An interview with a sustainable farmer

by Sinead Lynch, Senior Conservation Officer for Bumblebee Conservation Trust

At Bumblebee Conservation Trust we are particularly interested in methods of farming which provide habitats which are rich in flowers for bumblebees to forage on. There is an increasing movement in the farming industry towards sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Such low input and low cost methods make a farm business more resilient, and taking care of your most important resources on-farm – soil, habitats, water – makes the land more resilient to change (e.g. extreme weather such as drought). These low input methods also help to restore flower-rich habitats such as grasslands.

I work with lots of farmers who practise this method of farming and so I wanted to showcase a real success story – Emma Douglas who helps to run a small family farm in Penmaen, in the heart of Gower in south Wales, where they have been restoring grassland through conservation grazing. Emma and her family run ‘Gower Meadow Beef’, which is produced from their mixed herd of Welsh Black and Dexter cattle. I visited the farm to find out more…

So Emma, how did you get into farming?

“Growing up on a farm I was always interested in farming and keeping animals. I’ve always had horses. My parents, my Grampa and my Uncle were all farming. When I returned to the family farm on Gower after working on common land in Bridgend, I started to look after Dad’s cattle, and then I purchased my own starter herd (dexters) in 2017 as a birthday present to myself! Working for Pori Natur a Theftadaeth (PONT) I visit lots of beautiful farms across south Wales to advise on conservation grazing.

I realised I wanted to do conservation grazing myself, on the farm and on sites across Gower. I needed to find a breed of cattle that was suitable for conservation grazing – Dexters are lighter, look less threatening than larger breeds and thrive on natural habitats such as heathlands and grasslands. Dexter beef is renowned for its taste.  I joined the Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) in 2016 and I was inspired by farmers who are farming in a sustainable and regenerative way.”

How and why did you go about setting up a sustainable farming business? 

“I feel like one of the only way to change the way we do things is to lead by example. My background as an ecologist led me to combine my passion in farming and my passion for wildlife through regenerative and nature friendly farmingI wanted to support wildlife by conservation grazing on the farm and on important nature sites I graze on Gower. I started the direct selling (of beef) after we had a TB breakdown which left us with cattle which were too large and over 30 months which made them less marketable, so I wanted to try to make the most of their premium quality beef. I’ve seen similar schemes run by my PONT colleague in North Wales (Anglesey Grazing Animals Project).

Another important aspect is to be able to show that sustainable agriculture is also a viable business opportunity for farmers, especially as we are moving towards an uncertain future in agriculture. There is a lot of demand for premium quality beef as people are more aware of where their food comes from and what is in it.”

What are the benefits of sustainable farming? 

“Most importantly for me, I am seeing an increase in wildlife – I see lots of hares, bats, hedgehogs and barn owls on the farm, and I see the species diversity increasing every year. In particular I notice an increase in pollinator species as we see more flowers. The cattle are happier and healthier grazing on wildflowers and wild grasses. Worming is less frequent because of the species diversity in the fields, particularly anthelminthic high tannin species such as bird’s foot trefoil. We’ve managed to extend our grazing period, so the cattle are only on hay/silage from January until early spring and are not housed.

We are improving the soil health – it’s really important that we take care of our soils because healthy soils equals more productive grassland. And if we manage the soil organically we can improve organic matter and increase drought tolerance. We’re then also sequestering carbon rather than releasing carbon which is obviously important in terms of climate change. Livestock farming, particularly the cattle industry, are under a lot of pressure to look at more sustainable practises and reduce carbon emissions.”

Tell me about how you manage the farm.

“We keep around 40 head of welsh black and dexter suckler cattle, we keep all of the calves and finish them off grass to sell through our beef business ‘Gower Meadow Beef’. The cows and calves are kept on our main holding and the youngstock go out to graze on various nature reserves and neighbouring land. Some of our yearlings are currently cross grazing with ponies at Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Llanelli to create lapwing breeding and chick feeding habitat. Others graze a fen and wildflower meadows at Oxwich National Nature Reserve and Overton Mere to restore coastal grassland and heathland. We keep two of our fields as hay meadows, which produce the hay/haylage that we need to bale graze in the winter. We feed the species rich hay/haylage on our less diverse pastures and are already seeing the benefit of this. The hay meadows are allowed to recover and then aftermath grazed during the winter.

We rotationally graze our grasslands, leaving long residual swards. This is also great for the wildflowers as the flowering period is extended as they are grazed at different stages throughout the year with long recovery periods. We are currently making a move towards holistic planned grazing, a form of regenerative agriculture and are investing in the necessary infrastructure at the moment. Our grazing season has extended since we altered our management, so it must be working! We are hoping to achieve Pasture for Life certification in the near future.”

Tell me about the beef you sell.

“We started Gower Meadow Beef in 2017. We had always kept one of our animals for our own freezer. We knew how good the beef tasted. There aren’t many places where you can buy older (over 30 months) grass fed beef. Through PFLA I learnt about all the health benefits of pasture fed beef, including a better nutritional quality (e.g. balance of omega-3 to omega-6 levels). A diverse sward will make more of a difference and contributes to flavour as well as livestock health. We sell the beef directly from the farm, through local cafes, and through a local food hub. Our customers are usually people looking for local sustainable high quality traceable produce.”

How do you think this method of farming can benefit bumblebees and other wildlife? 

“We have mostly neutral grassland, as well as some broadleaved woodland and plenty of mature hedgerows. We are managing two fields as wildflower meadows, so they are a great food source for pollinators including bumblebees. We leave margins and we have a lot of hedgerows and copses across the farm which make great nesting habitats. We’re increasing plant species diversity so that increases forage for bees.

It’s grazed and rested so there are new flower heads appearing throughout the season. We also have commoners rights to Cefn Bryn which is a ridge with dry acid grassland and heathland and acid flushes. The most satisfying outcome of the way we are farming now is the increase in forbs in the grasslands which has resulted in a boom in insect life, there has been a dramatic increase in butterflies, grasshoppers and bumblebees.”

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