Olly Walker, Essebeare Farm 3/3

How do you monitor it?

With a spade! We perform regular visual inspections of our soil and discuss it with visiting groups to the farm. Soil texture should be crumbly, busy with life and sweet to the nose.  With help from local partners and Devon Wildlife Trust, we are in discussion regarding a nature biodiversity corridor. The potential linking of many landowners in future will form a very significant focus within the community. The two watercourses on the farm host a series of gravel spawning beds for salmon, grayling, brown trout and eels too. Kingfisher and grey heron are regulars at the bar! The West Country Rivers Trust flush the silt from spawning beds annually. Sadly due to intensive farming higher up the catchment there can be a build up of silt preventing healthy breeding grounds. Lately, Dayshul Break our cluster group, have been working with Rewilding Britain, and Derek Gow.

Dorette Engi at Broadridge Farm is working closely with Derek and this is helping us in turn, as neighbours, to form a hybrid regenerative farming / rewilding strategy for areas of our land. The inspirational work includes wetland scrapes, ponds and south facing rocky structures for reptiles. The Woodland Trust, FWAG South West and Natural England are all co-conspirators, helping to direct the journey. Water voles will hopefully migrate the watercourse from Broadridge Farm.

Walker family helping out on the farm (Olly Walker)

Are there any benefits to the farm that are directly attributable to the Pasture for Life approach and/or would be lost if there were no ruminant animals on the farm? In brief, what are the benefits from having ruminant animals on the farm?

The farm overwinters a number of birds including woodcock and snipe, as well as many smaller farmland birds like fieldfare, finches, starlings, buntings and treecreepers. I even spotted a dipper this November and also found hedgehogs in summer, both of which, I have never seen before here. There are plenty of hares and we often come across nests of young hares living under things.

We’ve been experimenting with letting chicory in one field grow above head height and leaving this in flower with seeds overwinter. I don’t think words can express the joy at seeing a fiery throng of finches dancing in abundance across the woodland of plant stalks in winter. In summer, the weight of Nature on our acres is a symphony of screaming swallows and swooping bats. The greater tussock sedge swamp and meadowsweet fen areas at the edges of the farm are both typically County Wildlife Site quality habitats, and we will look to include these within this classification. In combination with the ponds and meadow areas we are restoring, this amounts to an interesting and varied area of high wildlife value.

As I write this case study, I’m mindful that I’m approaching our 7-year anniversary of coming to Devon to farm. This great adventure is surely the greatest chapter thus far. Yet there is a great need for many of us to take stock after a passage of time.  While we are busy pressing on with the next 7 years of work, planning stewardship, agroforestry, marketing, advising, we’re driving the business on.

How should we as farmers rest, stop and sustain ourselves, and yet keep our farms alive above and below ground, whilst still serving our families and communities? Mental Health awareness within the farming context and the incredible roles that farmers play must surely be part of the focus going forward.

Narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moths on the farm (Olly Walker)

Species examples at Essebeare Farm:

Species we see:

Bats, barn owls, tawny owls, voles, field mice, various deer, harvest mice, dormice, hares, nests of leverets in the barns, moles, lizards on south facing banks, hedgehogs, water voles

Any advice you would give to farmers/landowners wanting to improve their local biodiversity?

Here is a short list of key equipment I have used when I came into farming with very little in the pot:

  • Mole keyline design plough with rotary seeder - low cost kit for the job
  • Quad seed broadcaster – amazing what can be achieved with a £400 piece of kit
  • Einbok tine harrows and Flat roller - £800
  • Bale unroll trailer

Farming in partnership with nature is about reframing the notion of farming and returning to a hybrid of nature with us alongside. Ecosystem function is a constant concern in our farming practice. We hope we are setting the president for sympathetic landowners, to show how you can and should work closely together in the interests of biodiversity net gain.

Yellow Stagshorn fungus (Olly Walker)

We have apple trees with their old genetics, and the more common late frosts lately means we have made a commitment to graft and restock. The farm is surrounded by intensive dairy and biodigester land and is something of a haven in this ever-changing landscape of industrial farming.

We’ve learned that floral diversity = pollen and nectar insect feed. Deep-rooting species fully exploit the mineral profile of the soil. When we undertook initial soil samples, they revealed a high level of iron mottling, consistent with oxidisation in waterlogged soils. Creating more space in the crumb structure and reversing the anaerobic conditions has been a biodiversity goal. The farm is rich in natural capital, making it a natural choice to partner with Nature to build biodiversity, rather than to fight against it, as so much of the industrial farming has sought to do in the last 50 years. We want our farm to look and function as it did a century ago.

Charm of goldfinches above the fields at Essebeare Farm (Olly Walker)

Read more about Essebeare Farm here.