Sunday, November 6, 2011

Farming and Conservation: It's about doing what you do best...

Our farm is by no means a glowing example of conservation in action. When the land is your only source of income sometimes you have to put your own needs first. The economic viability of small and even medium sized farms is questionable so we’re not talking boosting profits, we’re talking damage limitation.

Not all farming models suit all farmland species, we are a small pastoral farm at around 700ft above sea level so we’re never going encourage the sort of species that enjoy vast tracts of open arable land or heather moorland. When planning realistic conservation measures farms should be encouraged to play to their strengths and one of our farm success stories is the Brown Hare.

The hares breed on the farm and despite high mortality among the leverets (as is typical of the species) by late summer up to 8 hares have been counted at one time.

How our farm works...

The farm is over 200 acres: just over 100 acres is in small blocks away from the farm and just under 100 acres sits in a ring-fence with the farmyard at the centre.

The land away from the farm itself is used for four purposes:

  • Growing the vast majority of winter feed (predominantly silage with a small amount of hay) for cattle during the winter, particularly the milk cows and young calves that are housed indoors from November till April.
  • Grazing and fattening sheep (excluding the few weeks they’re moved onto farm itself for lambing).
  • Grazing young stock (the future dairy cows) throughout the summer- and the winter if the conditions allow.
  • Grazing and fattening a handful of beef cattle- their calves being sold annually to supplement income.

The land on the farm is used for three purposes:

  • The land is grazed by the milk herd from April until November, the land is divided into two blocks. The southern block is grazed in the day (prior to the evening milking) and the northern block is grazed at night (prior to the morning milking).
  • Some of the better fields are used to provide a single cut of silage early in the year- they are then grazed by the milk cows as part of the daily rotation. As the sheep graze this ground well into spring the cut can be later than is typical.
  • In-lamb sheep graze some of the land from November till April (during which time the cows are housed indoors). Following lambing they are moved to out-lying land.

How it benefits the hares that live on the farm...

1.    We have a patchwork of 16 small fields that make up the 100 acres immediately around the farm. These fields are farmed in a cycle meaning they are grazed by cattle and sheep, or occasionally mowed. Not all of the fields are used for the same purpose at any one time.

2.    The majority of the land around the farm is pasture land and is not mowed regularly. Most of the land that is subject to the high demands of early and repeated silage cuts is found in the 100+ acres that are in blocks away from the farm.  This land has fertilizer and manure applied regularly and therefore has a higher denser sward.

3.    As well as a seasonal rotation- the daily and nightly milking cycle means that during the day (approximately 11 hours) the northern side of the farm is stock-free and during the night (approximately 13 hours) the southern side of the farm is stock-free. For various reasons the hares prefer to graze on land without livestock present. As a result the hares graze in a cycle opposite to that of the cattle. Being crespucular allows for more efficient grazing.

4.    The farm has other features that hares favour. There is a small woodland block, hedges between all the fields and patches of rush and scrub. There are also steep slopes upon which it is not possible to apply fertilizer or manure, and as a result wildflowers grow well.


The success of the brown hare on this site is more a side-effect of the farming model we practice. A model is determined by the type of land, it’s distribution, it’s features and capital (or lack thereof) invested in the land for farming purposes.

I strongly believe that for conservation and farming to work effectively together we should be looking at what a particular farm can do. That’s not to say farms shouldn’t be encouraged to change the way things are done occasionally- but let us all play to our strengths.

To force an unworkable conservation strategy onto a farm is as destructive to the business as practising an unsympathetic farming strategy is to it’s wildlife.

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