Last July whilst I was interviewing Jordan for this blog she told me that I should look into what her nephew Alwyn Craven was doing with the family farm they owned in North Yorkshire.
Rather than continuing to farm on the land he had instead decided to convert it back into a natural environment for wildlife, bees, trees & flowers.
This rather radical idea had its problems of course but Alwyn persisted & in November 2015 a gigantic plough arrived to prepare the ground using a technique called topsoil inversion.
After this wild flower seed was sown & the trees began to be planted, helped in part by volunteers from the group Muslims for Humanity. So far 23,609 trees have been planted.
Alwyn has very kindly also put in some hard work for us, supplying a lot of material for this blog & writing a personal account of his project. Thank you so much Alwyn, all the best & now over to you.
Here are some thoughts on my reasons and motivation.
I’ll send some more photos as well. I’m not sure that I have many available of myself and Auntie Jordan. I do have one of her in the new woodland that I can send.
The photo attached shows the group Muslims for Humanity, who came to help with planting.
Reasons and motivation:
I grew up on the family farm which was run organically by my father until he retired when I was about 13. This experience gave me my interest in the natural world, particularly in the way that farming and conservation can work together, as it does on an organic farm. The farm was rented out to two local farmers when my father retired. While it remained a mixed arable and grassland farm, it was now farmed conventionally with the use of artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.
I went on to study Biological Sciences at Oxford, Horticulture at Kew Gardens and to work for the conservation charity The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at the London Wetland Centre and to then go on and run a veg box scheme in Suffolk in partnership with a landowner. While I was doing all this my mother was left on site guarding the farm.
…In the end I decided that it was time to head back up north to the farm and do something, although I wasn’t quite sure what. I knew that I wanted to manage a site for the benefit of nature conservation, but I wasn’t sure that Home Farm was the right site. It was just another bit of conventionally managed farmland. My initial thoughts were to sell the farm, (my mum would probably have sold the house at the same time) and move down nearer to her relatives. That would leave me free to buy a site which was already rich in wildlife and probably easier to manage for the benefit of conservation.
However, on my return to Home Farm in the spring of 2014 I changed my mind. When you grow up on a farm you do become attached to it, by returning to live on it I quickly realised that I wouldn’t be able to sell it.
For the first year at Home I just observed without seriously planning anything. What struck me was that there is a fantastic range of wildlife which uses the periphery of the farm – our mainly wild garden and (becoming) derelict buildings and surrounding woodland, but very little wildlife using the conventionally farmed parts. I witnessed areas of the farm receiving heavy doses of weedkillers and pesticides, after which they became dead zones for wildlife. This really spurred me on to get planning what I wanted to do.
I could see that Home Farm was representative of most of Britains countryside. Wildlife has been pushed out of the farmed areas to such a degree that in many places there is little left. The evidence for this is in the much-documented declines in farmland birds, insects, mammals like hedgehogs etc etc. The main cause is modern industrial agriculture. We don’t have the right balence in our agriculture between producing food and managing the land for wildlife. We do have nature reserves dotted around the countryside, but in between them there is little for wildlife. I want to make the point that individual farmers and landowners can and should do things to help. They should of course, receive support and encouragement to do this from the government.
I chose to go with woodland for a number of reasons. Firstly, woodland would have been here before humans arrived as it was across much of the UK. Secondly, woodland is known to have been on the site here until at least the middle of the 1600′s as this whole area was part of the royal hunting Forest of Galtres. Thirdly because woodland cover in England is one of the lowest across Europe, just 9.9% compared with an EU average of 37%. Finally, I chose woodland because it is one of the best habitats you can put in to support wildlife. Woodland by its nature is structurally very diverse providing many different niches for wildlife, all the way from the soil right up to the canopy.
I knew there was a problem with establishing new woodland on ex farmland. When I was studying at Kew I undertook a project which looked at how you establish new meadows on farmland. The problem is that the rich agricultural soils on farmland support thuggish species like nettles and thistles at the expense of the more sensitive wildflowers. The same is true with establishing new woodlands on agricultural land. You can get the trees to grow if you control the thuggish weeds (usually using herbicides), but you can’t get the native wildflowers to establish, no bluebells, no wild garlic etc. One of the answers to this problem is to undertake topsoil inversion. This process involves burying the rich topsoil up to a meter underground and bringing to the surface the infertile subsoil. The subsoil on the surface is ideal for establishing wildflowers, firstly meadow wildflowers and then later woodland wildflowers. The conditions created are also ideal for establishing trees. The loose soil conditions created by the plough mean that they can root very easily and quickly and are able to put there roots down deep to reach the buried topsoil. There is also very little in the way of weed competition which eliminates the need for herbicide applications.
Bringing the project together involved liaising with the Forestry Commission, the Woodland Trust, Thorpe Trees and the Charity Landlife Wildflowers. The forestry commission approved the plans and approved the planting grant by autumn 2015. The woodland trust provided technical support and further funding to support tree planting, ploughing and wildflower seed. Thorpe trees provided the trees and undertook much of the planting. Landlife Wildflowers organised the ploughing, provided the wildflower seed and further technical support.
I hope that by using the topsoil inversion followed by wildflower sowing we will get a more species rich habitat which will support more wildlife in the future. I particularly hope that the large areas of wildflowers will give a boost to populations of pollinating insects in the area. You have probably heard in the media that there are serious declines in populations of bees and other pollinating insects at the moment.
And of course, I hope that more farmers and landowners will be encouraged to do more for wildlife conservation on their land.