Ian Bell is tenant farmer at RSPB Geltsdale in the wet and windy North Pennines where he grazes sheep and cattle. Here he talks about his experience of farming on the reserve. Two years in to taking on the farm tenancy at RSPB Geltsdale and I’m still relishing the challenges of farming a large upland nature reserve.
Ian Bell, tenant farmer at Geltsdale. Image: Steve Westerberg Over the past few months, I don't think it has stopped raining for more than four days in a row which makes everything in farming much more challenging to say the least. The sheep were late getting clipped, as trying to organise contract clippers to coincide with the sheep’s fleeces being dry isn't easy. I only just managed to make enough silage to get through the winter and the wet weather has meant it’s been very difficult to get on with topping rushes. On a more positive note, the stock have done really well over the summer months and I'm looking forward to getting the cows in soon and the sheep off the hills ready to be tupped.
Cattle grazing at Geltsdale. Image: Ian Ryding Grazing cattle on the moorland edge has been a new experience for me. The areas are remote, the weather harsh and the grazing rough but I’m pleasantly surprised how well the animals have fared. A suitable breed is essential and I brought in a herd of hardy shorthorn highlands and sim-luing cattle for that are bred for extreme conditions. The RSPB are keen to increase the cattle numbers on the hill to help create a new patchwork of habitats for a range of birds and other wildlife, and now we have around 100 cows in several herds grazing up to an altitude of 500 metres from June through to November. I can see the effects they’re having, breaking up stands of bracken, trampling rushes and knocking back the rough grasses.
Geltsdale cattle. Image: Ian Ryding Seeing them out on the fellside on a fine day is a joy and one of my favourite parts of the job. The birdlife here is tremendous and I regularly see black grouse, short eared owls and curlews when I’m out checking the livestock. The presence of an osprey around the tarn this summer has been a real treat as I remember having to travel to the Highlands to see them as boy. Hopefully the bird will return next year with a beautiful young wife. Find out more about how we are helping nature through farming at Geltsdale here.
RSPB Farmland advisor Chris Tomson tells us about the work underway on one estate in Yorkshire to provide valuable nesting and feeding habitat for lapwings.
Lapwing numbers are increasing on the Ganton Estate in North Yorkshire thanks to a technique developed by the Estate owner Nicholas Wrigley, who counted more than 40 lapwing chicks in the spring of 2016. Most of the 807 hectare estate sits on the northern edge of the Yorkshire Wolds and is in a comprehensive Higher Level Scheme (HLS) agreement. This part of the Estate is mainly arable land on chalk with wild flower rich chalk dales and woodland.
The remaining part of the estate - the 105 hectare Haybridge farm - sits in the Vale of Pickering. Here the land is heavy and wet in places and has been converted from arable into wet grassland within a Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship Agreement.
A plan has been prepared by consultants to manage the water levels on the Haybridge farm site with sluices and wind pumps which should lead to an increase in breeding waders and an abundance of wintering waders and wildfowl. Hedges will be coppiced to open up the landscape and to reduce the opportunities for predators to pick off wader chicks.
Haybridge Farm, showing the cultivated fallow plot in the recently sown wet grassland seed mix. Image: Chris Tomson
The HLS option HF13 uncropped, cultivated areas for ground nesting birds on arable land has been used to great effect on the main Wolds part of the estate by siting it adjacent to grassland that has been established either to protect archaeological interest, is low input grassland or to create species rich grassland. Lapwings prefer the uncropped cultivated areas on which to lay their eggs but will take their chicks onto the grassland to find food and safety from predators. The estate employs a keeper, who keeps carrion crows and foxes under control. The land up on the Wolds is largely flat with large open fields with a significant acreage in spring cropping so suits lapwings well. A number of HF13 uncropped cultivated areas have been strategically sited across the estate. The HLS agreement includes low input spring cereals (HG7) which also works well for lapwings in the spring.
Haybridge Farm - large open fields formerly arable now converted to wet grassland with cultivated fallow plots and wader scrapes for lapwings. Image: Chris Tomson
Nicholas Wrigley’s enthusiasm for lapwings led him to extend and modify the uncropped cultivated area system that works so well on the Wolds, onto Haybridge Farm when it came back in hand.
The Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme option AB5 - Fallow plots for lapwings is used on the arable land most of which has been converted to wet grassland either for breeding waders or for wintering waders and wildfowl, so in effect the fallow plots are within the wet grassland rather than adjacent to it.
Ganton Estate on the Yorkshire Wolds. A cultivated fallow plot adjacent to low input grassland works well for lapwings. Image: Chris Tomson
Wader scrapes have also been created within the wet grassland and this has created an ideal habitat for lapwings in that all of their habitat requirements are in one large field.
Excavating a scrape for wintering waders and wildfowl. Image: Chris Tomson
For detailed information on how to create space for wildlife on farmland, visit www.farmwildlife.info
In case you missed it - our Conservation Director Martin Harper focussed on the future of farming post-Brexit last week, following the publication of a new independent report on two potential drivers of change – a decrease in financial support for farmers, and a failure to agree a trade deal with the EU.
This report highlights some of the challenges that farms might face in the future, particularly where a majority of income is from subsidy, and/or opportunities for improved productivity or diversification are limited. Read more about the report here.
These challenges are likely to be of particular concern for upland livestock farms, so RSPB advisor Janet Fairclough and upland livestock farmer Chris Clark also share their thoughts in a series of guest blogs.