At this time of year walk past any hedgerow, or pause under a tree, and you will see the most vivid green shoots unfurling as they risk opening for the unpredictable spring weather and a new year. In particular, this week saw the cherry blossom smother the previously brown branches as they suddenly appeared following a week of warmer sunshine
Everything in nature at this time of year is a bit of risk as the weather does not follow a steady trend. Predictably, it has already gone backwards and rain, wind and frost have stripped some blossom and slowed the leaves. Lacking the ability of humans to dash back inside when the weather changes, spring flowers and buds have to stay where they are and, inevitably, every year some get frosted or knocked over by sudden storms.
These past couple of weeks has also seen the birth of the first of the lambs which is always so sweet but again not without risk. So far it has gone reasonably well but an added factor this year is that we are discovering that some of the 300 or so trees which fell in the February storms are proving to be places where lambs can easily get trapped. Thus, in order to help Matt the Shepherd’s constant efforts to be ever vigilant, we have taken to tailoring our walks to where they might be most useful in helping him keep track of the newborns.
Sheep have been part of the landscapes at Highclere for millennia and work well for us as we can put up electric fencing around the arable fields which any cattle would just walk straight through. Some of the original field boundaries, still there after more than 1200 years, are described in the old records as “scip dell” (sheep dell) so in many ways we are really just following in our forbears’ footsteps. In a mixed farm, everything is interrelated and works together. The sheep graze over stubble turnips after which the fields are then planted for wheat or barley. The sheep manure breaks down slowly adding to the richness of the soil. As a further advantage, combining crops, grassland and livestock can also support increases in small mammals, pollinators and farmland birds.
In fact, this is altogether a busy time for the farm. The chalk downland here has been renowned for centuries for producing top quality malting barley and we plant spring barley for distilling. It is harvested later in the year and sent to Scotland for whisky or used for beer. Simon, Highclere’s farm manager is also out planting spring beans for animal feed. The beans are also are an important nitrogen fixing crop which will help the soil nutrients for a future crop of winter wheat.
Diversity and long rotations help us both get more from the land and tread a little more lightly on it. It is a kinder process than intensive factory farming which this natural approach helps to preserve this historically rich landscape and allows us to pass it on intact to future generations. It is a sad fact that here in the UK we waste 30% of the good we buy. Given the recent dramatic increases in the cost of living this is plain uneconomic as well as adding to the burden on the land. It seems to me that just being a little more careful would help make a difference in any number of directions.