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Last week I received a letter from Natural England.

As some of you maybe aware we were refused Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) when our Countryside Stewardship agreement ended almost two years ago; this despite the fact the farm, a county wildlife site, heaves with wildlife.

Briefly, for those of you new to my blog, I was not a happy bunny and set about trying to find out the reason why we’d been refused. It may appear trivial to some but an HLS agreement is gold dust on marginal lands. Locks Park never has, and never will be, a profitable cereal/intensive livestock farm; our cold waterlogged inhospitable clay soils sees to that. What Locks Park is able to do is generate a profusion of nature, support a herd of native, indigenous Red Ruby Devon cattle, a flock of Whiteface Dartmoor sheep and produce superb beef and lamb. It is also used to train and teach people a variety of different management skills for those interested in farming – or those who advise farmers, with the environment, wildlife and a quality product in mind.

Bristling with indignation, I bristled even more when I found there was an astonishing pot of money available for HLS agreements and yet there were a large number of smaller farms up and down the country in a similar situation to us. Why? An administrative cock up! It was easier to award those huge highly productive estates and pension fund farms an additional sugar-sweet honey pot rather than work at putting the money where it was most needed (and would be best used for the environmental benefits for which it was intended), to those thousands of marginal family farms trying to eke a  out a living and all too willing to do their bit for the environment.

I made a noise.  We reapplied. We were turned down again.  Flabbergasted I tackled Helen Phillips, Natural England’s Chief Executive.   The mountain quivered; a small hot stream of lava erupted. I thought we’d blown our bridges. We held our breath.  Specialists were sent in to re-evaluate our farm a couple of months ago…
…And last week I received a letter from Natural England.

the long awaited letter

the long awaited letter

For those of you not quite sure what it’s actually saying (I wasn’t) – here’s the punch line.

and the message is...Yes!

and the message is...Yes!

Yes, yes yes! It looks as if we’ve got it! Bang on the floor! Whistle, clap! Open a bottle, jump up and down! Hoorah!

Could this be the cracking of the nut for other farms like ourselves? I most sincerely hope so.

Whilst Robert was hobnobbing with royalty at the Royal Show last week I had one important thing I needed to do.
I wanted to lobby someone, anyone on the Natural England board of directors about the lack of Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements being granted to small and medium sized farms. So bumping into a board member I’d had contact with several years ago gave me the perfect opportunity. Though no sooner had I started to speak she announced that she was not the person I should be talking to and firmly introduced me to Natural England’s chief executive, Helen Phillips.

Well, you can’t get better than that. Now it was up to me to make a strong, cogent case for fellow farmers up and down the country. As luck would have it she was having a heated discussion with the head of policies from the NFU on this very subject before my interruption. I had no idea at the time. Serendipitous.

I was blanked…. My nerves quivered. But no, I thought, this is vitally important, get a grip and get on! So I did. And she listened. And took notice. We agreed to keep in touch. Below is an excerpt of my recent correspondence to her…

From grass roots level this is how things appear. When HLS was first floated the take up was, I believe, mainly by farms that had no previous history of environmental schemes. These first payments were often substantial and included restorations of barns and the like. Then those whose Countryside Stewardship agreements were coming to an end applied, encouraged initially by your staff. You can imagine their surprise, disappointment and frustration when few were successful. It seems that only those applications with SSSIs or many habitats, footpaths, etc were successful. Hundreds of small to medium-sized farms like ours have been left in the lurch, while the large estates often owned by pension companies or similar have been granted agreements – with very large holdings it is, of course, much easier form them to accumulate the necessary points.

The impact on those many, many farms across the country which have not been successful (or indeed have been discouraged from applying), has been significant. They have adjusted their farming systems to meet the needs of their Countryside Stewardship agreements, often with much enthusiasm, only to find themselves high and dry and without a much needed source of income. Many have really delivered the wildlife and other goods that you are seeking. Some are now going into the red and having to resort to commercial farming of the land. Given the good budget settlement from Europe and the Treasury this rejection is hard to swallow. Meanwhile, the large estates and pension funds are benefiting, but will they show the commitment to the environment that us family farms will? I doubt it!

If it helps, I can explain what has happened on our farm. We had a Countryside Stewardship agreement for some 16 years, covering nearly half our land, but when we re-applied a year ago were unsuccessful because we did not score enough points. This despite much of the land being designated a County Wildlife Site, having a magnificent flower-rich meadow, supporting good numbers of dormice, barn owls, snipe, tree pipits, marsh tits, etc, and being crossed by a public footpath. What galled was the fact we were told ‘we were just not good enough’! Please come and see for yourself. I’d like to show you…

So all you farmers out there in the same situation as us – take heart if you can; speak to the various organisations concerned, keep on pushing and perhaps those elusive agreements will be forthcoming…

Locks Park is thought by some to be rather special. When visiting ecologists, environmentalists and conservationists ooh and ahh over our flower-filled meadows, the butterflies, birds and bees, the richness and diversity of the wildlife, hedgerows and pastures I feel privileged to live and farm such a piece of land. But I’m also made to feel culpable. When completing the infamous Higher Level Stewardship application I was brought to task over keeping sheep and ‘lost points’ as this is considered detrimental to the wildlife.
‘Bbbut’ I stammered ‘Sheep are good little farmers. They aerate the soils, break open rush clumps, encourage other plant species. Mixed grazing is important for many reasons too. And …’
I was cut short. Sheep, I was informed, eat flowers, so are unwelcome.
I also have too many cattle. More points lost. What about replenishing nutrients in depleted soils, sensitively of course, as in dung spreading and liming? Frowned upon.

I’m told that farms like this have always been subsistence farms. Minimal stock was kept, I mean just look at the buildings. Proves a point really.

I scratched my head and thought ‘I wonder. I’ll ask Elli’. Elli is the daughter of the couple we bought the farm from eighteen years ago. Elli is enthusiastic and a keen member of the community. Athletic, up before the crack of dawn and when not working all god’s hours she’s often seen cycling up three-in-one hills with her graceful dog Mel beside her. Her father, George, came to Locks Park when he was a small boy of six and seamlessly took over farming it from his father and mother when they retired. Elli has a deep affinity for the place. She remembers well the stories her grandparents and father told of their lives here. She reminisces on those fabled forever, long hot summers and winters of snow and icicles. Helping out on the farm throughout her childhood she continued even after she’d left and married running her sheep on the Rutleighs. She loves the place and I believe if circumstances had been different she would have gladly taken over from her parents.

I knew she would know exactly what was farmed here and how – it’s part of her very being, her core. “Well now, twenty-five to thirty milking cows. They were up at the house and in all winter. Followers, young stock and the like: we wintered them out on the bottom of Scadsbury. Never in. Again twenty-five to thirty. You know max, Paula.”

the out-wintering land, Scadsbury meadow

Scadsbury was forty acres of rented land. Land, unfortunately, we never managed to acquire, and the out-wintering field she was talking about is the most glorious ten acres of flower-filled culm.

“The cows were grazed at home on Top, Flop, Little Hill, Five Acres, Dung and Rushy. Followers continued over at Scadsbury, you know, when the grass came on in the better fields.”

She went on to say they never brought in any forage, cutting it all at Locks. Fertiliser, 20-10-10, was applied, sparingly of course, as well as lime and slag when needed.
“Even on Dillings?” I chip in. Dillings being our ultra special flower filled meadow.
“Yes, yes, of course.”
They used to bale up rushes for bedding and she can’t remember them ever buying in straw. “Nothing was ever tilled at Locks, too wet, not even in the war. Yes, I know I’m right, though I think they once did a small piece over Scadsbury and we must’ve baled that as straw.”

And sheep? “Oh, eighty ewes give or take.”’

So who’s right? These small, beautiful, diverse farms were working, commercial farms. We’ve been left a legacy that no money can create. Should we now treat their land as museum pieces – to be polished and treated with kid gloves, or should we too work them to provide food and income, allowing them to reflect the character of our age, not ages past?

An afterthought. I believe I’m trying to express my idea of what I feel is wondrous and astonishing. So let me try and find an analogy. To me true beauty in a human has nothing to do with the plastic nip and tucked, contrived, gleaming and polished doll-like exterior we are apparently meant to aspire to in today’s consumer-driven/celebrity-culture existence. True beauty is an extraordinary mix of the physical and metaphysical, the body and soul to use a well worn phrase. A magnetic pull towards a radiating working energy. Not a self-serving manufactured appearance deprived of age or history. So if you can translate these clumsy thought images to farms (the physical) and nature (the spirit) maybe you’ll have an inkling of what I’m trying to express.

flowers in Dillings

Jane has asked for my opinions on set-aside. So here goes, not, I’m afraid, a terribly sexy subject!

Set-aside was originally put in place in the early nineties as a production control measure to take around 10% of arable land out of cropping; it was not an environmental scheme. I can remember the huge outcry from the farming community as some of England’s good arable land lay fallow. Apart from letting the land revert there were specific things you could and could not do to manage the land; these requirements changed over the years. Back at the beginning, for example, you could grow fodder legumes (lucerne, vetches and clovers) and graze at certain times with goats, camilids and horses (hence the exorbitant prices alpacas and lamas commanded back then and the start of the huge surge into horsiculture). These things stick in my mind as I was running a milking herd of goats that benefited from a neighbour’s lucerne hay and some herb-rich grazing. There was some talk of environmental opportunities missed, but the increases is farmland birds and rare arable plants that followed was incidental, not a planned benefit. Read the rest of this entry »

farming has devastated the environment?

‘And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ (the Bible Genesis 1:28).

Shouldn’t it be so? Shouldn’t the earth be used to feed the starving in any way she can? A recipe for global disaster! We need the Earth’s diverse and complex ecosystems to support life, give as the oxygen we breathe. Don’t we need it too to inspire us and bring us wonder? Read the rest of this entry »

Gill asked if I could write a post on the economic side of farming. Wow what a subject and one I don’t feel I’m fully qualified to write on. But I can maybe give you slightly more understanding.

Farming is in a state of change and flux. It could be said that’s always so, but never more than at this present moment. Farming will survive for as long as we need food, it’s knowing what form it will eventually take. Pressures come from society’s changing needs and perceptions, new laws, free trade and the influences of climate change and depleting energy sources. It’s certainly a tough and unknown path to be trod but I believe there are opportunities for those that can see them, though I also think the casualties will be great. Read the rest of this entry »

What is going on with those civil servants and government bodies?

The other morning I listened to the news in disbelief. Civil servants had ‘lost’ discs, apparently randomly chucked onto a courier van, containing the personal data, yes really, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, bank details and heaven knows what else, of twenty five million people! Nice one.

And it’s November not April.

…I open an unsigned letter from Natural England which informed me that

‘as my organic registration had been terminated I no longer qualify for the Organic Entry Level Scheme (OELS).’ Read the rest of this entry »

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.



The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

Find our more about CPRE and our views on food and farming at our website,