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cut hay waiting for the sun so it can be baled

If I thought it was busy when I went away I had another think coming…

Arriving home I was surrounded by frantic farming activity which reached fever pitch this week. Tractors going hammer and tong all hours of the day and night. Acres and acres of hay and silage being made and fields and fields of corn being harvested. Ploughing, dung spreading, lamb shearing – think of a farming job and it seems to be happening somewhere near us.

An urgent job on our farm at the moment is liming and dung spreading now we’ve taken the forage off.

The night before I went away Mark arrived to take soil samples to find how acid our fields are prior to liming. We were expecting a pH of around 5.5 but were totally taken aback by a reading of 4.0 in one field.
This field has been under Countryside Stewardship for the last fourteen years or so. It was dominated by soft rush but the plant community has changed quite considerably in the last few years and it now has many more herbs in it, and sharp-flowered rush, which is more palatable to stock, has largely replaced the soft rush. We suspect that this change is principally due to the soil structure improving. Before we arrived at Locks Park the field was used for out-wintering cattle. It must have been a terrible mess, the soil churned up, starved of oxygen and lifeless. Since we’ve been here we’ve done our best to ensure the field is never poached, and try to drive over it as little as possible to reduce compaction. But such a low pH reading was a shock, and we can’t explain this. It’s the sort of reading you would expect to get from a peat-bog on Dartmoor, with plants like sundews, hare’s-tail and bog mosses (Sphagnum). No doubt it explains though why plants like carnation grass (a sedge) and purple moor-grass are spreading into the field from the edges.

We are now in a quandary. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Rhetoric or Reality: part 1, our application for Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) has been unsuccessful so we are deprived of a major source of income. Although cattle and sheep will eat sharp-flowered rush, carnation grass and purple moor-grass, they’re hardly good grazing and even our hardy traditional breeds won’t fatten on them. One answer would be to raise the pH of the field by liming it, restoring it to a condition that would favour more nutritious grasses. But this would kill-off the acid loving plants that have started to colonise and so reduce the wildlife value of the field. And insects and other animal life would suffer too. Moths like the nationally-rare double-line which occurs in good numbers on the farm and whose caterpillars favour sedges and acid-loving grasses would suffer – Robert has found the caterpillars on this very field through careful searching by torchlight on spring nights.

It’s difficult to know what to do. The farm has to pay its way, but there’s absolutley no income to be had from double-line moths and the like, much as we love having them. Without help from the government we, and many other farmers like us, are in a fix, torn between our love of the countryside and its wildlife, landscape and history, and the need to, at the very least, not lose money!

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rare double-line moth

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