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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Friday, 20 May 2011

When Farming and Conservation hit head on!

Last week, the odd drop of the wet stuff from the sky has ensured that our herbage grass seed crops have rocketed through their growth stages and have started to set seed and show their seed ears.
The grass seed crops are an important part of our crop rotation as they are left in place for two harvests, so that our soil is not moved in between years.  This allows the soil to rebalance itself and use the high organic matter produced by the grass to increase micro organisms in the soil. It also helps with black grass control because if collections of black grass seed are buried in the soil and left for a year, up to 70% will rot and die.  If left for another year, around another 70% of that 30% left will die as well.
However growing these grass seed crops is not plain sailing.  People say, ‘Well, its just grass! Surely it grows everywhere.’  Yes, this is true, grass does grow in most places but it does all come from a seed in the beginning and we are one of a handful of farmers in the UK growing the first generation grass seed. Growing high purity seed opens many different cans of worms! Seed crops are inspected on a regular basis by specialist grass agronomists for weeds and other rogue grasses. At the end of the year when we dress up the grass for our contracts we have to have it as close to 100% purity as possible. If we drop below 98% purity in a sample, the seed batch will be down-graded and so we lose our price premiums. It only takes 1 or 2 sterile broom or black grass seeds to drop the purity percentage.  With this in mind we have to spot treat any rogue grasses by hand, as there are very limited and expensive chemicals that kill some grasses in other grasses.  Bad areas, if found, have to be mown out so the unwanted rogue grass does not set seed that will contaminate the end sample. Other competitive broad leaf weeds such as docks and ragwort and mayweed are more easily dealt with by more basic chemistry herbicides.
Now is the really tricky time of year for a professional grass seed farm with high wildlife conservation values. With the crops being first generation we have to keep them as pure as possible, so when they start to set ears as ours have done this week, we have reluctantly had to put the mower on the tractor and comply with the DEFRA’s recommendation cross pollination buffer zone. This requires all natural wild grasses to be controlled as best we can around any grass seed crops for a distance of 50m! This wide buffer is required to limit cross pollination of our seed with wild, unwanted, different-strain ryegrasses and reduce the possibility of diseases from wild grasses taking hold in the crop that could reduce the germination of our seeds and affect our plants in the following year. So yesterday, I finished off the mowing around our grass seed crops.  Adjacent road side verges, field verges and conservation grass strips all had to be topped under this very drastic but totally necessary regulation.
At the same time, we have topped all our footpaths for the local residents so they can enjoy the farm but we do ask once again, as this is such an important time of year for nesting birds, that you do keep your dogs under tight control. It only takes one unruly dog to disturb a Grey Partridge on eggs to cause it to abandon that nest.
Mowing at this time of year should only be done if it is required for regulations, as above, or for road safety. Verges have become overgrown and tall with the Cow Parsley and so it is difficult to see oncoming traffic. Real accident hotspots can be mown on request to your local highways officer at the County Council. Grassland at the moment is alive and buzzing with insect life. These insects are the most valuable food source in the year, as so many fledgling birds require insect life as their first meals, brought back to the nest by their parents.
So it was a shame, while driving around our locality, to see ‘recreational’ tractors and mowers topping large areas of rough grassland when it is at its most valuable. It was mind boggling to see this total disregard for grasses, nectar sources, insect life and potentially rare ground nesting birds such as Grey Partridge and Lapwing. I wish everyone would engage their mind and ask, ‘Is it really needed?’, before they engage their blades on the mower. Lawns are the same.  Some like straight lines; we like buttercups, clover, daisies and ground nettles in ours.  Please hold back for a week or two and see the bees and insects enjoy these nectar sources that you have left and you never know what might turn up! We had a pair of Grey Partridges chasing insects on the lawn at Westhorpe last week amongst the buttercups that have been left to bloom! BWB

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