Sheep and trees may not be the most obvious combination in cider orchards, with most sheep being rather fond of eating apple trees, but a group of farmers in Herefordshire are seeing the benefits of combining the two.
Permaculture readers will be well aware of the useful relationship of ‘double cropping’ apple trees and livestock. The field lab, run through the new network 'Innovative Farmers', and supported by Waitrose and the Prince’s Charities, aims to find reliable evidence that Shropshire sheep break the trend in sheep-apple decimation and can in fact be beneficial even on large scale cider apple production.
At Broome Farm in Peterstow, Mike Johnson and his nephew Toby Lovell have linked up with other local farmers to investigate the topic.
Mike said; “I want to see what sheep can do to keep lower branches pruned without causing major damage to the trees. I think this will maintain good air flow through the trees and help with scab control, our biggest problem at Broome Farm. We’ve already noticed some positive behaviours – the sheep clear up leaves over the autumn, reducing the source of scab infection in the apples. Also, we struggle to prune the suckers growing at the base of trees (and it’s expensive!) and the sheep tend to nibble these shoots down.”
The first challenge for the field lab is to restrict the sheep to ‘pruning’ the lower branches only, without nibbling the bark and causing damage to the apple crop. Shropshire sheep are a desirable breed and are generally recognised as the safest breed for grazing in conifer plantations. By testing their behaviour in apple orchards the group are looking for an opportunity to change the way orchards are managed more widely, as well as raise the profile of Shropshire sheep.
The orchards - pesticide free
The orchards are very different bush types to the spacious ‘standards’ that Mike’s grandfather would have run his cows through. Mike feels they may be rather too close for good air flow and his original planting of 21ft by 8ft may be a sensible compromise, reducing the need for fungicide sprays whilst maintaining higher yields.
No sprays have been used for three years, although the orchard is not certified organic. Typically, commercial bush orchards spray a herbicide strip beneath the trees 2-3 times a year to reduce competition to the trees from grass, but at Broome Farm Mike chose to find alternative methods. Spraying the grass can mean apples fall onto bare earth during harvest which then speeds up rot and can cause a significant loss of usable apple yield, so Mike has chosen to mow.
Other potential hurdles to overcome are controlling undesirable insect populations in the orchards. Mike installed bird boxes in the winter to encourage blue tits and great tits for biological control rather than using insecticides to control ermine moth and blossom weevil.
Production - stacking functions
The orchards cover 50 acres, with 38 acres of this area in production for a Bulmer’s contract. This leaves 12 acres of apples for Mike to produce his own cider. His crop is augmented with fruit from small local orchards. He produces 100 different ciders and perrys in small batches often only 300-500 bottles each. He sells his products through a shop and pub, the Yew tree Inn at Peterstow.
In addition to Mike’s own cider production, Toby can make a profit from selling the lambs that graze between trees.
The Innovative Farmers group in Herefordshire met in the autumn to dissect the results so far. Ten like-minded farmers were joined by Liz Bowles (Soil Association), Paul Burgess (Cranfield University), and Emily Durrant (Bulmers Foundation), who offered expert knowledge and scientific support.
1. Tree Damage
On close inspection of the orchard there was no visible damage to the trees. The occasional broken lower branch was most likely attributed to machinery used for grass topping and apple harvest. Damage to bark could allow access of fungal/bacterial disease so was closely monitored, however there was very limited evidence of low bark grazing on these broken branches and where it was visible was attributed to rabbit damage as the marks predated sheep entry to the orchard.
2. Soil & sheep
Sheep are excellent natural lawnmowers, keeping weeds down and manuring at the same time. Using sheep to reduce competition from grass instead of spraying or mowing reduced the work required in the orchard, improved the soil health and meant that soil compaction was reduced, as heavy machinery was not needed. This style of grazing is known as Holisitc Planned Grazing (see HERE for more information.)
The group discussed the positive impact good soil health could have on the trees and apple yield. The importance of mycorrhiza to plant health and growth is well documented and they should be present particularly in apple orchards where soil is not disturbed for significant periods.
Earthworms are another useful soil dweller. It was noted that leaf litter was removed whilst the sheep were in the orchard, perhaps due to higher numbers of earthworms, processing leaf litter down into the soil and subsequently alleviating risk of scab infection.
To assess the ongoing impact, the sheep will be grazed for longer periods in 2016. Soil tests have also been suggested to indicate the presence and abundance of mycorrhiza in the soil and asses the effect this has on the apple yield.
The possibilities that could come from this research could change the look of British agriculture and help make British farming more sustainable. The group will now look for funding to continue their research.
To find out more: innovativefarmers.org
Innovative Farmers Network
Innovative Farmers is a not-for-profit network giving farmers research support and funding on their own terms. Many of the best ideas in farming come from farmers. But most research happens off-farm. Innovative Farmers changes that. It helps farmers find lasting solutions to practical problems, from managing weeds and pests with fewer chemicals to testing more sustainable animal feeds through on-farm field labs. Together farmers are finding new ways to grow better food, cut waste and pollution, and protect their farm from volatility.
The Soil Association, LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), Innovation for Agriculture and the Organic Research Centre and have teamed up to make Innovative Farmers. The network is part of the Duchy Future Farming Programme, funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation and backed by Waitrose.
How does it work?
- Farmers meet in small groups to test and develop new tools and techniques in practical ‘field labs’.
- The network matches each group with a co-ordinator and a researcher who give professional support and help the group win research funding.
- The co-ordinator shares what they learn through an online portal, where groups can track their progress and compare notes.
What have we achieved so far?
- Over the last three years, 750 farmers have been involved in field labs.
- Field labs have covered 35 topics, including anything from reducing antibiotic use in dairy to methods to control blackgrass.
- An independent evaluation by the Countryside & Communities Research Institute found that 86% of farmers surveyed said they’d learned and 56% were inspired to make changes on their farm.
The Soil Association was founded in 1946 by farmers, scientists, doctors and nutritionists to promote the connection between the health of the soil, food, animals, people and the environment. Today the Soil Association is the UK's leading membership charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use.
For more information on soil health and mycorrhiza, see the new issue of Permaculture magazine, issue 87
More information on holistic planned grazing, watch: Building soil with regenerative agriculture
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