Tom Morrison, Hogshaw Hill Farm 3/3

What are the benefits to the farm and is it increasing its climate and business resilience?  If so, in what way?

Benefits to the farm are lower costs and increased resilience (and thus lower risk). Benefits to the public are improved ground water, enhanced access, and more of the things that walkers want to see.  

These can be unpacked as follows:

  • Lower costs derive from no fertiliser, lower vets’ bills (healthier animals that live longer lives – for example we have 15 y.o. cows having their 13th calves this year), minimal housing and beddings costs and avoiding or reducing the cost of barn cleaning and dung spreading – and of course, in line with the PFL dictum, no hard feed costs. 
  • Increased resilience derives from higher soil organic matter, and a more diverse sward that can perform in a wider range of conditions, drought in particular; animals that live as they evolved to live, and not required to deliver enhanced performance with enhanced inputs. 
  • Improved ground water has lower leached soil nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates, while raised soil carbon levels hold more water and release it slowly. 
  • There are two main public access routes across the farm, and these are enhanced for the public by improved biodiversity such as birds, especially migrants, also larks and snipe, most of the usual raptors, and all the usual owls. Also butterflies and other insects, hares, etc.

How do you monitor it?

I don’t. Not only do I not have the expertise, I also don’t have the time. But we do allow, indeed enthusiastically welcome, various friends and organisations who are keen to come and observe, identify, measure and survey the biodiversity that we have. Some organisations ask to install physical works (such as hedgerows and ponds) to enhance the biodiversity that interests them, and generally we let them go ahead or do them ourselves with their support. They range from national government organisations to NGOs to local authorities and (not least) to dedicated individuals. Some of them are listed below:

  • At least twice yearly bird surveys by observation and ringing by a BTO licensed bird ringer, every year for 29 years. All results go into the national ringing database hosted by the BTO. (He, a multi-tasking friend, also discovered the Limnichus beetle – see Coleoptera survey below, and has extensively surveyed parasitoid wasps, beetles and moths).
  • Scrapes and ponds, by (separately) BBOWT and Freshwater Habitats Trust.

             

  • Spring capture. Thames Water (prospective for 2023)
  • Spinneys, wildlife corridors and woodland by (separately) Bucks Council, the Forestry Commission, and BBOWT
  • Coleoptera, parasitoid wasp and moth survey, friend who is a Scientific Associate at the Natural History Museum and draws on the Museum's resources for help with identification where necessary.
  • Hedges and hedgerow restoration, by (separately) RPA/DEFRA and BBOWT/Bucks Council
  • Ancient pasture species survey by SEEGSLIP
  • Ancient orchards survey focusing particularly on the Noble Chafer, BBOWT
  • Reptile and amphibian survey, BBOWT
  • Photographer, regular recording throughout the year, another friend, also a specialist in dragonflies and damsel flies.

         

  • Moth survey using light traps – the multi-tasking friend again (he even has moths named after him). 
  • Dung beetle survey by Hampden Veterinary 
  • Legume- and herb-rich swards, RPA/DEFRA
  • Biodiversity Net Gain study by Oxford University in collaboration with DEFRA.
  • Pathways, Public Goods Tool for measuring BNG, Reading University

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?

We regard the cattle at HHF as management partners of this regenerative PFL farming system and biodiversity. Perhaps this sounds a bit starry-eyed, but it’s financially profitable, low risk, and because of PFL’s low labour requirements and other inputs, and a product that commands a price premium, has competitive productivity. Added to that, this PFL system provides a convenient platform from which to deliver the public goods that are a central theme of the new Agriculture and Environment Acts. 

Perhaps the greatest single benefit that would be lost if we had no cattle would be the level of risk of the whole farm enterprise. This is difficult to quantify but there is no doubt that the symbiosis of a traditional breed of cattle (Aberdeen Angus) with traditional rotationally grazed permanent pasture is solidly based on millennia of mutual adaptation. 

The farm would be much less biodiverse and would also sequester less carbon, and thus would lose potential future income from biodiversity offset and carbon capture. These are also difficult to quantify (though Oxford and Reading University teams mentioned in section 6 above are working on establishing workable metrics).

What lessons have you learnt and would like to share with others?

The PFL approach as practised at HHF provides another example of how the UK can provide food and public goods, rather than food or public goods.  

Climate change and extremes of weather have led to increased risk for all farming systems. A principal advantage of the PFL approach is mitigation of that risk. For example, permanent multi-species legume-rich pasture is less affected by drought or excessively wet conditions. 

Another lesson learned, and a huge advantage, is that costs are low: no concentrate feed costs; minimal barn/straw/dung spreading costs associated with in-wintering; veterinary costs lower, around half the national average; longevity of dams (we have 15 y.o. cows producing their 13th calves). 

We can robustly answer the two main comments that arise when farmers are first introduced to the PFL (suckler beef) system: First, animals often take longer to finish compared with conventional systems. True, but if costs are low, that isn’t so important. Second, isn’t productivity (meaning labour productivity) lower compared with conventional systems? No, not necessarily, because although production/outputs are lower, labour input is proportionately even lower.

Public goods such as carbon capture, biodiversity offset, landscape enhancement, and recreational access are increasingly appearing as discrete income streams on farm accounts. The lesson learned here is that the PFL system naturally and symbiotically accommodates all of these.  

An important lesson is one regarding animal welfare. The lesson that cattle have evolved over millennia to be managed the PFL way gradually sinks in. They are free to express their natural behaviour in myriad ways, and this translates to ease of management.

Finally, the radar graph below, prepared by the Pathways team from Reading University (see section 6) clearly demonstrates that, on this farm at least, commercial viability (Profitabilty score 5) fits symbiotically with biodiversity. Farm business resilience has a particularly high score which is significant as climate change increasingly threatens us with weather extremes. 

Hogshaw Hill Farm. Public Goods Tool

To summarise this section on lessons learned, not all farms are fortunate enough to have high well drained ground on which to outwinter cattle, but where this is possible, as at HHF, there are big advantages in terms of saved costs, herd health and welfare, and ease of management.

Postscript on outputs and outcomes.

What should we conclude from the list of monitoring and research agencies shown in section 6? What I conclude is that the monitoring of biodiversity and soil and water health outcomes is the preserve of professional ecologists who have the necessary qualifications, experience, dedicated time, and above all, enthusiasm. Of course, we farmers are interested, flattered to be asked our opinions, and eager to improve our knowledge, but what we do, and always have done, is outputs (meters of laid hedgerow for example, or hectares of legume and herb-rich pasture). We should leave outcomes to the specialists. 

Why is this level of detail differentiating between outcomes and outputs important? It’s important because RPA/DEFRA may be trying to put the onus of monitoring and measuring outcomes onto farmers. This may be because getting farmers to do it is a lot cheaper than professional scientists. We can already see it in Countryside Stewardship contracts, and so there is a danger that it will creep into ELMS. 

As part of this farm’s first 10 year Higher Level Countryside Stewardship we had 10 straight years of support for hedgerow restoration. In total we’ve had 15 years of CS contracts and are now into a further 5-year contract. Now, capital works, which include hedgerow restoration, must be completed within the first two years “so that farmers can experience the outcomes”. This means that we are denied support for hedgerow restoration for three years of the 5-year contract. This is a blow to us, it’s also a blow to biodiversity. Who could ever doubt the biodiversity outcome of a laid hedge? It was for this reason that I turned to BBOWT who supported me for three years of my last CS contract, but that money has now dried up. 

As you read our story, I hope that you can see how farmers can contribute significantly to biodiversity net gain. A good first step would be to recover what has been lost in recent years.

Read more about Hogshaw Hill Farm or our other Biodiversity Case Studies