The first cut is the deepest, for the Curlew
It was on the 25th March this year when I noticed, via Twitter, that a farm in Wales had begun mowing organic grass for silage. If you’re not familiar with the farming calendar, that’s very early, and with our focus on ground nesting birds I shared the news to point out that often the increase in birds of prey is blamed for the Curlew being in trouble, but in fact one of the greatest threats to the birds come from more intensive land use, mechanisation and earlier cutting of grass for silage, which was certainly the case for the demise of the Corncrake. The fact that the land in this case was organic, often regarded as being ‘good’ for wildlife, was a strange juxtaposition for me as a strong advocate for organic methods in farming!
There are, of course, almost as many factors in the decline of wading birds as there are opinions about them, and many of them will be discussed today on World Curlew Day but for the purposes of this article I’m going to concentrate on how we might modernise farm mechanisation to avoid killing off the Curlew.
We aim to avoid harming ground nesting birds here, including not mowing grass until much later in the season, but then we are blessed with having retained far more wildlife in the Yorkshire Ings. This makes us very aware that we could be responsible for wiping out the last of these iconic birds in England if we are not careful to avoid the mistakes of the past, for which we now have the benefit of hindsight.
Rosewood may seem like a special place, nestled in a landscape that time forgot, but change has happened here as much as anywhere else. We’re a commercial farm and we don’t receive any environmental payments from the government so all the work we do must be paid for by food production. The thing that makes Rosewood different is that we’ve set out with the intention of changing the food market to suit a wildlife friendly style of farming rather than changing our farming to suit the market.
We do still need to use machinery at Rosewood though, without which the farm would be neither physically nor financially sustainable. We aim to minimise machinery use as far as practical but with high wages and living costs in modern Britain we simply wouldn’t be able to manage the acreage needed to survive without a tractor. The farming of yesteryear involved a lot less machinery and a lot more people working on the land - between 1945 & 1997 the number of labourers working the land fell by 77% (Newton, 2017). This almost as stark a drop as 97% of our traditional wildflower meadows disappearing over a similar time frame.
Why there are so few people working in agriculture today, like the reason why there are so few wildflower meadows, comes down to economics. Farming is a numbers game like any other and the less money you receive per unit of produce, the less you can spend on paying wages and taking care of wildlife, to balance this out, to a degree, cutting costs usually goes hand in hand with selling more which can, but doesn’t have to, have a detrimental effect upon wildlife.
Two world wars were a catalyst for change in UK agriculture - heavy losses in the Great War significantly reduced the number of men (and horses) available to work the land by 1918. During the Second World War farmers were called upon to use the most modern machinery to plough every bit of available ground to maximise food production & avoid starvation due to sinking of the merchant shipping that brought much of our food into the country. This even lead to attempts to grow carrots in parts of the flood-prone Ings, with predictably disastrous results and long last effects upon the biodiversity of the pasture. Blaming today’s farmers for these two events is ludicrous but often what’s seen an uncaring attitude towards nature stems from the multi generational effects of those significant past events.
At Rosewood we are no more immune from these pressures than any other farm - I’m pleased to say that 2019 has got off to a good start for us as more people are actively looking for food that benefits their own health and that of the Yorkshire Ings so we’re busier than ever. But every silver lining has a cloud and over the past 12 months we’ve had to consider how to make best use of our time on the farm in order to achieve more output without harming our core principles.
In an ideal world we’d simply turn back the clock to how the Ings were managed for the majority of their history, cutting the grass by scythe & moving the hay by ox-cart, but the money needed to employ enough people at today’s cost of living would eliminate any revenue from food sales. The cattle naturally harvest their own grass in summer but simply leaving them to graze the meadows year round is impossible due to extensive flooding in winter. Many species of wildlife, birds in particular, thrive where they have a variety of different habitats for different needs such as feeding and breeding, so the annual hay cut is an integral part of keeping the Ings in top condition.
While some forms of mechanisation, such as the earlier mowing mentioned above, can be devastating for wildlife, others, like our ‘new’ bale shredder, has freed up significant amounts of time spent on menial tasks like forking hay with negligible effects upon wildlife. It is these kind of tasks we focus on to give us more time for tasks like checking the cattle, improving habitats and packing orders.
In the book ‘Wealth of Nations’ eighteenth century economist & philosopher Adam Smith extolled the virtues of the division of labour using the example of a pin factory to demonstrate that a great loss in productivity lay in ‘passing from one species of work to another’. Smith was less than convinced that his pin factory could be applied to farming but as we found when operating a single tractor, a great deal of unproductive time is lost in the simplest of tasks. Hitching and unhitching the bale feeder for loading, was actually taking longer than the machine was operating so our decision to invest in a second tractor this year has, counter intuitively, actually reduced our machinery & fuel use! During the summer, we’re also operating across several sites in the Yorkshire Ings, so machinery movements will now be reduced, which all helps us to avoid having to change in-field operations that may harm the birds, such as faster and earlier mowing.
Many farmers worry that wildlife friendly farming means turning back the clock to a long lost, less productive era, full of back breaking work and inefficient methods. The Farmers' Union of Wales recently said that ‘nature should not be prioritised at the expense of the rural economy’ but balancing the needs of wildlife in a thriving countryside needn’t involve consigning the Curlew, nor the tractor, to the history books.
Newton, I. (2017) Farming and Birds. London: Harper Collins Publishers
Ralston, C.S. (2005) Birds of the Lower Derwent Valley. York: Natural England
Smith, A. (2012) An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Ltd