How The Prince's Countryside Fund has helped Dorset farmers with their conservation and farming skills
PUBLISHED: 14:58 14 January 2014 | UPDATED: 16:08 14 January 2014
For Blandford-based brothers Dougal and George Hosford, maintaining the balance of conservation and traditional farming methods at their family-run farm has made them award-winners. For other farmers who fear their skills could be lost, help is at hand following a new initiative backed by The Prince's Countryside Fund.
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In the rush to find ever more efficient and cost effective methods of farming, traditional practices are in danger of dying out. That’s where the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West (FWAG SW) comes in, with a new venture aimed at supporting older generations of farmers struggling with the regulation of modern day agriculture. The Rest Assured Project was established last summer with funding from The Prince’s Countryside Fund to offer support for farmers in an increasingly challenging agricultural environment.
“There’s a lot of knowledge on the way the land used to be worked and how we used to farm that is at risk of being lost,” said Sarah Wells, FWAG SW assistant advisor. “Obviously it is important to come up with new technology and improve methods, but I think we can learn from the basics of how things were in the past. It’s just a case of evaluating what works best.”
One of the ideas the group has implemented as part of the project is the commissioning of Heritage Reports to capture the details of farming traditions and preserve the individual farmer’s knowledge of his land and the local wildlife it supports.
“Compiling a report involves a walk around the farm chatting to the farmer and learning how they have managed their farm in the past,” revealed Sarah. “It can cover all sorts of aspects of farming and conservation, such as where the most important places for wildlife are on that specific farm and how it has been managed sympathetically by the farmer.”
Once compiled the reports are held by the relevant parish council so that if the farm is ever sold the new buyers can be inspired to become guardians of the farm and its wildlife. It is hoped that the Heritage Reports will create a library of traditional land management knowledge to inform sustainable farm practice for the protection of wildlife.
Realising the importance of keeping this knowledge alive - and not simply confining it to the pages of a report - FWAG SW is seeking to enthuse the next generation of farmers by inviting members of local Young Farmers’ Clubs along while the report is being compiled so that they can experience
the practices first hand. “For quite a lot of farmers they like to see that knowledge isn’t being lost and that it’s being taken in by the young farming community,” added Sarah.
The project is also aiming to forge more formal links with charities such as the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, the Farming Community Network and the Addington Fund to ensure that farmers are aware of the support available to them should they require it.
As recent winners of FWAG SW’s Barn Owl Trophy Farming & Wildlife Award, brothers Dougal and George Hosford were praised by the judges for their efforts in combining commercial agriculture with conservation at their family-run farm near Blandford. This included arable reversion pasture, field margins, restored hazel coppice, installation of PV panels and a water storage system.
The 2,000 acre Travellers Rest Farm, which forms part of the Crown Estate, has been in the hands of the Hosford family since 1960 when their father John took on the tenancy. The family farm the land predominantly for arable crops, but also maintain a flock of 250 breeding ewes and 60 suckler cows as well as preserving 70 acres of woodland.
“Having lived on the same farm for all one’s life you have an affinity for the land around your and naturally want to preserve the features that are characteristic of it,” explained Dougal. “We have always had an interest in conservation and looking after the land, which is something that George and I have inherited from our parents because they always took an active interest in these things. “Sometimes it’s easier to put that into practice than others; if you’re not making any money you can’t put any aside for conservation, for example.”
Proving that farming and conservation can live side by side in harmony Dougal revealed that the farm’s arable fields are bordered by a flower-rich six metre-wide margin. “The point of this is to create an insect-rich habitat for ground nesting birds, such as the English partridge and skylark,” says Dougal. “Up until the 1960s there would have been English partridges here, but for a number of reasons, such as a lack of game keepers and a change of farming practices, this has resulted in them being wiped them out. At the time no one knew that was going to affect them, but I am very keen to see them return.”
Understanding the habitat requirements of a diverse eco system in Dorset forms the basis of the family’s conservation work and the brothers have thrown themselves into making a wide variety of different habitats on the farm as appealing to wildlife as they can.
Managing about 70 acres of woodland within the farm, made up of predominantly beech, the Hosfords are trying to improve this habitat by carrying
out a number of traditional land management tasks. “We have been carrying out hedge-laying around the woods as well as tree thinning within,”
explained Dougal. “By the very nature of beech trees in the summer it can be so dark that nothing can grow, so by thinning it out we’re making it
more varied for a wider variety of species to thrive, which should in turn encourage more small insects and mammals which will then attract more birds.”
The family has also turned over an 11 acre area of former working land back to Dorset downland. “Sadly Dorset downland is a disappearing sight across the county,” said Dougal. “It is such an important part of the countryside as it increases biodiversity and is an area that is home to lots of wild flower. We want to preserve it. “We seeded the field in October three years ago, but by the spring it was just full of cleavers and other weeds. Then one day we were taking the cows across it to another field, and they just stopped and ate all of the cleavers. So I thought let’s leave them in here for a day or two and they ate all of the cleavers. Had we done the same with the sheep we would have lost everything.”
When the newly-converted downland was surveyed by FWAG SW this autumn it was found to be home to 24 different species of broad leaf flowers. “It has been very much a case of learning on the hoof as we have gone along,” laughs Dougal.
“People may think that conservation means not changing anything, but it is actually about finding the best way of maintaining the land around us. We have a beautiful farm and we are very keen to keep it that way.”
The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West
The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West seeks to support, enthuse and inspire fellow farmers to value the environmental assets on their land and use them to secure sustainable and profitable businesses for the future. They are still welcoming applications for the Rest Assured Project. For more information call 01823 355427, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to FWAG SouthWest, Environment Department, County Hall, Taunton, Somerset TA1 4DY.