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Cluster groups share ideas and knowledge

In order to collaboratively investigate ways to deliver nature-friendly farming, 120 farms across the South Downs have formed into six ‘farm clusters’. Wendy Short spoke to farmer Caroline Harriott about her involvement. 

Keen to protect and enhance their local wildlife and environment, tenant farmer Caroline Harriott, who farms with her husband, David at Lychpole Farm, near Worthing, west Sussex, was among the first to join the Arun to Adur Farmers Group in 2015.

 

This group is one of the South Downs’ six cluster groups, with all the group’s farmers situated in the South Downs National Park.

 

Members of the groups have worked with the Park authority to develop a new online platform to share updates, projects and best practice.

 

Most communications are managed through a designated facilitator, with producers usually meeting on a regular basis to attend workshops and farm visits.

 

Mrs Harriott, who until recently was chair of the West Sussex NFU, says: “Cluster group membership gives us as farmers a much stronger voice, compared with any message that we might want to get across as individuals.

 

“Our group is still evolving, and members can join in with whichever initiatives they feel may be appropriate for their businesses. There is no pressure to take action and it took a couple of years before we embarked on our first major project.”

 

This particular project was focused on water quality and was instigated last autumn.

 

Mrs Harriott explains: “Southern Water was represented at an event and we learned that the company wanted to reduce nitrate leaching into watercourses within its boundaries.

"It was suggested that we could help, by reverting some arable land that contains high risk features to extensive grass.”

 

Grazing

 

This led the couple, who have had a tenancy at Lychpole Farm, since 2006, to convert 12 hectares (30 acres) of arable land. The move has increased the grazing acreage for their own flock of 800 ewes and they also grow turnips for more than 3,000 hoggets from other units.

 

Funding was available for the reversion and the couple receive an annual payment, which is calculated on a compensation-for-loss-of-production basis. The initial duration is four years and the results will be monitored through water and soil analysis. The process generates ‘quite a bit’ of paperwork, says Mrs Harriott, as every field operation must be recorded in detail.

Another member repeated the arable-to-grass project on his own unit, but had no livestock to graze the converted 40 hectare (100-acre) block. This gave the Harriotts the opportunity to use this land for their own flock.

 

Field mapping is mandatory for group members and the 526-hectare (1,300-acre) Lychpole Farm is taking part in the cluster group’s five-year soil surveying project.

 

Mrs Harriott says: “The soil was in poor shape when we took on the tenancy. We were keen to adopt a traditional rotation, to break the weed cycle and return soil fertility through grazing livestock.”

 

When taking on the tenancy Mr and Mrs Harriott were keen to make use of the large area of dry chalk land, which permits outwintering of sheep and cattle. Their own holding nearby sits on heavy clay soil.

 

Home-grown forage

 

Their aim is to maximise home-grown forage production, to allow the business to finish as many sheep and cattle as possible.

 

Their policies are in stark contrast with practices in the three decades prior to their arrival when the unit had been in continuous wheat or set-aside.

 

Mrs Harriott says: “The livestock manure has greatly improved soil organic matter content. It is monitored and for the past three years the figure has risen significantly.

 

"Earthworms carry out a lot of valuable work on the soil, breaking up organic matter and helping with soil aeration. Early testing revealed seven to eight earthworms per spadeful and the current average figure is 10.”

 

The Harriotts breed from 60 pedigree Texel ewes on their home farm and this flock supplies tups for use on the 750 commercial cross-bred ewes, some of which are kept at Lychpole. Grazing on grass and turnips throughout the winter, they are run alongside more than 3,000 hoggets from other holdings.

 

Two crops in one year are achieved by planting and harvesting spring barley, followed by the turnips, with some 141 hectares (350 acres) down to the crop. The hoggets arrive in batches of various sizes and their length of stay depends on weight and condition on arrival.

 

“The sheep are usually brought to Lychpole when the grass runs short on their home farm,” explains Mrs Harriott.

 

“That normally occurs before Christmas and some batches will be grazing until Easter.”

 

“Where practical, they remain in their groups throughout their stay and this helps them to settle quickly into the new environment. The system provides an additional income and helps with cashflow.”

 

An electric fence is used to set up the strip-grazing system, which has a lie-back area of grass. It usually takes the animals a week to graze each block before the electric fence has to be moved and they have constant access to a water trough. The batches soon get used to the regime, she says, and they are checked on a daily basis.

 

The Harriott’s cross-bred ewes lamb between mid-March until mid-April, with lambs taken through to finishing and sold deadweight to various outlets.

 

Cattle

 

They also run 40 cross-bred suckler cows, with calves sired by an Aberdeen-Angus bull. Some 500 Angus store cattle are purchased annually for Lychpole from yearlings upwards. They are selected for their suitability for outwintering and where possible sourced locally.

 

Depending on their age and the time of year, they are grazed on grass in the summer and either strip-grazed on fodder beet in the winter or, if close to finishing, housed and fed a home-grown ration made up of barley, maize, grass silage and fodder beet. All the cattle are finished and sold deadweight.

 

Farming a vibrant mosaic of a variety of crops across Lychpole Farm benefits the soil, the livestock and the wildlife, says Mrs Harriott.

 

“Cluster group membership has been rewarding, although it took a couple of years to get fully up and running. Many of us had already implemented changes to benefit the environment, but the pooling of ideas and knowledge has been extremely beneficial.

 

“The cluster group’s initial five-year funding is due to finish this June, but we are actively looking at gaining more support, to continue the momentum and the good work that is being achieved.”

Cluster Group project facts

  • 211 farms in the South Downs National Park are members of Farm Clusters
  • There are six farmer-led groups across Hampshire and Sussex
  • Sizes range from just under 5,000ha to over 30,000ha, with 10-45 members in each
  • Other members include land managers, foresters and various local partners, plus a facilitator
  • The South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) works with all six groups in the National Park to help them deliver their objectives
  • Its principles have been approved by Defra, with funding for the Harriott’s group coming largely from the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund
  • As well as the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund, some cluster groups also receive private funding
  • The SDNPA is working with farmers and the farm clusters in the National Park to help to develop the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).
  • The groups run regular events including member farm visits for the sharing of ideas and new practices.

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