The story of a field- a short history
The field in it's present form has a name. Big Field. It consists of 132 acres. It was part of the Barton farm at Shillingford Abbot.
It was created in 1965/1966 when my father and uncle bought the land from Mr. Paul. He had farmed it as 9 fields. With the aid of government grants my father and uncle grubbed up the hedges to create one large field. It can be seen from many a vantage point on the Haldon Hills looking north east. How do you know what to look for? It's the biggest, vast expanse of one field that you see.
Before then it had various owners and the Barton farmstead once consisted of a grain mill, that was powered by water via leats, that are still there today(underground), from a pond in the Big Field. In those days, the 15th and 16th centuries, there were monks who farmed this land and who lived in the farmstead.
During the 1970s I remember as a young boy there being big agricultural events in the field especially ploughing matches. These generated great interest amongst the farming community of Devon. Sometimes there would be traditional ploughing matches with all sorts of tractors and horses towing ploughs behind them. The quality of the ploughing was measured and judged by renowned experts. There were even 24 hour marathon ploughing matches raising quite large amounts of money for charity. I remember feeling proud of my Dad for being the owner of such a large field and farmers being inspired by his business acumen. Of course the downside was, in hindsight, all the wildlife and history of those hedges that were destroyed in the name of so called progress-- growing food more efficiently.
The land is red. The soil is what is termed as 'boys land' (easy to farm). It's a rich breccia consisting of clay, sand and can be quite stony but it is easy to work and easy to till the land into crops. In the 1980s it grew fantastic crops of wheat especially with the use of the latest technology in the forms of fertiliser, herbicides and fungicides. Every year as boys, my brother and me, would take part in helping with the harvest; picking up bales of straw, often by hand; driving tractors, carting loads of grain to the grain store. I remember the dust, from the dry soil and the combine harvesters. We had 2 by then.
Of course times change. The field changed. Year after year, winter wheat or winter barley would be planted. The seed is planted in the autumn, about October and then harvested during August, the following year.
By 1997 Dad had retired and Uncle had part retired. My brother and I took over the farming of the field. We were fortunate in being able to rent the whole field.
Between 1997 and 2001 all 132 acres were turned over to organic farming. We split it into 5 fields; we did not re-plant any hedges but we did get funding from the government to install beetle banks as part of an environmental scheme. These are 3 metre wide strips of grassland that are left uninterrupted. Across this field there were about 2.5 miles. These areas provided habitat for voles, hares and skylarks plus allowed the build up of spiders and insects which in turn provided food for other species. They would also harbour predators that feasted on aphids growing on the cereal crops that were grown.
We also practised growing crops on a rotational basis, allowing grass/ clover mixes to establish for 3-4 years. The subsequent grassland would be grazed by cattle and sheep. This built up the fertility in the soil and allowed it to recover and then we would grow crops for another 2 years.
This type of farming was practised right up to the year 2017 when the owners of the land decided they had to sell the Big Field.
Most of the field was sold to a conventional farmer and it is now growing nearly 100 acres of winter wheat. It was quite emotional to see the beetle banks ripped up and the field turned into a massive monoculture of wheat.
Fortunately my brother and I were able to buy 31 acres of the field near the Barton farmstead and we have managed to keep its organic status.
Also we intend to establish a new hedge on the boundary with our conventional neighbour.
This will be about 650 metres long.
So the 132 acre Big Field will soon become 2 fields. 101 acres conventional and 31 acres organic.
When it comes to the British countryside it is interesting to think that if we as farmers and land managers can provide a habitat then wildlife will eventually come to live in it.
If we can connect our new hedge to another existing hedge this is a bonus as wildlife can travel between them safely.
It is the same anywhere on the planet.
If you can restore a habitat, wildlife will come back to live in it. Of course it is preferable to protect existing habitats.
Although my father and uncle may have seemed to be progressive farmers in their day many scientists and experts in the agriculture field would now feel that hedge removal is regressive.
There is a relatively new term in agriculture.
'Regenerative agriculture' encompasses farming systems that regenerate topsoil, biodiversity and the whole ecosystem.
Please click the link an interesting talk on regenerative agriculture by Charles Massey.
And here is the
to my brother's Shillingford Organics website.