Tips & Trees

Climate Change, Conservation Grazing, Coppicing, Countryside Stewardship, Floodplain Meadows, Hedge Laying, Hedgerows, Natural Regeneration, Sustainable Farming Incentive, Tree Planting, Wildflowers, Yorkshire Ings -

Tips & Trees

 Tips and Trees

It’s been a difficult winter at Rosewood, not least because the summer was so wet, then the rain came early and relentlessly over the winter months, as they did in many parts of the country this year. One thing that wet weather does is to focus one’s mind on the future and how to cope with the challenges we face. As I wrote back in 2019, the climate is changing and if the intervening five years have shown us anything it’s that the pace of change is accelerating rapidly with warmer, wetter winters coming as a direct consequence of the cumulated effect of hundreds of years of burning fossil fuels and their associated emissions.   

At Rosewood Farm we are having to reevaluate the feasibility of conservation grazing so many cattle on the local wetland reserves. Over the last fifteen years we have been growing the herd to enable us to graze a much larger area of local bog, heath and meadow to maintain the open, flower- and insect-rich habitats upon which many of our most depleted British wild species depend. 

The grass growth is suppressed when cold weather keeps the soil temperature below 5oC but as soon as the ground warms enough it bursts into life with a profusion of plants striving to complete their life cycle before the onset of the next cold season. Many of the more delicate wildflowers in the meadows and pastures rely upon the removal of more competitive grasses by grazing and/or cutting to give them a chance. This is one reason why heavily fertilised fields contain so few wildflowers as they are shaded out when the more competitive grasses take over.

Closeup of Yellow Rattle, Meadowsweet, Bird's Foot Trefoil, Tufted Vetch & Rough Hawkbit within a grazed meadow.


The issue for us when a wet autumn arrives is that it leaves us with a shorter window of opportunity to remove the excess herbage. Our nature reserves are also heavily protected in the UK, so we cannot continue to graze them when they are wet in case the cattle hooves damage the plants and soils they are there to enhance.  However, if un-cut/-grazed and the remaining growth is left in-situ it all adds to soil fertility and suppresses the less competitive species in subsequent years. In order to achieve the same level of grazing, within a shortened grazing season, we need to run more animals.

It is very much a catch-22 situation; climate change favours more summer grazing than hay making, but more summer grazing also means that you need to make more hay. Over the last few years this has also meant that we’ve had to buy in more hay & rely more upon the home farm to feed the cattle for much longer winters (and wet summers). This isn't sustainable in the long term and it has taken it’s toll on the land, so now we're looking to give the farm some much needed care & rejuvenation.  

The very first year that we moved to Rosewood also featured a wet summer. The land had received an application of nitrogen fertiliser in the early Spring before we took over so that first hay crop was huge. So too were the hedges at the time, having not been touched for many years. Hedges and woodlands can be wonderful places for wildlife but that year they shaded out the sun and sheltered the crop from the breeze. To make good hay you need both the sun to evaporate moisture from the grass and a plentiful supply of dry, moving  air to take the moisture away – it’s just like when hanging washing up on the line to dry.

Like the washing, it doesn’t matter how clean and fresh it smells as it comes out of the machine, it is the drying that will keep it that way until ready to be used. Our hay that year was more a big pile of wet blankets left in the corner of a humid room for weeks. With hindsight it would perhaps have been better to have waited  for some better weather but by the end of July the contractor was ready to cut the crop, eager to be moving on to harvesting grain so, not knowing when/if the better weather would ever arrive, we had to press on.

We kept turning the hay but the periods of dry weather were just too short, and the crop too bulky, for it to dry in time. Although we did eventually manage to bale the crop it was, after four weeks in the field, well past it’s best. Fortunately we had left one of the fields uncut and September gave us enough of a dry spell to get some hay of reasonable quality to feed the then much smaller Rosewood herd for the winter. Experience is the best knowledge you can gain so at that point we were sure that we had no intention of applying any more artificial nitrogen to our meadows!


The next job was to make plans to get the hedgerows back under control. These date from the enclosure of the parish in the late 18th century and comprise predominately of Blackthorn, a good hedging plant but it does have a tendency to spread way out into the field via roots and suckers, quickly becoming wider but less effective as a hedge. Having not been touched for many years the hedge was, in places, 30 feet wide and within one section we found a set of disc harrows  that had been parked up beside the hedge many years ago, and was then completely enveloped within the overgrown hedge.

2002; The Blackthorn hedges were well overgrown when we took over the farm, spreading into the fields

First we cut back the stems, leaving only those which formed the original hedgerow and the following year we started to coppice the hedge. Coppicing involves cutting the woody stems just above ground level in winter which doesn’t kill the  plant but allows the hedge to rejuvenate and grow afresh. We also replanted some of the hedges where they had been lost completely, but chose not to include any more Blackthorn as it does has a habit of dominating the entire hedgerow if not kept in check and, for the sake of biodiversity, we chose  Hawthorn to form the mainstay of the mixed species hedge. Another advantage of coppicing was that, like the grazing, it gave some less dominant species the opportunity to grow and improved the overall species mix in established hedges. 

2005; After coppicing the hedgerow, leaving only mature trees standing, it all looks very exposed

Farming the land without pesticides and artificial fertilisers for more than two decades has allowed a much wider variety of plants and insects to thrive at Rosewood but while we have been busy making hay and moving cattle around Yorkshire, we haven’t been able to devote as much time to the land or hedges in the intervening years. The planted and coppiced hedges have now returned to their former height, and have made valiant attempts to increase in width over the years too. We’d also like to replant some more of the lost hedgerows too but the extra hay fed to the cattle over recent winters has competed for both our time and money each winter. While hedgerows are nice to look at and have benefits to both livestock and wildlife, it is the grazing, and the beef we produce from it, that pays for it all, which is why it has taken priority.

Many of our customers and supporters do wish to see nature restored in the UK alongside food production, and that’s why they buy beef that is a by-product of conservation. However some can and do wish to contribute a bit more, while others just don’t eat that much beef themselves so, since 2019, I have been providing the option to support our conservation work directly. Cashflow is key in any business and over the most recent winters your tips and donations have certainly helped to keep the cows fed! We’re also received help in many non-financial ways too, spreading the word giving their time and knowledge for free to advise us about any number of aspects that have helped to keep us in business. For this we are grateful and are determined to pay it forward.

Nature is ahead of us; a naturally regenerating oak growing in the hedgeline

While we will still be doing as much as we can to graze nature reserves and meadows for others, we don’t want to neglect our own habitat to do so. There are many ways to make our farmed landscape better for wildlife alongside food production, but it does rely upon improving the efficiency of the way we work. It’s easy to get carried away and divert our resources away from the farm but this makes farming less resilient in the long run.

Your tips and donations over the last five years now add up to a massive £2350, which we have already started to invest in planting more trees and hedges on the farm. While more funding is now being offered by the government for ‘public goods’ on farmland under the much improved Sustainable Farming Incentive and Countryside Stewardship Capital Grants, sometimes the time spent applying for funding doesn’t cover the cost for smaller projects, or when you just want to get on and plant a tree! So that’s what we’ve done, watch this space...

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