Such a fragile environment…

Curlew eggs © Gordon Haycock of Haycock and Jay Associates Ltd

Fiona Clark, of Nethergill eco-Farm, explains their approach to creating a sustainable working hill farm, balancing the needs of food farming and nature.

Chris and I bought Nethergill, a 388 acre hill farm, with spectacular naivety in 2005. We both of us trained in agriculture, but with no agricultural roots we had spent the last 25 years mustering funds (and finding a friendly bank) to buy our own little piece of England. On moving-in day the farmhouse stood impressively against the wintery elements, but the meadowland and pastures surrounding the house, that had been cleaved out of moorland in the mid-1800’s, looked as though they would take any and every opportunity to revert back to natural moorland.

Nethergill had been grazed on a tenancy agreement. The temptation with a tenancy is to take everything and replace nothing. The more stock, the more money was the myth. The effect of this past management was that we took on a barren landscape with a dearth of flora and fauna and uninterrupted water flowing off the fells; the only way was up, or so we thought!

Nethergill

Nethergill

Nethergill land was described to us as disadvantaged, poor, unproductive and generally considered to be of little value. Over the 14 years here we have come to realise that it is a very fragile, unique environment and it is probably one of the most globally valuable assets we will ever own. The majority of the land is Oughtershaw Moss, which is a unique ecosystem and along with the other areas of peat around the world one of the most valuable ecosystems on earth. We have also come to understand that we have a responsibility as custodians of the land to restore and enhance it as best we can. Increasingly during our time here we have come to appreciate the dramatic effects small changes to the land management brings about. This is most apparent on the moorland area. When the river is in full spate with water rushing off the moors, flooding occurs further down the dale and beyond, affecting people and wildlife. Working towards flood mitigation techniques and moorland restoration with the help of Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust and Yorkshire Peat Partnership became a vital part of our planning for the future. Grip blocking carried out in 2016 by Yorkshire Peat Partnership has been extremely successful. Sphagnum is increasing, with correlating increase in carbon sequestration and decrease in water runoff.

Sphagnum capillifolium © Gordon Haycock of Haycock and Jay Associates Ltd

Sphagnum capillifolium © Gordon Haycock of Haycock and Jay Associates Ltd

Low stocking rates, on our moorland particularly, has led to our latest National Vegetation Classification Survey showing excellent results. From coming to Nethergill to farm (albeit with conservation at the heart of our decisions) and a starting point of 200 ewes and 10 cows we have gradually reduced our stock numbers down to a level that are now more sustainable. We quickly realised that by feeding any concentrate food to either the sheep or cattle the profitability disappeared and stock numbers were then, as now, governed by ‘the carrying capacity of the land’ or the ‘free issue grazing’. We also realised that using the same principle of going to hospital to catch a cold, also applied to overstocking animals on pasture, leading to higher medication and foot problems. As we reduced stocking rates the ewes and cattle became healthier and required almost zero medication. In addition to reducing stocking rates we also introduced an open gate policy which has led to the stock all exhibiting more natural behaviour. The stock, of their own accord, move fields according to the weather. They form small natural groupings, selecting the sweetest grasses, resulting in a marked increase in biodiversity, partly through the creation of a mosaic pattern. In addition there are the benefits of self-medication; they choose what they eat - animals are so much wiser than we give them credit for!

Fourteen years on, the conservation work at Nethergill continues. We are heartened by the direction things are taking and changes we have witnessed. Flora is adapting mosaically, black grouse have returned, nesting curlews are increasing, the elusive otter is present and red squirrels have found us. Water flowing down  from the moorland appears to have slowed and the moorland has become wetter. However, the wetter moorland has not given rise to any stock problems. As stocking rates are low, animals have been able to adjust to the wetter moorland, moving to drier areas and avoiding the most waterlogged areas.

It is a privilege to live here, we feel closer to nature and have learnt that to let nature take the lead is the best way forward.

You can find out more about Nethergill on their website.