News and blog Friday's Farming Thoughts Entry #4 - Dougal Hosford: The Learning Curve – Ten Years in Higher Level Stewardship FWAG SW advisers have been working with Dougal and George Hosford at Traveller’s Rest for more than 10 years, since they asked us to prepare their Farm Environment Plan (FEP) for their Higher Level Stewarship (HLS) agreement. At the time HLS was competitive and success was not guaranteed, partly due to the farm not having a SSSI. FWAG advisers were able to skillfully fit the ambitions of the farm into the eligibility criteria and options available in the scheme, the epitome of getting a square peg in a round hole! Natural England saw the breadth of ambition within the application and therefore it was successful. Our advisers have enjoyed revisiting the farm over the years and seeing what has been achieved by Dougal and family and learning from them. Dougal is currently FWAG SW Chair of Trustees. Read Dougal's words below... Since January 2010 Travellers Rest has been delivering an Entry Level / Higher Level Stewardship agreement. Now the time has come to revisit the head scratching that comes from finding about the plethora of new rules and requirements involved with the ‘new’ scheme, Countryside Stewardship. This is of course for now just a steppingstone between HLS and the hopefully next new thing ‘ELMS’. The Current ELS/HLS scheme has supported environmental management on more than 60 arable hectares of the farm including planting bird food crops, specialist pollen and nectar plots for insects, as well as 35 hectares of floristically enhanced 6metre margins, overwintered stubbles and more. The scheme has also supported an alternative way of managing the different types of habitat on the 100ha of permanent grassland on the farm. This has included the 20ha of species rich chalk grassland and 9ha of woodland grazing. An area of 1ha of woodland grazing was also created in 2010. Many of the old hedges on the farm have been restored, with a view to providing a patchwork of hedges in different stages of development from recently laid, coppiced and gapped up, to biennial flail trimmed to then an overgrown hedge ideal for the local colony of Greater Horseshoe Bats to feed along. The ideal hedge for these bats has tall overhanging branches on each side for the bats to hunt underneath for flies. Having a rotation of the different stages of hedge means that there can always be a decent amount of this ideal habitat at any given time in the future. There are so many features of farming for the environment like this which have similar principals to mainline farming. What we have also achieved in the scheme is the establishment of various types of grassland under arable reversion. This has been incredibly successful. Some has been done using purchased seed but the best 4ha was established using seed from our own very special area of SNCI chalk downland. It is worth noting at this point that a large area of steep downland on the farm (including the SNCI) could have received grant aid in the 1960’s to be ploughed up for arable production. This would have involved the destruction of some hedges as described above as well as the wonderful grassland and varied species within it. Fortunately my parents had better sense and declined the grant and left the land as it was. The ‘seed’ produced from the SNCI once cleaned up resembled something that I imagine many summer music festival goers would have thought should be placed between some rizla paper and burnt! My modern seed drill had never seen anything like it. Still, I was advised to get the seed in the ground asap as it was a bit damp and fausty and certainly wouldn’t do any good staying in the bag. I sowed it on October 10th 2010 with very little hope of success even though I knew the seed was worth a fortune! Slowly the following spring seedlings emerged and with very careful management in the first summer using a sharp mower and some brief grazing with sharp toothed sheep the field greened up and the flowers started to emerge. Within 3 years the carpet of cowslips in April is fantastic. A good number of broad-leaved species can now be found midsummer and when Dorset Wildlife Trust surveyed it last summer and over the whole piece there was an average of over 13 different species per square metre. There is a greater than 30% cover of herbs excluding white clover. There are over 20 broad leaved species in total. This is very pleasing after such a relatively short period of time since establishment. This field has now been recognised by Natural England and has been added to the Priority Habitat Inventory. Flowers on arable reversion We have learned through the management of the site that the use of semi-natural habitats as a seed source can create new species rich grassland in just 10 years. We would like to apply the same principle to the production of seed from our floristically enhanced grass margins, cover crops and any other forms of seed sowing or production. The seed for 90% of most of our mainline arable crops is always home saved so why treat this any different. Interestingly on a couple of other areas of arable reversion where we have used purchased seed we have found orchids last summer. Pyramid and early purple must have been in the ground since before the fields went to arable. Going forwards we have already sown some in field floristic margins in some of our larger arable fields with the hope of producing refuge habitats for predatory insects. Cabbage stem flea beetles are now resistant to insecticide and in general I believe the days of mass insecticide use are fast disappearing. We are trying to adopt a policy of ‘insecticide free’ at Travellers Rest. When spring beans were being murdered by pea and bean weevil a week or two back it was hard to ignore it but we did and the beans are growing away from it nicely and the bee and other insect populations are breathing a sigh of relief. Having trust in natural processes takes some doing but I feel it is something we have to get used to. An inch of warm rain wouldn’t go a miss though! We have also established and are mob grazing 16ha of diverse herbal ley with cattle. This is an experiment in soil improvement our arable land. It has been going well but even the herbal ley is now beginning to look desperate for rain now. Heifers on Herbal Ley We have learnt a great deal in 10 years of HLS. All the different aspects of the scheme have to be managed and managed well. It doesn’t just happen. Over grazing will cause damage, under grazing will cause damage. Wild bird food plots can easily be a mess of docks, brome, nettles and thistles. Pollen and nectar plots can become all docks. It isn’t easy but does require flexibility. My one main complaint with the schemes would be the lack of flexibility in management. Rules are written on a blanket basis. Sometimes one particular floristically enhanced margin may need mowing mid summer to knock back weeds or to supress the grass growth. At present in our particular area there is no one at NE or RPA to call in order to get a quick response to okay such an action. Like all aspects of farming, if spontaneous action can’t be taken, what can result is a serious deterioration of the particular option in question such as the 6m margin, bird food plot or whatever. Flexibility is key. In a weeks time the margins will be in full bloom, the downland flowers and orchids will be at their best and it will be a joy to be alive. We hope when Covid-19 restrictions are lifted that we can invite members to visit the farm to have a discussion about these new approaches – dare we yet call them ‘Regenerative Farming’. With thanks to author Dougal Hosford, FWAG SW Chair of Trustees and Dorset Farmer.