Hampshire leading the way in new farming method that benefits humans and animals
PUBLISHED: 15:10 26 June 2017 | UPDATED: 15:10 26 June 2017
Hampshire is still an agricultural county, so it’s fitting that it is leading the way in a new farming method that benefits humans as well as animals and other wildlife, as Tiffany Francis explains
For hundreds of years, Hampshire has nurtured a vibrant culture of agriculture and farming. It’s an industry that still employs 1.32 per cent of the county’s rural population, and one of the reasons we treasure our county so much; fresh slabs of salted butter at farmers’ markets; colourful mosaics of arable fields that have shaped the landscape; the pensive faces of our native Hampshire Down sheep. Our farming history has made welly-clad countrysiders of us all, but many of our farmers are now also leading the way in a special kind of farming that not only benefits the county’s human population, but also the rich array of wildlife that makes Hampshire its home.
Wildlife-friendly farming is a fairly new concept, championed by forward-thinking farmers and organisations like Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. The core belief is that sustainable farming systems can only work when the natural environment is nourished and healthy, where farmland is not only producing high yields of food, but also providing a habitat for our wildlife. The health of our habitats and soils are directly linked to the land’s ability to sustain us and produce the food we need to live; protecting wildlife is not an option, but an essential part of Britain’s farming future. Whether it’s reducing dependency on pesticides, building owl boxes or allowing field boundaries to grow wild, more and more farmers are working together with nature to create a sustainable future for their industry.
One of the ways in which wildlife-friendly farming has thrived in Hampshire is through conservation grazing, a scheme familiar with dog walkers and joggers who may have spotted livestock roaming freely around their local green spaces. Conservation grazing involves using native breeds of cows and sheep, many considered rare breeds themselves, to graze habitats like chalk downland, salt marshes, acid grasslands, fen, heathland and wood pasture, maintaining these habitats in a non-intensive, wildlife-friendly way while also feeding the livestock that graze there.
Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust now graze over 40 separate pieces of land throughout the county, including nature reserves and private land whose owners want to improve it for wildlife, such as the Ministry of Defence, local authorities and other NGOs like Butterfly Conservation. The benefits of conservation grazing are numerous; as livestock chomp on the grasses, shrubs and scrub slowly through the year, it means grasses are kept down as if they had been mown, but insects, nesting birds and wildflowers are able to complete their life cycles without being hoovered up by a mower. Other benefits include increased biodiversity from dung, varying levels of soil exposure which is fantastic for insects, and the production of high welfare meat.
Elliott Fairs works for Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, looking after estates around the north and east of Hampshire, including Basingstoke, Hook, Fleet, Farnham, Yateley, Liss and Bordon. “Conservation grazing on nature reserves is the most environmentally friendly, financially sustainable and holistic type of management there is,” he says. “More and more people want to know where their food comes from, and if you choose to eat meat, where better than the meat produced by grazing livestock on your local nature reserve? There are few more pleasing and relaxing things than watching a herd of animals slowly graze across a meadow on a summer evening, a cloud of insects following them whilst being picked off by opportunistic swifts and swallows.”
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