This has been a very kind Winter, the rain was enough, but not endless, the fields were firm rather than waterlogged and the grass continued to grow throughout. Frogs spawned in our pond a little earlier than usual and, bizarrely, Primroses were in flower on Christmas Day! Bats hunted through the yards and around the muck heap all Winter and at the beginning of February the Peacock Butterfly we had been sharing a bathroom with since the end of Summer decided to emerge from it's hibernation, rather too early, we thought.
One of the projects we have been working on with the National Trust is looking to improve some of our hay fields for wild flowers. We have several small fields managed traditionally for hay but in the past they have been reseeded to improve their productivity ( prior to us taking on the farm) so they are not very diverse. This has happened to many old hay meadows across the UK and has resulted in a huge loss of a truly wonderful summer spectacle, and a vital food source for many insects, reptiles, birds and mammals. We are lucky that just up the lane is North Town Meadow, a tiny one acre field full of orchids, Knapweed, yellow rattle and all sorts of other hay meadow plants showing just what we have lost. The National Trust Ranger team at Arlington are keen to extend this habitat on the Estate and we were keen to be involved and improve some of our fields. So, along with Devon Wildlife Trust, it was agreed to harvest the seed from North Town Meadow and use this to overseed some of our fields. To this end we have been grazing some of the fields hard this winter with the sheep. The turf has just broken up in the areas where we have been feeding and this is where we have spread some of the harvested seed, hoping that we have created a sort of seed bed. We now have to wait and see what comes up over the next few years. Our plan is to create a network of fields to eventually link up with the original North Town field.
We can't do this with all our silage and hay fields at present as they would just not produce the amount of grass we need to support our stock through the winter. However, we have been trying to improve some of these fields in a slightly different way using deep rooting herbs. The idea is to again overseed the existing pasture with species that can either improve nitrogen in the soil eg Clovers thereby improve grass growth and also some deep rooted herbs that can drag nutrients and minerals up from deeper within the soil so they can be utilised by the grazing animals. Some of these herbs are also thought to be natural wormers which again in a semi organic system is really interesting to us. We will report on what happens over summer.
The cattle were all brought into their winter housing just before Christmas. Ideally we would like to keep them outside for as long as possible but in North Devon that's not always easy. If left out we have to be very careful that they do not poach the soil as this is very damaging to the soil structure. The cattle need to be fed silage as the grass stops growing and cannot sustain the animals. Cattle will congregate around a hay/silage feeder and this is where the damage can occur. It's also sometimes very difficult to get the feed to the animals with the tractor without creating ruts and again trashing the soil.
Soil is everything in farming and we really want to leave our soils in better condition than we inherited them.
The cattle are usually quite relieved to get into the barn and enjoy being pampered with add lib food and bedding. They would still probably prefer to be outside but there are days when you can almost hear them laughing at the poor old sheep out in all weather.
The straw based system the cattle are housed on during the winter is also the source of the only fertiliser we use on the farm. The muck is stored outside in a heap ready for spreading in the spring. Last spring we applied for a grant to roof an area of concrete that could act as a loafing area for the cattle. This means an extra area we can let the cattle roam into when housed in order to give them some more room but also make it easier to bed them down. The area needs to be roofed to keep the bedding dry and stop pollution running off the concrete and down the farm drains into the stream. With Clare from Devon Wildlife Trust we made the application and have just heard that we have been successful, so new shed this summer!. We were relieved that our cattle passed the TB test meaning that we remain on annual testing.
The sheep were scanned at the end of January. We like to do this for peace of mind. Firstly, we then know the rams have worked and that we will expect lambs. Secondly it tells us which ewes are carrying singles , doubles , triples or quads. We feel it is important to know this as it allows us to plan how to feed the ewes through the pregnancy ie ewes with singles do not need as much feed as ewes with multiple lambs. Its also really useful when the ewes are actually lambing as it gives the shepherd a good idea of what to expect from each ewe. The ewes are marked to show how many lambs they are scanned for.
Our first two lambs were born mid Feb which is very early for us. We knew a few might be early as one of our rams (Dirk) escaped late in the summer and when caught was very kindly put back into one of our fields which contained a few ewes.
Our Orchard project continued with more tree planting. Verity and Flora constructed small tree guards to keep the rabbits off our young trees!