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Blakehill Farm (Wiltshire Wildlife Trust)

Location:Blakehill Farm, Nr Cricklade, Wiltshire

Habitats:Grassland

Livestock:Luing cattle, Belted Galloway Cattle

In brief:Large scale grassland restoration project including cattle and sheep grazing and meat marketing scheme.

Contact:Paul Hill

Tel:07887 641083

Email:paulh@wiltshirewildlife.org

Weblink:www.wiltshirewildlife.org


Blakehill Farm - financially sustainable conservation grazing and meat marketing

Paul Hill, Grazing Manager for the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust (WWT), is overseeing the largest neutral grassland restoration project in England at Blakehill Farm. In fact the restoration of Blakehill means WWT will meet around 45% of the government’s ten-year target for restoring hay meadow across the entire country - in one fell swoop!

Grazing is a key part of the grassland restoration (over 90% of the farm is grazed) and Paul runs three new suckler herds – Luing, Belted Galloway and Beef Shorthorn. The financial performance of each herd is closely monitored. Key objectives of the project include the marketing of finished animals through a box scheme and involving the farming community in collaborative grazing and marketing work (to demonstrate that this is an economically and environmentally viable option for them).

History of Blakehill Farm

Blakehill Farm was a WW2 airfield and was purchased by WWT in 2000 with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is now within the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and is also a LEAF demonstration farm. After WW2 the farm was used as a listening station by the MoD, during which time it was grazed fairly extensively and with little improvement or fertilisation. This has enabled a rich mix of wildflowers to survive and it is this species-rich hay meadow landscape that WWT are aiming to fully establish at Blakehill over the next 15-20 years.

Grassland Restoration Techniques

The central conservation objective for the farm is to restore crested dog's tail - knapweed Cynosurus cristatus - Centurea nigra MG5 neutral hay meadow.  Hay meadows were a once familair sight in the farming landscape but now only fragments remain. On the farm WWT are involved in trialling several neutral grassland restoration techniques with a series of monitored plots, including:

• Direct drilling 6 row barley into the sward to produce a whole crop silage (with undersowing of wildflower seed mix) to reduce fertility levels; this will be followed by hay and grazing management
• Grazing
• No ploughing
• Removing the sward with a broad spectrum herbicide and broadcasting wildflower seed
• Spreading green hay
• Using green hay through a straw chopper

Direct drilling and broadcasting will be carried out annually for at least three years. Wildflower seed is sourced from Clattinger Farm SSSI, and includes the hemi-parastitic yellow rattle  Rhinanthus minor to reduce more competitive grasses.

The conservation grazing system at Blakehill Farm

Hand-in-hand with the grassland restoration is the objective of also achieving a financially sustainable grazing regime. The idea is that Blakehill Farm can be used as a demonstration project, to help encourage other farmers to graze wildlife sites within the county. In order to help achieve this, financial data from the farm will be available to farmers who are interested.

Blakehill Farm provides the central hub for all WWT grazing operations, with stock moving to and from it to other sites. There is a mixed cattle and sheep grazing regime, as cattle take the coarser thatch that the sheep leave (this thatch inhibits less competitive plants). The cattle also create seed gaps through limited poaching whereas the sheep create a more closed sward by encouraging tillering of grasses. The farm uses volunteer stock lookers which both reduces management costs and helps to involve the local community.

Cattle Grazing

The farm has 3 separate herds: Luing, Beef Shorthorn and Belted Galloway. These breeds were chosen as the are all easy calving and thrifty foragers. Additional characteristic for which they were chose are:

Luing (Highland x Shorthorn) – hardy, good frame and finisher
Belted Galloway – hardy, best meat to bone ratio but slower maturing
Beef Shorthorn – hardy and a fast finisher

Some further information:

  • All suckler herds are costed and their performance monitored. The target date for financial sustainability for the grazing system is 5 years from the start date, but income will not include agri-environment grant aid or Single Payment Scheme monies
  • The cattle have an all-grass diet (grazing and hay). Hay is made at Blakehill, but this is a marginal economic activity (for example in 2005 they made 25p per big bale) and demand depends on the weather in any one year. The past land-use and bulldozing of airfield structures has created variable soil conditions. On areas where the soil is very thin the flora is more diverse, and these areas are left uncut.
  • Flower-rich hay from nearby Clattinger Farm (famous for it’s hay meadows) has been added to the herd’s diet to help increase the meadow flower species.
  • The cattle are outwintered. This is both healthier and produces less manure - of importance because the farm is within a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone which limits amounts that can be spread and timing of application
  • The open landscape can be cold and wet for stock, so a balance needs to be struck between retaining the openness suitable for species such as skylark and brown hare), and leaving enough scrub to provide shelter.
  • Water troughs are moveable to avoid landscape impact and to allow regular checking and cleaning 

Sheep Grazing

The sheep grazing is largely carried out by a grazier, Howard Ford, who also has sheep on other land besides Blakehill. The grazing at Blakehill is useful to Howard because it is a mixed system, good for worm control in both sheep and cattle. Paul provides (volunteer) lookering for the sheep and other back up support for Howard. This partnership requires good communication, trust, understanding and fairness for both partners, and is evolving.

Howard considered Wiltshire Horn sheep but low availability and relatively high cost put him off. He saw an advert for a flock of Soays, bought them and hasn’t looked back! He crosses the Soay breeding ewes twice to a Wiltshire Horn tup to produce a production ewe (a three quarter bred Wiltshire Horn x Soay) which he puts to a south Down tup to add size, conformation and early finishing ability to lambs produced. The ewes scan out at 70-75%. They lamb outside and are left largely to get on with it. Howard finds he needs no medicines and buys just one bag of ewe nuts for his orphan lambs as the sheep eat grass only.  Howard runs as many sheep as he can to achieve economies of scale over 15-18 flocks.

Farm Buildings and Infrastructure

Buildings and good handling facilities (both permanent and mobile) are essential for any grazing scheme, for example for  undertaking TB testing or for isolating sick animals. At Blakehill Farm the new buildings incorporate good ventilation and aspect to minimise respiratory problems. The funding for the cattle, equipment and buildings came from a HLF grant whcih has conditions  and is akin to a loan for farms. The electricity and water were the most expensive elements.

Meat Marketing Scheme – Blakehill Fine Foods

Wiltshire Wildlfie Trust are aiming to establish a viable commercial enterprise at Blakehill based on selling boxes of meat. In 2006 Blakehill were selling 50 boxes a year but the aim is to raise this to 500. The customers don’t have a choice about what goes in the box so the cattle breeds have been selected with selling the meat in mind. For example large cuts of meat tend to put people off so the breeding policy and stock selection is designed to provide smaller cuts. At the moment the best animals go into boxes, while others go to market as store animals and perhaps in future to the RBST Traditional Meat Marketing Scheme.

Paul Hill is fortunate in that he has received help in marketing the meat from a local volunteer Peter Staff who has much experience of marketing and branding. At a GAP workshop at Blakehill in 2006 Peter gave a short presentation on marketing and developing the Blakehill Fine Foods brand. A short summary is provided here.