pace and with good attention and observation, it feels as though we shrink to the size of a hoverfly as we look at nesting potential and food sources. It’s data and insight that is valuable for us and for the Trust and the more we can capture the better.

On farm, we are trialing better tracking of soil biodiversity with an app that allows us to build up our own data on soil health. We assume it’s going to be good because we’ve been farming organically for so long, but we want to do the measurements: for example, counting earthworms, in order to understand what the soil is telling us. Our raw milk cheese production and maturation relies on a diverse and thriving lactobacillus population in the soil that will also be found in our home-grown rush hay and cereal straw bedding, and on the cows udders (we don’t use any chemicals or sanitisers to clean the teats) as beneficial bacteria in their gut microbiome and in ours too.

A few weeks ago, I also spent a morning with Anna Heinlein and Marina Suarez from the Global Farm Metric (GFM) team who visited to collect data as part of the latest on farm trials. Lichen identification came up again as one of their methodologies to collect data on biodiversity and we also spent a happy half hour sweep net sampling in our pond and carrying out freshwater invertebrate identification as an indicator of water quality. I was struck again that twelve years had passed since the lichens had last been identified – it really matters that this sort of information gathering is done regularly and remains live and not just a snapshot in time like that 2011 audit that I’ve never been able to replicate. How else can we measure our impacts and respond meaningfully, especially if there is more that we can do?

The birdsong at the farm in this 50th year fills us with joy and hope and symbolises the wonder of nature on this hill. Its diversity and harmony touches us deeply, and nourishes and nurtures our senses, spirit and our souls. Measuring and monitoring the biodiversity here is indeed crucial because nature’s value is at the very heart of our being.

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