Feral Farming: can we produce good yields and have healthy wildlife?

Rebecca Hosking & Tim Green
Wednesday, 22nd May 2013

Remember the BBC film 'A Farm for the Future'? Wonder what happened to film makers, Rebecca Hosking and Tim Green? They have been experimenting with regenerative agriculture and mob grazing and they want to conclusively prove that farming can produce yields, sequester far more carbon than forested areas of a comparable size, and support wildlife.

In 2009 Rebecca Hosking, a farmer's daughter and Tim Green, a biologist, made a film, A Farm for a Future. The film dealt with food security in the UK and explored new ecological farming methods including that are independent of fossil fuel, to increase food production. Both Tim and Rebecca worked for the BBC Natural History Unit producing wildlife films. The documentary was aired on BBC2 and was a runaway success. To date it has been the most highly requested DVD from the Natural History Unit. After completing that production the couple returned to Rebecca's family farm to put what they had learnt into practice.

Now they are looking for a new opportunity to test out a portfolio of ideas they have been assessing on a larger canvas. Here's their story.

Our Approach to Truly Sustainable Farming

When policy makers, farmers unions and other special interest groups mention farmland they are often quick to point out the trade off between increased food production and wildlife conservation. 'You can't have both' is the dogma and, needless to say, conservation and wildlife habitats are all too commonly the loser in this battle.

We believe however - actually we have seen with our own eyes - that this is not true, and we want to be the first farm in Europe to scientifically prove it. We also want to flesh out the scientific evidence that pasture fed livestock, if managed properly, will sequester far more carbon than forested areas of comparable size.

The difference in our ethos and methods from conventional food production is that we don't perceive food production and conservation as two separate entities both are one and the same to us, and if we are to be truly sustainable, inseparable. ?We say that 'we farm with nature' as shorthand. What this actually means is our management doesn't make a distinction between domestic plants and animals and wild species. Both are integrated within our land management; all have a purpose and we treat our farm, as it should be, as an ecosystem.

Some Examples: planned grazing, biodiversity & animal health

The old way was to wait for signs of worms/parasites then drench the sheep with a chemical wormer

The new way is to move the sheep on to fresh pasture every day which stops to risk of parasite infections

Our sheep are not wormed, vaccinated or otherwise treated with any internal or external insecticides or pharmaceuticals. They are moved every day to prevent pathogens and disease from developing.

By replacing chemicals with carefully planned grazing we have witnessed an explosion in dung beetles and insect larvae. This, in turn, has enticed several wild bird species to follow the flock, which then disperse the sheep dung to get to the insects. Dispersal of the dung accelerates its uptake by soil microbes and insects that take the dung underground. As well as directly providing increased nutrition for plant roots, this also improves the habitat for earthworms. The increase in earthworms and their activity produces more casts, which also improve soil fertility, supporting more plant growth, which is additional food for the sheep amongst other creatures.

The flock doesn't return to the same patch of land until that fodder has matured (anywhere between 50 and 120 days longer than under conventional rotational grazing). This creates habitat for grassland species of bird, mammal and insect and for rare herbs to flower and set seed. As those plants mature so they throw down deeper root structures which draw up trace minerals from the sub soil thus providing more nutritious fodder for the sheep which in turn enables higher stocking - more financial profit without the necessity for increased inputs or other overheads.
We are indeed working with 'ecosystem services' to use that term, and using them to support our productivity instead of petroleum-based products, which we have minimum need for, but this is just one simple and simplified example of a single aspect of our interpretation of agro-ecological pasture management.

By stoping the use of chemical wormers/internal insecticides and the dung beetle population on the farm has exploded

Some obstacles

My family are quite conventional and conservative in their approach to farming, however, and much of the beyond organic/holistic sustainable methods we hoped to implement can easily be found challenging by a conventional/semi-industrial agricultural mindset.

In an attempt to keep all parties happy here we implemented change at what has been a frustratingly slow pace for us and well within the potential of what we know to be possible and beneath the requirements of what we believe to be necessary. Even so, after three years of tempered changes to our farm's management we are now seeing the benefits to ecology and productivity beginning to take off.

Unfortunately, just when the successes are beginning to snowball, we have found we have reached the limits of what my family are willing to allow to take place on this piece of land, but we are still determined to demonstrate the potential we know to be there because we can see the cutting edge 100% sustainable practices are working.

So we are now looking for a land owner or patron of like mind who will happily share our goals - to demonstrate beyond all shadow of doubt that truly productive farming is both nurturing to and totally dependent on thriving natural ecology and biodiversity.

Broader Aims for the Land

We aim to create as much ecological complexity within the land as possible, and to do this via a number of strategies; the planting of fruiting silvopasture, the creation of ponds and use of keyline waterways, and creating maximum diversity and 'edge' effect between different habitats as possible. This will benefit the domestic livestock and domestic perennial crops by increasing nutrition, improving resilience to erratic climate and protecting from disease. In simple terms we view a farm as an ecosystem that produces food (an edible landscape) and seek to optimise this for all elements including human production and wildlife.

The biggest loss in wildlife from this country is from agricultural land and the biggest use of land in this country is for agriculture. We perceive a need to change our farming methods to produce more food using as little fossil fuel as possible and working with nature rather than seeking to dominate it.

For the first time in over a decade meadow pippets have returned to the farm. Hunting through the sheep dung in search of insects

The individual aspects of this farm design are not new. There is nothing new in holistic management planned grazing, nothing new in flerding (more drily known as multi-species grazing), or keyline waterways or ponds or silvopasture. However, as far as we are aware, nobody in Europe has put all these elements together on one farm and in one designed system. If they have then they've kept very quiet about it, which is not our intention.
We can see no point in achieving what we know is possible in such a vital field if no-one takes note and learns from what we demonstrate, integrating it into their own systems appropriately. That can't happen unless we maintain a very public profile and won't happen unless we operate in an open manner.

We have already been demonstrating this in the form of online media publications, magazine articles, blog entries and social media. Furthermore, wherever possible we prefer to involve volunteer working groups and open days and local residents in our activities. Once again, in a break with current industrial farming mentality we want people to link back to the land and welcome folks to visit and see where and how the food is grown. It is also important to us that the food we produce is not "elitist", and although of the highest environmental and nutritional standards it is available to those on low incomes - in short, as affordable as the supermarkets!

We can afford to sell our products at these low prices purely because we don't need to rely on outside inputs due to our exceptional husbandry standards; with carefully planned grazing we don't need the usual external inputs most farms are dependant on such as animal feeds, field machinery, and veterinary pharmaceuticals. Thus we can pass these savings on to the customer.

We also believe in slaughtering our animals in the most humane way possible. This actually saves money too because we only use small local independent high welfare abattoirs where the animals can vary in age and size and be taken along in small numbers. This form of local dispatch also drastically reduces the stress the animals suffer - especially that associated with long distance transport - as well as fuel costs (and thereby carbon emissions).

Scientific Interest

In terms of the scientific 'evidence' required to convince many people, we have already approached Natural England with this project who have shown huge interest in monitoring it and funding base level surveys of different species and habitats for an initial five years - with the intention of rolling it on for a further five year if soil quality, biodiversity, water and carbon sequestration have notably improved.

Apparently excitement in the potential of our project went high up in the Natural England chain of command, but sadly, since firing up that interest we've been forced to put that monitoring on hold due to our limiting situation here. However that monitoring - as with us - can travel and be done at another site.

Cutting edge of regenerative agriculture

We are practising the cutting edge of regenerative agriculture and with it being so far beyond what is perceived as normal farming, it will take a certain type of landowner or patron to be reading from the same page as us.? Most farmers and landowners have preconceptions of what proper farming is and what farmland 'should' look like, whether it's beneficial to food production and wildlife or not. This is the barrier we've run into here with my own family.

So ideally we're looking for someone with land or a patron willing to put a one off investment into buying the necessary land. Being from a farming background myself I know this individual has to be either an incredibly open-minded, freethinking farmer that 'gets it', or someone without a farming background with a passionate concern for British wildlife, food security and/or climate change. ? Whoever this fine person may be (assuming they exist!), they are willing to supply land or invest in land so that we, with this project, can demonstrate we can indeed increase food production as well as biodiversity - and lock down carbon and all at the same time.

It is important to emphasize that we don't expect or want ongoing financial input, because to be truly successful the project must be financially self-supporting and from a very early stage - it must be successful environmentally, socially and economically in order to be worthwhile; our mission is to be a flagship farm of sustainability for others to mimic.

'Flerds' of beautiful, healthy animals

In order to achieve this we need a plot of land from 100 acres to 300 (ideally 200 acres). We need it to be supplied by an ethically minded free thinking landowner or patron who will be pleased to support long term experimentation using sustainable ecological methods. These have the power to change denuded farmland into something more like a nature reserve with fruiting trees, ponds and roving 'flerds' of beautiful, healthy animals, so in fact we are not even looking for prime farming land - more the opposite; perhaps spent arable or pasture. Within a few years it will look quite beautiful, be full of biodiversity, teeming with wildlife, and productive - quite unlike 'normal' open farmland.

Due to introducing very long resting periods in the farms grazing plan the meadows are now a blaze in flower

Can you or someone you know help us? Are you that person or do you know them or someone who might? We are grateful for everybody's help with this and trust that everyone will benefit too, in a relatively short time.

What you can do

Can you help Rebecca and Tim to test out Regenerative Agriculture and carbon farming in the UK and add to the body of knowledge we so vitally need for all our farming futures? Please contact wolftreefarmuk[at]gmail.com

More resources

The State of Nature Report: UK nature is in trouble

Farming for the Future - despite what the neighbours think

'A Farm for the Future' - the full length film on peak oil, farming and permaculture

Watch Allan Savoury's explanation of mob grazing: How to Green the World's Deserts and Reverse Climate Change

Read: Joel Salatin's pattern for carbon farming at Polyface Farm