In September 2017 we took our harvest and contemplated the next crop. With the intensive arable management that has been followed for many years, Well Manor, the land and the environment had suffered. Throughout World War 2 every possible field was brought into food production, including marginal pastures and wetlands that traditionally were not seen as worthwhile. After the war, the political landscape ensured that these fields continued to stay in arable production, as the Government of the day was intent on maintaining food production for the increasing population. However these policies had little if any consideration to the flora and fauna and the loss of the biodiversity that had existed for centuries.
Intensive monoculture is the biggest threat to our natural world, whether livestock or arable, the complex lifecycles of both native and visiting wildlife depends on finding the right food sources and breeding places, at the right times. Huge fields of single crops provide a sterile environment for insects and those at the bottom of the food chain, combined with a lack of livestock in the landscape food sources have declined dramatically. Without those bugs and beasties, we have lost over 75% of our farmland birds since the late '70s
Continued planting of limited crops, extensively Oil Seed Rape, Wheat and Barley in our area, has meant that pervasive weeds have developed resistant to the increasing amounts of herbicides sprayed endlessly to keep the crop clean for the combine harvester. Black Grass is one such weed, also known as Black twitch, Hungerweed, Rat-tail grass or Slender Foxtail. Black Grass is a native grass which inhabits the field margins but can slow spread into the crop. Black Grass suffers from the fungal infestation called Ergot, which infects rye grasses and seed heads of wheat. Ergot poising was common in the Middle Ages with whole towns suffering from the symptoms of delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin along with convulsions and shaking, an unpleasant experience to say the least. It has been said that when investigating the Salem Witch Hunt evidence points the finger at Ergot poisoning in the poor unfortunate women of Salem. As with most of these fungi they have down and upsides - women used to use it to stop excessive bleeding and in modern times LSD was derived from it.
Traditionally the Black Grass as with other weeds were kept in control by crop and arable rotation, stubble burning or ploughing. Now farmers are banned from setting the stubble on fire which burnt the dormant seeds and cleaned the land. Our farm is situated on heavy clay soils and therefore we no longer plough, instead, we use Minimum Tilling to just open up the surface before planting into the tilth. This means that the Black Grass seed has carte blanche to reproduce, unhindered by the best the chemical companies can muster.
Through our Countryside Stewardship programme, we have opted to plant 40 acres of legume rich fallow. Legumes are deep rooting and gain 70-80% of their nitrogen from the atmosphere before depositing it in the soil. Legumes have a special symbiotic relationship with a nitrogen fixing bacteria known as Rhizobia, which they allow to infect their roots. The Rhizobia provides organic nitrogen whilst the plant offers protection and shelter. Clover, is not only pretty but has a deep taproot to access the minerals and nutrients from the soil whilst also being an excellent soil conditioner. With its pollen, it is a great food source for our declining bee population.
Through providing these large areas of fallow we hope we can provide a boost to the insect population and ground nesting birds, whilst improving the soil structure and reducing the Black Grass.