Wilder farming is as close to a silver bullet for the future management of our marginal lands as we’ll find and it’s high time to embrace this new way, says Ben Goldsmith. Photographs by Anya Campbell.
My neighbour is a lifelong beef cattle farmer. Mark Cottle and his family have farmed the land next to me for decades and there isn’t much he doesn’t know about our part of Somerset. When weaving his pale-blue tractor down the lane that runs between his farm and mine, he often stops to hop off and have a chat. This year, with the first stirrings of spring in the air as we stood surveying his fields and mine, Mark cast a distinctly critical eye over my land. ‘It’s all a bit of a mess, isn’t it?’ he suggested with a half-smile, raising an eyebrow.
Compared with his well-maintained farm next door, he’s right. His hedgerows are trimmed, box-like, to perfection annually; his well-fertilised grass mown and rolled in wide stripes, a dazzling shade of green. Mine is unkempt and it’s getting worse. We’ve sold off nearly all of the livestock: the 40 Dorset Poll sheep are gone for good and all but two of the White Park cattle, too, for a time. Our plan is to have them back in a few years’ time, once Nature has run riot.
We’ve ripped out all of our internal fencing, dug out several new ponds and filled in the artificially straightened ditch that ran deep and dark along the valley bottom, creating in its place a rewiggled, shallow stream, free to meander as it likes. Already, small patches of thorny scrub, gorse, blackthorn, dog rose, bramble and hawthorn are springing up through the sward and the wetter corners of what were once neatly enclosed fields are home to woodcock and snipe, which explode from the rushes at the slightest disturbance. All around, Mark sees intolerable species that hamper productivity — sallow, rushes, thorns — whereas I see something different: the beginnings of an exciting period of Nature recovery and, with it, an entirely different way of managing my farm.
We live in the Brewham Valley, at the heart of the ancient forest of Selwood, a great wood pasture that once straddled the Somerset-Wiltshire border, extending south of Frome almost into Dorset. For a long time, I did my best to emulate my neighbour, producing grass-fed beef and lamb for sale direct to restaurants in London. However, our heavy clay is among the lowest-calibre farmland in Britain and our enterprise only came close to working at all because of EU subsidies.
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Nearly a decade ago, I visited for the first time the pioneering rewilding project at Knepp in West Sussex, where Isabella Tree and her husband, Sir Charlie Burrell, gave up their struggle to make a success of intensive arable and dairy farming on 3,000 acres of similarly low-grade farmland, handing the lot back to Nature. Great flocks of goldfinches scattered before us as we bounced in Charlie’s jeep over ground made uneven by the rootling of free-range pigs and the experience stayed with me.
The idea at Knepp was a simple one, derived from the work of Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, who suggests that Britain was never blanketed in the kind of closed-canopy forest that we imagine it was. Prof Vera argues that the disturbance created by the great herds of wild herbivores, the aurochs and the bison, horses, boar and deer that once roamed Britain has been overlooked by ecological historians.
In a grand experiment that has produced far greater financial rewards than anything they had done previously, Issy and Charlie turned out native, domestic proxies for these ‘keystone’ species. They chose hardy breeds that can live outside all year round without supplementary feeding. Longhorn cattle in place of aurochs; Tamworth pigs for wild boar; Exmoor ponies for Britain’s long-extinct wild horse, the tarpan, red and fallow deer. They are free to roam where they like, eat what they like, sleep where they like.
The result is a shape-shifting emergent wood pasture, rich in scrub and wildflowers, a mosaic of habitats that teems with life in an abundance that we are unused to seeing in Britain today. Issy’s best-selling book Wilding charts how species that are disappearing almost everywhere else in Britain (turtle doves, nightingales, white storks, kingfishers and all five British species of owl) are exploding in numbers at Knepp.
Although most of the food we produce comes from only a fifth of our land — predominantly in the rich soils of the East — across much of the rest of Britain, intensive farming is simply not viable without subsidies. Providing farmers with an incentive to intensify farming on every inch of their land, no matter how suitable for food production, has led to Britain being one of the most Nature-depleted countries in the world. Trees, wet- lands, scrub and other habitats, deemed ‘ineligible features’, have been grubbed out almost everywhere. Worse, Nature’s depletion has gone hand in hand with economic and social decline across our more marginal landscapes. Our uplands have been particularly hard hit. Millions of sheep have almost entirely stripped our hills of their green mantle. Trees, scrub, wildflowers and birdsong are largely absent from our upland National Parks. This has been disastrous not only for Nature, but also for communities in areas prone to flooding. Bare hills simply cannot hold back water after heavy rainfall.
A while ago, I visited Geltsdale in the Pennines, where the tenant farmer Tom Wilson decided, a decade ago, to swap his intensive sheep enterprise for a herd of native cattle. Two mugs of tea steaming between us, Mr Wilson acknowledged in his kitchen the environmental impact of sheep farming. Managing a herd of several thousand sheep had been hard work and, as the end of his Countryside Stewardship scheme approached in 2010, a local Natural England representative suggested switching from sheep to cattle and a much wilder way of farming. Prof Vera himself visited Geltsdale and a deal was struck on a new stewardship scheme. The transition wasn’t easy; initially, the family missed their sheep, but they soon fell in love with their beautiful, shaggy Longhorns and, today, the awakening landscape is a sea of wildflowers dotted with emergent scrub and young trees of all kinds. Amid the melancholic cry of curlews wheeling overhead and birdsong the likes of which I’ve never heard anywhere, except perhaps at Knepp, Geltsdale is mesmerising.
Some consider rewilding, or wilder farming, a threat to traditional farming communities. ‘Urban values being forced on rural areas’, was how one councillor described the ‘Summit to Sea’ rewilding project in Wales. Similarly, a plan to establish a Government rewilding forum was rubbished as ‘straight out of the Mad Hatter’s tea party’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Families who have worked the same land for generations are best placed to breathe life back into our landscapes.
Under the new Agriculture Act (2020) farmers are rewarded for restoring Nature on their land under a system dubbed ‘public money for public good’. Moreover, a ground-breaking economic study of livestock farming shows how extensive grazing — and the recovery of Nature — delivers significantly improved economic resilience for marginal farming businesses. An added bonus is the growth of Nature tourism, which has huge potential in our wilder landscapes.
Some visionary farmers are already showing that this formula has great promise. Catherine Bryan is in the process of switching to low-intensity cattle grazing on her family farm in the Yorkshire Dales and is already seeing exciting signs of recovery. ‘We’re only at the beginning of changing land management at Kingsdale Head, but emerging heather and bilberry growth across our land is telling us that we’re moving in the right direction,’ says Mrs Bryan. ‘We’re excited about the regeneration possibilities in the coming decades.’
Back in the West Country, Derek Gow, a former sheep farmer on Dartmoor, believes: ‘Wilder farming is restoring lost life to my land. Where sheep once grazed in their thousands, now, regenerating gorse and thorn have enabled stonechats to make their breeding return. I only ever saw this bird once in the 16 years I have farmed here — I’m delighted to have them back.’
As my own neighbour can see, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. I know there will be challenges ahead, but I am certain it will be worth it. With a fair wind and a few more walks on the wild side, perhaps one day I’ll convert him.
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