Ahead of the Nuffield Farming conference later this month, Farmers Guardian speaks to Peter Wiggins-Davies about his family estate and how his Nuffield Scholarship has shaped the direction of the business.
THE Revesby Estate in rural Lincolnshire dates back to the Middle Ages and has seen unbroken ownership by the Wiggins-Davies family for more than 300 years.
From an early age Peter Wiggins-Davies showed a keen interest in the estate he calls home, taking on management responsibilities aged 25, alongside his father, Gavin, and brother, Alex.
Rural estates are facing ever-increasing challenges.
Mr Wiggins-Davies believes it is important to move with the times as estates are not the same as charities or museums.
“We have unique characteristics requiring unique solutions,” he says.
To help find the answers, Mr Wiggins-Davies embarked on a Nuffield Scholarship in 2016.
“I travelled the world studying the success of other estates with the intention of bringing back a wealth of knowledge and ideas to try implementing at home. Above all, I learned about finding our ‘golden thread’,” he says.
“This is an estate’s sense of identity and line of direction, that should be understood and developed. We need to know where we want to be and what needs to happen to achieve our goals.
“As well as the typical financial objectives, we are building the business around non-financial objectives, each receiving its own budget and board meeting.”
For Revesby, these are protecting and improving the natural environment, historical assets and visual appeal, the local community and the quality of its operations. The estate comprises several major enterprises – agriculture, including arable and grass supporting stable lets and venison production; forestry, incorporating logs and kindling; fisheries; energy, involving biomass and solar systems; residential, commercial and land lettings and public events.
Approximately half the estate is farmed in hand by farm manager Peter Cartwright and his team, growing a variety of crops, including wheat, oilseed rape, malting barley, spring and winter beans, oats and sugar beet.
Mr Wiggins-Davies adds: “Soil health is at the centre of the operation, and in recent years we have worked hard to improve and build the quality of our soils.
“Over the past eight years we have drastically changed our strategy from predominantly plough-based cultivations, to shallow min-till.
“But we are now moving towards direct drilling to improve soil structure and reduce erosion. The transition to direct drilling is gradual, as we strongly believe soils need time to adjust.
“To do this, we have employed the Controlled Traffic (CTF) system as an interim between ploughing and direct drilling.”
The CTF reduces the amount of disturbance to the land, allowing much of it to remain ‘untouched’ for nature to regenerate, re-structure and condition the soil, while also relieving compaction.
“It operates on a 10m system, where all our machinery wheelings are set in multiples of 10, so only the exact tramlines bear the load of machinery each time we drive on the land,” adds Mr Wiggins-Davies.
“To set this up, we used the sprayer to map out the most efficient way of operating within each field. We then imported these patterns into our Gatekeeper software and exported them to the rest of the fleet.
“We have used precision technologies for many years on the farm. All the land is mapped for soil zones, with each tested for organic matter, so we can track our progress with rebuilding the soils.”
Phosphorus and potassium levels are also measured to inform variable rate applications, while satellite imagery helps to track crop progress throughout the year. “This coming season we will be working with Agrii to develop variable rate nitrogen maps,” he adds.
In addition to the technological aspects of soil management, Mr Wiggins-Davies does not underestimate the importance of covering the basics.
“If we do not make sure the drainage systems are working properly for example, everything else is being done in vain,” he says.
“This is why, over the last 10 years, we have invested heavily in the estate’s drainage system.”
Crop rotation also helps the farm improve its soil health, while minimising black-grass pressure.
Every fourth crop is a spring crop, with one in every two of these a break-crop.
“This is working well, but we will continue to assess it and rethink our strategy should the black-grass return,” Mr Wiggins-Davies says.
Peter Cartwright and the farm team also manage a venison enterprise, with a herd of 275 fallow deer and their youngstock.
“The deer are grazed on the estate’s parkland with some supplementary feeding of nuts and haylage during the winter as necessary,” says Mr Wiggins-Davies.
“To control the population and maintain herd health, we employ a professionally-qualified stalker to carry out three large culls a year, as well as four to five smaller ones throughout the season.
“Staying in line with our strong community links, our venison is sold to a variety of customers, including local butchers and restaurants.”
Alongside the main farm, the estate holds approximately 243 hectares (600 acres) of woodland.
He says: “Recently, with the help of a woodland adviser, we have created a long-term management plan and secured countryside stewardship for our woodlands.
“The trees are predominantly hardwoods, with oak and ash making up the lion’s share. The aim is to have multi-generational woodlands so they are truly sustainable.
“The woodland supplies our firewood business, where we add value to the felled trees by turning hardwoods into logs for local customers. Our softwoods are made into woodchip and fuel our biomass network systems which supply hot water to some of the estate properties.”
Domestic and commercial lettings, from cottages and light industrial units, to stables and land, form an important part of the business matrix at Revesby.
“We take a hybrid approach to managing our property. An external lettings agent helps with agreements and reviews, while the in-house team handles the daily tasks, using state-of-the-art software to assist with issuing and tracking repairs,” adds Mr Wiggins-Davies.
“We have strong relationships with all our tenants, reflected by long tenures, helping to fulfil our objective of serving the surrounding community.”
Another string in the estate’s bow is the running of events, many of which are set up to give something back to the local population.
Event management is not new to the estate; the annual tenants’ luncheon has been running for more than 300 years.
Other events include the Revesby Country Fair, point-to-point races, Film on a Farm, Open Farm Sunday and a VW music festival.
“Running events has several benefits,” says Mr Wiggins-Davies.
“They bring excitement to the area, helping locals feel proud about the region in which they live.
With a relatively low capital outlay, they are a fantastic public relations opportunity, bringing the public out into the countryside to enjoy their day and invest in the Revesby Estate brand.
“It is a win win situation for us and the community. By the estate helping to make this a prosperous and attractive area, locals support us in return increasing our ability to generate income.”