Table of Contents
- Introduction to the Forage Field management plan
- Why natural farming?
- Our aim
- Forage Field Management Plan:
- 10. Sharing our progress
Introduction to the Forage Field management plan
Welcome to the Forage Field. This is our field management plan to diversify 9 acres of agricultural land using the principles of natural farming to encourage land recovery, habitat development and the use of native plants.
We believe that agricultural land can serve many functions. Firstly, it should be a living larder; able to feed us, livestock and wildlife in a sustainable way that doesn’t negatively impact on the greater environment. Secondly, it should feed and protect the precious soil that lays beneath it, sequestering carbon and preventing erosion. And finally it should provide shelter for both the animals and plants that make it their home.
Why natural farming?
Natural farming is often termed ‘do nothing’ agriculture and is the least invasive of all farming philosophies. The core principle of natural farming is working with nature to produce food and other resources without depleting the land, ensuring that land remains ecologically sound both for wildlife and future generations. You can find much more detail on the principles of natural farming in our post, What is natural farming?
We purchased the field next to our house earlier this year. The site is approximately 9 acres in a roughly rectangular shape orientated north-south. It sits on a belt of clayey-loam soils known as the Upper Jurassic Oxford Clay. Drainage is relatively poor, with parts of the field regularly displaying surface water during winter, often along the old drainage lines.
The land is registered as agricultural and is currently covered by a commercial grass ley sown two years ago. Before the re-sowing, the land was managed un-intensively for many years.
We aim to regenerate the land following the principles of natural farming. We feel that the current grass ley represents a monoculture that offers little in the way of habitat and is detrimental to wildlife.
We hope that by managing the land sympathetically and increasing the diversity of native species present, new ecosystems will form, resulting in a more ecologically healthy field.
Finally, we plan to showcase the multitude of uses our native vegetation offers to encourage people to value these fantastic plants.
In summary, our field management plan should…
- Develop a rich ecosystem that is self-sustaining without any use of tilling, fertilisers or pesticides
- Improve soil health
- Reduce the risk of flooding
- Establish a rich, native edible landscape to feed both humans and wildlife
- Promote alternative uses of native plants, including medicinal herbs, dye plants, weaving plants
- Produce firewood in an ecologically friendly way through coppicing
Forage Field Management Plan:
To help us develop a management plan for our field, we have used the services of an ago-ecologist called George. We have found discussing our ideas with someone who also believes in the importance of developing healthy landscapes invaluable.
George has produced the site plan below for us, and I have posted excerpts from his notes highlighted in yellow so that you can see what his recommendation are.
Our field is surrounded by hedgerows and ditches on all four sides, with the hedges varying considerably in condition.
The old, grown-out hedges were cut back to the ground by the previous owners on two sides of the field before our purchase. These are the North and East boundaries. Both these hedge-lines show signs of regenerating by themselves with young elm, hawthorn, blackthorn, rose, and bramble evident currently. Both these hedge-lines also have associated ditching, which wild plants are quickly colonising. The plan for these two hedge lines is to see how well they develop naturally and to add in some extra trees later if required.
Half of the south side of the field is a mix of new native hedging between the field and our garden, which we planted about six years ago. We plan to lay this hedge in a year. The rest of the southern boundary is old grown out hedging, predominately hawthorn and elm.
The western boundary is a roadside hedge that is maintained using a flail cutter. We plan to increase the size and value of this hedge utilising the advice below.
The hedgerow adjacent to the road will need to be managed by a contractor with a flail cutter. Tip: Make sure the contractor raises the cutting height 10cm each year above the last year’s cut. This will give the hedge space to grow into and prevent it from developing a ‘table-top’ shape. The hedge isn’t high, so it has plenty of room to grow upwards by 10cm/year.
Suggestion: The hedgerow is currently around 4m wide (est.). Most contractors’ hedge cutter units will reach around 6m, so doubling the hedgerow width whilst maintaining the potential to keep height under control with a machine should easily be possible (as the contractor can cut half of the top from each side of the hedge). Hence to create a more extensive, thicker hedge and consequently greater habitat, allow a 4m-wide strip adjacent to the hedgerow (field side) to scrub up and eventually become hedgerow itself one day.
2 Tree and scrub establishment
We plan to use a mixture of planting approaches to generate our wooded areas. We will be mixing native pioneer tree and shrub species as outlined in the advice below, along with direct sowing of locally collected seeds, e.g. acorns. Other areas will be left wild to allow the opportunity for the natural colonisation of species.
An area constituting roughly 20-25% of the site is to be set aside for tree planting and natural regeneration (see plan)
Pioneer species such as birch are recommended for planting
Also, consider scrub species such as hazel, hawthorn, dogwood, field maple and holly
Aim to plant in clumps, rather than the traditional linear hedgerow (all these scrub species would be typically found in hedgerow mixes)
Several trees of each species can be planted together in tight clumps to replicate how trees would have grown naturally
Arrange clumps of thorny species around a clump of taller growing, non-thorny species. This will protect the non-thorny species (e.g. oak) from predation
The more open space that can be left, the better
As a guide, think of only planting around a third to a half of the area allocated for tree & scrub
With the remaining 50-60%, wait and observe what happens – trees will colonise reasonably quickly, and you can always plant additional trees at a later date if you feel it is needed
As things stand, we currently have a vast field full of grass. We would love to restore our grass areas to a more diverse mix, similar to traditional wildflower meadows.
Where our field differs from a traditional wildflower meadow is in how we plan to manage it.
Wildflower meadows are traditionally managed for hay. Each year the grass is cut and removed as hay before being grazed. Nutrients from the soil are locked in the hay, so removing it reduces the nutrients available while grazing controls the grass and helps disperse seeds. This depletion of nutrients and control of grass length provides the perfect environment for many of our flowering meadow species.
We, however, don’t want to be producing hay or removing grass cuttings from our field. Instead, we plan to use a combination of management as outlined below and seeding yellow rattle to reduce the vigour of our grass.
In line with this plan, we over-seeded the centre of our field with a kilo of yellow rattle seed and a kilo of wildflower seed collected from a nearby SSSI wildflower meadow at the end of August 2021.
Field Management Plan: The central area of the field is to be managed as a meadow. No biomass is to be removed from the site, so management will primarily consist of topping with a flail mower once (or possibly twice) a year, from early September, once the growing season is nearing an end. Species enrichment via importing seed has been discussed.
Cuttings may be raked away from some areas to vary management practices. In addition, some areas will be regularly mowed to maintain paths and access, providing another variation to management. A greater diversity of regimes is likely to benefit a wider variety of wildlife.
4. Willow area
Willow grows fast and has a multitude of uses as well as being great for wildlife. It grows well in our location, and we know it will thrive in our wet, clay soil.
We plan to grow a variety of willows in our field for weaving, making living structures and firewood.
Our ago-ecologist has voiced his reservations about this plan as he has concerns that the willow will become unmanageable.
An area to the east of the field will be planted with osier willow (Salix viminalis). This should grow well given the soil conditions; however, it can spread rapidly if left unmanaged. Annual harvesting of regrowth will prevent this from becoming a problem. Even so, it could be worth starting with a relatively small area of willow and planting more in later years if required.
Planting: planting trees reasonably close together will encourage vigorous, straight growth, and if some trees ultimately shade others out, that shouldn’t be a problem. Nb – avoid planting anything underneath the mature oak along the eastern boundary.
Management: withy beds were traditionally managed by re-pollarding after the summer’s growth at waist height, creating a group of low pollards. Keep this annual task in mind when deciding how many willow trees to plant! They could also be cut at ground level if preferred.
5. Pond area
We have applied to host two new ponds in our field as part of the Great Crested Newt District Licensing Scheme and are currently waiting for planning permission. The project, managed by English Nature, supports the development of new habitats for Great Crested Newts to mitigate the loss of habitat due to land development.
Our land naturally holds surface water due to the underlying clay (as shown in the photo below) so is perfect for developing a wetland area.
It is worth including most of the area around the ponds in the annual cut-down of the meadow. This will help manage the inevitable spread of wild willow in this area, which, left unchecked, could overwhelm the ponds themselves. Leave a margin of 1-2m around the ponds uncut to allow marginal vegetation to flourish. Make allowances for any plants and seeds planted as part of the pond creation project, if any. If none are planted, consider adding some!
We plan to turn over approximately an acre of the field to an orchard. We have ordered a large selection of eating, cooking, crab and cider apple trees grown on M25 rootstock, which will grow into large trees suitable for grazing underneath. The trees are all West Country varieties chosen with our growing conditions in mind. As well as apples, our orchard will include plum, cherry, pear, quince, medlar and mulberry trees.
Care should be taken not to plant too close to the southern site boundary, as light from the south is vital to achieving good fruit growth. In future, intervention to reduce the height and/or density of trees on the southern boundary may need to be considered, depending on what is growing there.
Planting: orchards are typically planted in grids to allow ease of maintenance and ensure all trees receive reasonable amounts of sunlight; however, feel free to do differently if you wish! Typical spacings are between 4-6m, depending on how vigorous the chosen rootstock is. The possibility of mowing between trees should also be considered when deciding spacings – sufficient space for machinery to operate would be necessary. Weed suppression around each tree can be achieved with a thick (c.10cm) layer of mulch (woodchip from tree surgery works well), at least 1m2 per tree.
After planting: Trees will benefit from some watering to establish well in the first few years. Pruning fruit trees correctly is necessary to produce a good shape and fruit– consult relevant handbooks or seek professional assistance for this.
Species selection: consider the need for pollination when selecting fruit trees. Some are self-pollinating, others are not, so they will require more than one of the same type to produce fruit. Fruiting times are another thing to consider – spreading them throughout the summer can be helpful.
7. Hazel coppice area
Not shown on the field management plan, but we have decided to include a Hazel coppice area in our field, probably in the area marked as a small area for natural regeneration. Coppicing is an ancient method of managing hazel for firewood, building materials and their nuts.
We plan to keep bees in our forage field, using a treatment-free, natural method of beekeeping. We have chosen a top bar type of hive called a Drayton hive to home them and hope to welcome our first community of honey bees in the spring of 2022.
This project is designed to be process-led; hence there are no specific outcomes to monitor. However, for general interest, you may like to monitor for individual groups such as plants, nesting birds, insects, reptiles, and others to see how the site’s wildlife changes year on year. Here are some suggestions of how this might be achieved:
– Birds are best surveyed during the nesting season by an ornithologist
– Alternative forms of bird surveying are possible such as remote audio monitoring of birdsong levels
– You can survey plants as informally or formally as you wish, depending on your level of ability.
– One of the most accessible methods of monitoring insects is by moth trapping in summer. With a reliable ID book, you should be able to identify many species relatively easily.
– Other activities such as pitfall trapping are also possible, depending on levels of interest.
– Placing squares of roofing felt on mown areas and checking during the appropriate temperature windows is an effective way of monitoring reptiles.
10. Sharing our progress
Although we have developed this field management plan as a way to clarify our thinking, we do see it more as a guide rather than prescriptive. Ultimately, it will be down to nature to decide what grows where.
We are so excited to see how our natural farming approach to land management develops and will be sharing monthly updates here on our blog. Please sign up for our monthly newsletter or follow us over on Facebook or Instagram if you’d like to follow our progress.
We’d also love to hear of any ideas or projects you are involved with that promote ecologically friendly land use or celebrate the diversity and utilisation of our incredible native flora and fauna.