Churchtown moves towards wilder farming

30 years providing Ben's farm shop

Bold changes are coming to Churchtown Farm – for twenty five plus years, principle supplier of award-winning organic beef to Ben’s Farm Shop. Mark Russell explains why.


I’ve been an organic farmer for over three decades, with a lifelong commitment to the environment and wildlife. I’ve always hoped and believed that I was helping to find solutions to sustaining our planet. But a couple of years back, despite our successes in environmental good practice and award-winning produce on the farm, I started to question those achievements and to reappraise our whole direction. And my conclusion? The growing climate crisis means our efforts aren’t enough. We need to farm differently.


We started out farming organic livestock and field-scale vegetables in the Radnorshire hills. In 1992 we won the first National Trust tenancy to be based on an organic farming proposal, and moved to the West Country. Since those Welsh Black cattle that Ben bought from us almost 30 years ago, we have supplied his shop with meat from traditional British breeds and a homebred suckler herd, together with lamb grazed on the clifftop pastures. Our working relationship, with a guaranteed outlet and fair prices that haven’t just followed the vagaries of the market, has been invaluable in helping us grow over the years.

30 years providing Ben's farm shop

But as importantly, we have also made huge efforts to encourage wildlife on the farm. Churchtown is blessed. Nestled on a peninsula above Lantic Bay in Cornwall, it’s an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with SSSI designation for its coastal margins. Since our arrival we have engaged with all the environmental schemes available – and the wildlife flourished. Surveys by the National Trust showed significant and untypical gains in more species-rich pasture compared to other tenanted farms nationwide. And several nearby farms have also gone organic or signed up to stewardship schemes, providing more areas for species to thrive.


So for many years I felt we were really achieving something. We had three pairs of barn owls, bountiful yellowhammers in the hedgerows, peregrines on the cliffs and skylarks in the fields. The farm buzzed with wild pollinators and our species rich grassland flourished. We are only one of two sites in the country which is home to the sand crocus. We also have the endangered hornet robberfly, which feeds on dung beetles found on organic manure. Protected on the end of a peninsula in a habitat-rich area, it seemed our wildlife would only continue to thrive.


But a couple of summers ago, I accidentally left my bedroom window open and the light on all evening. I found just one moth. I was shocked. Only a few years before, the room would have been full of insects attracted to the light. I repeated the experiment several times with similar results.  Other indicators became apparent. I used to marvel at the profusion of insects on my mower after a late cut of organic clover. That abundance just isn’t there now. The beautiful cinnabar moth, whose stripy caterpillars were so visible on ragwort plants, has completely disappeared. The spotted flycatchers haven’t been seen for at least five years. The number of nesting swallows are a fraction of what they used to be. Even our three pairs of barn owls were down to one pair a couple of summers ago and then last year, none at all.


Just when we should be seeing net gains, it seems that global effects are mitigating against progress. There’s been a drastic reduction in the ability of our natural world to repair itself – and it’s evident here on my farm.


Despite all our efforts, the wider destruction being wrought by chemicals, intensive farming and habitat reduction means society now needs a more radical approach. In particular, we must fundamentally rethink the core purpose of farming environmentally important marginal land, such as coastal, upland and hill farms.


The ingrained premise of farming in Britain is one of maximizing food production, with some supplementary benefits to wildlife. But this is clearly not working on our type of land, either economically or environmentally. This is especially true of intensive farming practices that require subsidies to make them competitive on poorer soil, at an unsustainable environmental cost. But it’s even true of organic farms like ours.


I believe that if we truly want to farm sustainably and have even more impact in the face of the ecological emergency we have all created, then we must turn the model on its head. The core purpose of farming these areas should not be food production, but the creation and protection of a thriving natural environment. We must still produce food of course – but in ways designed to restore and sustain wildlife, rather than mostly take from it.


In other words, we should be moving towards a wilder kind of farming, with nature at its heart. And we need to design our food production around that priority.


All of which means some exciting changes at Churchtown…


First up is our main produce – livestock. It has become clearer that an organic, nature-focused ‘whole farm’ approach on land like ours needs fewer animals and more vegetables. So we have removed all our sheep and will reduce our beef cattle from 100 to 20 animals. Instead of being our main purpose, they will now play a supporting role in the creation of a more sustainable environment for wildlife, and more vegetable food production.


Along with this goes ceasing silage production, with all the attendant black plastic waste. We’ll be moving to late hay-cuts only (much more insect and bird friendly) and we’ll feed our animals entirely off grass on unploughed, permanent pastures. We’ll also outwinter them as much as possible, with our own hay to supplement feeding.


Next up is a change to the crops we grow. Cereals for cattle feed (on this land, our oats never made the grade for human consumption) will be replaced by small-scale organic vegetable and fruit production. This will benefit from the natural fertilizer from the cattle, as well as the land and buildings freed-up by our smaller herd. And without so much grazing and ploughing, our hedges (which we already seldom or never trim) will be able to grow even further outwards and upwards, providing more habitats and food for birds and insects.


With a shift towards organic vegetable cropping – plus some limited eco-tourism – we also hope to restore the role of the farm as a home and workplace to more people. Farms were once the hub of the rural community, and the exclusion of people from much of the countryside via industrial farming has disconnected them from both agriculture and the environment. A key part of the move to a wilder farming is the potential to utilize the buildings and space freed up from livestock and arable production as resources for other enterprises and ventures that can bring a vibrant working community to the farm. Alongside that is increasing the farm’s social role by encouraging arts, music and educational projects that re-connect people with what we do, and the countryside that we’re doing it for.


There is, of course, a limit to what can be achieved alone. But as a National Trust tenant and thus part of a huge land-owning body, initiatives such as this may have some impact on wider decisions, especially when the Government’s agriculture policy and subsidies are under review. Rather than waiting to see what transpires post-Brexit, I want to get involved now in influencing the debate and finding better solutions.


But little can be sustained unless similar areas are joined together to create viable habitats and populations. My hope is that Churchtown could provide some indicators for new directions in land use. The National Trust is in a unique position to encourage this. Its stated aim is for 50% Higher Nature Status for all its farmland by 2020, and we’re fully committed to playing a part in helping it achieve and exceed that target. The Trust has already put in place a Countryside Stewardship and tree planting scheme on the farm tenancy I have given up, and intends to build on the conservation gains already achieved there.


But why continue to produce meat at all, I hear you ask. Well I’m one of those beef farmers who believe we need to eat much less meat, but that grass-fed organic red meat can be an important part of a healthy diet for many people.


It’s also my conviction that small herds – fed on organic pastures managed for the benefit of insects, birds and wild plants – are part of the solution, not the problem. In our climate, especially on marginal land and thin soils, livestock play a useful role in fertility building for organic crops. Cattle grazing is essential for the maintenance of species-rich coastal grasslands. Skylarks and barn owls need the open pasture. Plants such as birdsfoot trefoils, violets and orchids all benefit from light grazing management and the elusive hornet robberfly relies on cowpats free of chemical wormer residues for survival. And the development of such organically-managed permanent pasture has been proven to be beneficial in locking up carbon in the humus.


So when you buy our beef at Ben’s Shop, you are not only continuing to (occasionally!) enjoy tasty, high-welfare organic meat. You are also be helping us make Churchtown a place where wilder farming supports a more balanced vegetable/meat diet and a more vibrant local community. But above all, a place where nature genuinely does come first.