Five years of fundraising enabled The Countryside Restoration Trust to purchase Bere Marsh Farm, set to be a site to showcase its history, farming and conservation interests. Clemmie Gleeson finds out more.
The Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT) was founded in 1993 by Robin Page and the late artist and conservationist Gordon Beningfield.
Among its work CRT owns 15 properties around the country including arable, dairy and sheep farms and has developed its own curriculum-based education programme for primary school children.
The CRT’s philosophy is that traditional and innovative farming methods can work together profitably and sustainably, in conjunction with the protection and restoration of wildlife habitats and valuable eco-systems.
Robin, the trusts current chairman, had a long held ambition to add a farm to the Trust’s portfolio, not just to create a showcase of its farming and conservation methods and educational work, but also to create an art gallery in memory of co-founder Gordon Beningfield.
So, when interim manager Elaine Spencer-White and her colleagues heard that the trust’s purchase of Bere Marsh Farm, near Blandford Forum, Dorset, had completed, it felt ‘almost too good to be true.’
It had taken five years to raise the funds to buy the farm and ‘it was a bumpy ride’ says Elaine, who undertook three long distance sponsored walks to help towards the fundraising target.
Bere Marsh Farm is situated on the banks of the River Stour at Shillingstone. Its 37ha (92 acres) of unimproved grassland, wetland and woodland is already home to numerous species of birds, butterflies, wildflowers and mammals.
The farm was previously owned by the late Angela Hughes of Dorset Wildlife Trust and was therefore already being managed for the benefit of wildlife. It is also certified organic with the Soil Association and was home to an organic goat herd.
“Bere Marsh has everything we want and need to make it the exemplar farm of our estate,” says Elaine.
“The setting is magnificent. The farmstead and land are perfect, but above all else, it has the North Dorset Trailway, footpaths and a bridleway all running through it – in short, lots of visitors walking by. You could not ask for more in terms of site awareness.”
“In the longer term the trust hopes to develop a small dairy herd and beef herd as well as pig, sheep and poultry enterprises”
Elaine’s career has included 20 years’ working on agricultural projects in nine countries in southern Africa including Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi and Kenya.
On returning to Britain in 2000, she worked on a part EU-funded project on the Somerset Levels and Moors to help farmers sell their produce direct to consumers.
She has been a supporter of the CRT since 2012.
Elaine says: “I heard Robin speak at Sherborne Literary Festival and it just took my imagination that there was an organisation that was concerned with protecting British wildlife while also producing food.”
During the years since, she developed her role within the CRT from member and supporter to trustee and now, having moved to Dorset in 2014, an employee working as the interim estate director for Bere Marsh Farm.
Going forward, the trust plans to develop it as a small-scale mixed farm producing food products and selling direct from the farm, while also managing it for educational purposes, says Elaine.
And there is a lot to be done, from grassland management to building and habitat restoration alongside consideration around what enterprises the farm might be able to carry in the future.
Elaine says: “We have been able to get some sheep grazing all summer, so the grassland is under control now.
“Another early task was to sow some old English wildflower meadow mixes in the approach meadows. We also have an amazing troop of volunteers who have been working on bring a 20ft hedge down to 6ft.”
Also top of the list was another fundraising campaign, this time to raise the £30,000 required to save a Victorian barn on the farm.
“It has been home to a pair of Barn Owls for more than 20 years and they have successfully raised chicks for 15 years, but the roof is barely intact,” says Elaine.
“We have had to campaign to raise sufficient funds to repair the roof so that the owls can continue to roost and nest there.
“Brickwork also needs repointing to make the barn watertight and a ditch to the east of the barn needs substantial clearing to prevent a recurrence of ﬂooding in the barn.
“In the longer term the trust hopes to develop a small dairy herd and beef herd as well as pig, sheep and poultry enterprises. Native breeds will be the focus of the livestock enterprises, while other projects will include an orchard, a polytunnel for soft fruit and an apiary too.”
Marketing of produce has also been up for discussion.
“The raft of foods sold direct from the farm will be branded under the Trust’s own brand name. There will be well over 30 products from our 37ha (92 acres) alone – everything from ice cream to sirloin beef.
“There is also a lovely barn in the courtyard which will become the Gordon Beningfield Centre. Gordon was a conservationist and a wonderful watercolourist and was fascinated by Dorset and its landscapes and wildlife. It was his ‘Dorset dream’ originally to buy a farm here and it has taken us a very long time to get there."
The barn will be an education centre and display his artworks.
The project in its entirety clearly isn’t going to happen overnight though, says Elaine.
“The Trust will be 30 years old in 2023 so we are setting our sights on a summer event that year to also mark the opening of the Gordon Beningfield Centre.
“On the farm it will take a while for everything to bed in, but by spring 2023 we hope to get staff in and to have livestock in small numbers.
“The education side will follow.”
The plan is that the educational offering will follow the CRT’s own curriculum-based ‘Mosaic’ programme for primary school aged children. A lot of its work will be available online.
Long term and the intention is that two people will manage the farm, retail and education side with help from volunteers and seasonal staff.
“We also hope it will be possible to work with agricultural colleges to offer placements - it’s not a big farm but the breadth of learning could be terrific,” Elaine says.
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