Rotten Old Grass
This is the story of our meadows, a story that goes back millions of years, the earlier part of which I’ve covered in previous blogs so I’ll pick this tale up in modern times. If you’ve take any interest in conservation and wildlife in the British Isles over the last 20 years you’ll no doubt have come across the statistic that an estimated 97% of our ‘unimproved’ grasslands have been lost in England & Wales between 1930 and 1984. Whether that figure has increased or not since the 1980’s is largely immaterial, it’s still a lot, and we’re no where near restoring them all, so where have they gone?
I grew up as part of a farming family in the 1980’s, it was a time of production subsidies, land drainage grants, hedgerow removal and the filling in of ponds. These efforts were designed to make farming more ‘efficient’, productive and profitable, but I was too late to witness the large-scale ploughing up of our unimproved grasslands; they were already gone.
As mixed farmers with dairy cattle occupying half the acreage pasture still had a value on the family farms, maize was still a rather exotic crop grown by southern farmers at this time (plant breeding improvements rapidly changed this through the 1990’s though) but even when it did reach Yorkshire it was still restricted to the lighter, free-draining arable land that was out of our league. That said, our heavy-clay pastures were ploughed out every few years for a crop or two of grain before being returned to the latest varieties of grass. Only two fields have escaped the plough in my lifetime.
Meanwhile, through conservation efforts by local farmers and conservationists, the floodplain meadows of the Ings, which had survived by virtue of their topography, were facing new threats, and high court battles were going on behind the scenes that had completely passed me by at the time. Growing up in a small rural village, the Ings were a backdrop to a childhood where ancient churches overlooking ancient meadows to the sound of curlews, lapwings and thousands of wintering wildfowl wasn’t anything special, it just was.
The Yorkshire Ings are a linear progression of floodplain meadows that follow the course of the River Derwent and are extensive in it’s lower reaches. For centuries ‘Ings’, or floodplain meadows, were common alongside many of England’s lowland river valleys, but like so many unimproved grasslands, they have largely disappeared from the wider landscape today.
That’s not to say that the Yorkshire Ings have been preserved in aspic, although they represent the best of the intact floodplain meadow ecosystems in the UK, attempts have been made to improve and change their land use over the years. Preservation of the Ings focussed primarily upon the intact hay meadows, but even on the floodplain itself there are pockets of land where cultivation & cropping had been attempted in the past. Some of these have subsequently been returned to grass while others, like this one, remain in arable cultivation.
As we drove the cattle from their summer pastures to autumn ‘aftermath’ (the regrowth after the hay cut) grazing we mused over the reason why these floodplain edge-meadows had been cultivated. They flood, along with the hay meadows, almost every year, and crops remain at high risk from flood damage. We farm some of these edge pastures ourselves, and they tend to be formed from sandy ridges with springs feeding small bogs & mires along their edge - hardly prime arable land, but perfect habitat for damp-loving wildflowers like meadowsweet and ragged robin, hunting grounds for our barn owls, and foraging for curlews & corncrakes.
When it comes to our way of farming it’s not uncommon to be accused of starving people by not managing our land more intensively. There is a narrative being spun that we can’t feed our expanding world population without intensive farming and that it is our moral duty, as farmers, to produce as much as physically possible from the land. The markets, however, suggest that the supply of food is exceeding demand and a study by Which reveals that we’re actually paying less, accounting for inflation, for our food now than we did 30 years ago.
So let’s take another look at these more intensively farmed former meadows - around half of them, 24 acres, have been planted with a crop of commercially coppiced willows for biomass power generation. Although trees and willow coppice are often regarded as good for wildlife, this modern, commercial monoculture offers little by way of increasing biodiversity. In fact providing cover for predators beneath and within it’s dark branches, so close to the meadows, is actually posing a significant threat to ground nesting birds. But when it comes to ‘feeding the world’, this intensive land use does not contribute to UK food production. Even the crop is not making full use of the land as wide headlands are left bare for turning the large machinery used to harvest the willow. On the other half of these edge meadows there is no crop, the land is left fallow.
I delved into the historical records to try to discover why these meadows had been cultivated originally and was fortunate in that I was able to pinpoint it to a specific point in time - 1943. The farm in question is, today, a large arable unit that has both intensified and diversified over the years to remain profitable. They still produce traditional crops of wheat and barley but, like many of the arable farms in the Yorkshire Ings today, they also lease out land to other companies to grow carrots, potatoes, maize, lawn turf and, of course, the willow coppice. In 1939 they were still a traditional mixed farm though, like many of those in the east of England, with permanent grassland being an integral part of the cropping mix.
By 1943 Britain was four years into the Second World War and rationing of many foodstuffs had been in place for three years. UK food self sufficiency had stood at less than 40% in 1939 and with imports down due to German U-boats we had a deficit of 43 million tonnes of food to make up. One solution was the organisation of War Agricultural Executive Committees for each county which oversaw the process of increasing food production from all farms in the UK. It essentially became illegal not to plough out ‘old grass’ and replace it with something more productive under the Cultivation of Lands Order, 1939. The committees were made up of local farmers and their role was primarily to encourage, rather than force, farmers to intensify. Practical demonstrations were carried out on farms to showcase to other farmers the work being done and inspire them to increase productivity on their own land.
This farm had played host to one such demonstration in July 1943 and from the reports about it we learn that they had already ploughed out most of their old grass, including this meadow, and intended to have ploughed the final two fields by the following year. Earlier that month another such demonstration was hosted by the chairman of the committee Lt.-Col. J.A. Dunnington-Jefferson over on his own farm at Thorganby. He described how “a mass attack is being made on rotten old grass.” and noted that cultivated ground produces significantly more food than even the best grass.
We also learn from these reports that neither did the Ings escape arable cultivation, albeit at an experimental stage, 20 acres of Dunnington-Jefferson’s Ings had been sown with oats despite being "covered by 18 inches of water" just four months earlier. The crop was also undersown with a permanent mixture to reseed the floodplain meadows with more productive grasses in subsequent years. Crops at both farms were described as ‘excellent’ on ploughed out grass, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the floodplain is poorly suited to arable cropping and both arable crops and new grasses don’t stand up as well to flooding. 67 years later, some parts of the Ings are much richer in wildflowers where they have never been ploughed and this demonstrates why it is so important to preserve our remaining fragments of established species-rich habitats.
Another interesting observation arises from the Thorganby report confirms my suspicion that drainage and arable ‘improvement’ of the surrounding higher ground has had a detrimental effect upon the Ings. This is because drainage of land does not solve the problem of flooding but merely passes it on to somewhere else. Although the floodplain is there to hold excess water from the river, today much greater volumes of the water flow into the floodplain from the surrounding farmland which makes farming & conservation in the Ings much harder.
It would be easy to condemn farmers of the past for destroying our wildflower meadows, and we’re right to feel that loss, but it’s important that we recognise that they were the heroes of the their time. Food rationing continued until 1954 and having come so close to starvation as a country, prices to farmers were then guaranteed under the 1947 Agriculture Act (with the exception of pigs, poultry meat and horticultural crops) in order to encourage more people into farming and for the industry to produce more of our own food for the nation. Food prices to farmers were subsidised when the market price dropped below a certain level but, crucially, import tariffs remained at zero. These provisions were mirrored across Europe and were covered by the Common Agricultural Policy when Britain joined the EEC in 1973, however instead of making up the price, import tariffs were applied to keep the market prices high.
When it comes to how we, as a nation, move forward with our food policy & respond to the ongoing biodiversity crisis, leaving the EU (and the Common Agricultural Policy) offers both risk and opportunity. I don’t profess to know the best way forward, but I do feel that a policy remaining closer to rigid conservatism will destroy what we have left by the middle of this century as land managers are too restricted by a system that seeks to preserve what has already been lost.
Much of the focus at present is upon producers and policy, and how they interact - a few of us making big decisions about which direction we head in. This can be hugely advantageous - persuading one large landowner to adopt regenerative farming and conservation is much more efficient than doing the same with 30 small holders. Unfortunately it also stifles innovation and adaptation with an ever diminishing knowledge base of farmers and land managers. In order to avoid this and become more resilient we need to engage another P - people.
Large organisations, whether they be vast estates owned by a single person or public funded charities with many members, tend to share the same inherent problem - a tendency towards risk aversion. If we want our food production system to be dynamic & restorative we need to spread the risk to allow a greater number of farmers & conservationists to work together, positively shaping whole landscapes. Sharing ideas and being open to new approaches will drive innovation - we don’t need to return to an agrarian economy.
Designing a food system fit for the 21st century is a long term process involving a collaborative effort that requires us to embrace change, but quite how we begin that transition is a subject for another blog...