Tell us about your farm, its location, size, altitude, climate, soils, enterprises, organic/PfL/other status.
Our small farm is located at the southern end of the Norfolk Broads on the River Waveney. The farm comprises just over 100 acres and is broadly split two thirds clay grazing marshes, at 2m below sea level and one third sand and gravel former arable fields, now permanent pasture at the heady altitude of 10m above sea level. The farmyard and house dates from the 1600s and is in the centre of the farm with an adjacent wet Alder Carr woodland, from which the farm gets its name.
The farm is located approx. 4 miles from the east coast and its microclimate is much affected by both its proximity to the sea and the adjacent river. The marshes are flat with the higher fields being north facing, the farm is quite well sheltered from the prevailing south westerlies but if the weather comes from the east, it arrives with a blast straight off the North Sea. The River Waveney also affects the microclimate with river mists often providing moisture on the marshes in the middle of summer heatwaves.
Apart from our own small farm we conservation graze a number of nature reserves nearby owned by Suffolk Wildlife Trust, managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust and under private ownership totalling an additional area of approximately 160 acres.
By working with the wildlife trusts and private landowners we use our cattle to help achieve their objectives of improving and enhancing their habitats for flora, fauna and birdlife.
As first-generation farmers our passion has been to convert our own former small arable farm to a biodiverse pastoral habitat using our beloved Belted Galloway cattle. In addition, by working with the wildlife trusts and private landowners we use our cattle to help achieve their objectives of improving and enhancing their habitats for flora, fauna and birdlife.
We farm without inorganic fertilizers and pesticides and since 2017 have been certified as a Pasture for Life farm. Our Belted Galloway enterprise comprises pedigree registered stock, so in addition to beef production we also sell breeding stock. Also, on the farm we have a breeding mixed flock of geese which serve a useful function with some weed control and are also reared for egg production and Christmas geese and two small holiday lets in a converted former dairy.
Share with us a general description of the biodiversity on your farm – essentially above ground (but reference to below ground if relevant) – both flora and fauna.
We moved to Carr Farm in August 2011 in the middle of a drought. Norfolk is the driest county in the UK and living with regular droughts has been a major consideration in considering pasture species to utilise and stocking rates. The higher fields were arable and the marshes although grazed had within recent years been drained for growing arable crops. The first changes we made were to put the former arable fields down to permanent pasture utilising in particular deep rooted drought resistant species. These fields have subsequently been overseeded via bale rolling to incorporate additional herbal species.
The landscape is quite open with few hedges and trees other than our wet alder wood on the edge of the marshes. A survey of the alder wood shows it has some age with many very old alder coppice stools, the wood also contains horse chestnut, ash, oak, various species of willow, beech and holly. A further two small areas of woodland adjacent to the pasture were planted by us in 2012 with a mix of native species. These small woods are located adjacent to the grazing fields and are now being opened up for grazing cattle to browse. Approx. 1000m of hedgerows have been planted to provide shade, shelter and wild bird habitat around the field boundaries on the farm.
The number of different species of wildflowers appearing on the fields is increasing year on year. As well as some of the more common flowers, such as; buttercups, dandelions, ox-eye daisy’s, cornflowers, trefoils, vetches, lady’s bedstraw, yarrow, scabious, saxifrage, speedwell, stitchwort and many more, this year a rare cudweed appeared on the top fields. On the clay marshes quite different grasses and flowers are found including ragged robin, marsh orchids, frog bits, bog beans, watercress etc.
The emergence of more flowering plant species on the meadows is matched by increasing insect numbers and in turn by the bat population on the farm also increasing, four species were identified during a survey.
We have been monitoring our population of hedgehogs with infra-red night cameras and are pleased to say that the population whilst maybe not growing is certainly stable, like many areas in the Broads there are very good muntjac and Chinese water deer numbers. The field and water vole population on the farm is very healthy and otters are becoming a more common sight, venturing away from the main river to catch large fish in the outlying ditches of the Broads drainage system. We have good numbers of the more common reptiles like slow worms, lizards, grass snakes, frogs and toads.
Birds, birds, birds! This year we had five owlets in our two barn owl boxes, watching them grow and fledge was amazing. We also have a resident tawny owl in our wood and little owls on the marsh edges.
The marshes are especially important to bird life, we have large great population of resident skylarks as well as herons, egrets, mute swans, reed buntings, snipe and all the visiting over wintering waders and wildfowl. The excitement of the arrival of many thousands of pink-foots on the marshes in November is rivalled only by the return of the swallows to nest in the old stables each spring.
What you do to encourage this biodiversity?
45 acres of marshes are in a Higher-Level Stewardship scheme to attract winter waders and wildfowl. Under the scheme works were undertaken to erect sluices and pipe dams and construct foot drains to hold the water on the marshes over the winter. The RSPB have carried out regular monitoring for us and we have had some great successes in the past 24 months including bittern, large numbers of snipe, lapwing both over wintering and breeding, good numbers of skylark and of course great flocks of pink-footed geese.
Bale rolling has been a revelation on our winter grazing fields. These very thin sandy/gravelly soils have benefitted hugely from the extra organic matter generated by rolling bales out for the cattle through the winter rather than using ring feeders. Initially we were nervous about how much forage would be “wasted” both by leaving the bales out in the fields in all weathers but also by the amount trodden into the soil by the cattle. Now we realise there is no waste at all! We set the bales out on the field during dry weather as we go into winter, the winter grazing will have been closed up, since June or July so there is a good amount of grazing forage for the cattle. We have a fixed water infrastructure so use a single line electric fence to move the cattle across the field a few metres each day. Although no back fence is used, we find the cattle are so focused on their fresh grass and new bale of hay each day they tend to always be moving forward rather than returning over previously grazed areas. The first inch of a hay bale may be “spoiled” but thereafter the bales are in surprisingly good condition inside. This way of feeding has other advantages over ring feeders which cause compaction in the fields, we find that the hay is spread over a large area so there is plenty of room for all cattle to feed. We have a mixed age group of approx. 40 animals and by bale rolling there is no bullying everyone gets to access the hay. It’s also a really good opportunity to check all the cattle over whilst they are moving around. The hay residues are then used as dry bedding by the calves and eventually trodden in providing much needed organic matter to our very light soils, helping them be more drought resistant over future summers.
Our summer grazing on the farm is set stocking, mainly because we now like to be slightly under stocking whilst at the same time allowing the cattle the ability to range over the marshes and fully exhibit their natural instincts. This enables the cattle to access natural waterways and areas of woodland for shade and scratching, calving and socialising. On our conservation grazing sites over the summer months the animals also have access to large areas of mainly wetlands but also some historic parkland where the Wildlife Trust landowners use the cattle to open up specific areas of vegetation not easily accessed by mechanical means to create habitat for specific target species. This year the cattle have also been used in reed beds going well into the winter, they will open up areas of the wetland site for prospecting cranes.
How is it connected across the farm and beyond?
The planting of hedges and small copses across the farm interspersed with small wild areas provide corridors for wildlife across our own farm and onto neighbouring farms and marshes.
Three years ago, we were contacted by the RSPB who identified an area of our marshes which could provide a link site between three nearby wetland sites totalling over 2500 acres. These are marshes which are under an HLS agreement to flood them over the winter for waders and wildfowl. We are only a small farm with low acreage, but it has been great to be part of the larger picture in our area of the Norfolk Broads to help provide habitat for many red listed birds species.
What are the benefits to the farm and is it increasing its climate and business resilience? If so, in what way?
When we took over the farm, we moved all the holding from arable to grassland and stopped all fertilizers and pesticides. In the first two years as the soil reacted to the withdrawal of these inputs it seemed that although there were new and diff erent species of plants appearing the grass growth was less and forage crops notably reduced. However, after that initial period and with the introduction of more varied swards including deeper rooted herbal plants by overseeding plus the impact of the bale grazing over the higher/drier fields the total forage growth has significantly increased, the mix of species provides a more natural diet for the cattle which in turn has benefitted their growth rates and overall health.
The reduction in worming regime has improved the dung beetle population which in turn sees the cow pats being quickly absorbed into the pasture rather than as previously sitting on top of the soil for months.
The increase in organic matter has improved the soils resilience to the almost annual drought conditions we now suffer in the summer.
These changes have resulted in new species of plants appearing each year, especially flowering plants, more and varied insect life which in turn leads to more and greater variety of birdlife.
How do you monitor it?
We really could do better with monitoring the changes taking place on the farm each year and if we could turn back the clock would have carried out a baseline survey of especially plant life but also soil health and bird numbers when we took over the farm. However, it doesn’t take a survey to see the improvements year on year in the increasing number of species on the farm, just being out and about working on the farm every day often results in realising many positive changes are taking place.
Nothing beats the excitement of seeing a new flower appearing in the meadow not seen before, a new dragonfly or damselfly on the marshes, the sheer number of skylarks now nesting on the marshes, ringing our first barn owlets, the arrival of our first bittern, the RSPB bird surveyor telling us that he has counted 52 red listed snipe on our wet marshes on just one morning and so many more ‘little wins’!
What lessons have you learnt and would like to share with others?
‘Regenerative’ and ‘sustainable’ are the new buzzwords used widely in all manner of industries to greenwash their not so green activities. In the case of farming under the Pasture for Life banner you can really make a diff erence. There is so much knowledge within the organisation and farmers willing to share their experiences.
However, sometimes it can feel like there is almost too much information and it’s easy to get bogged down with the science and theory and ‘best’ way of doing things. The biggest lesson we have learnt is to do what is right for your holding however big or small. Everyone’s farm is different, different soil types, climates, animal availability, even the time you are able to dedicate to your farm may be limited by having to work off farm. We’ve also learnt to just try different things and don’t feel that you must make big changes, sometimes the smallest change makes the biggest difference!