FARMERS are being asked to produce food while at the same time acting as environmental custodians and providing recreational opportunities and access to the outdoors. Craven farmer Anthony Bradley explains how restoring the original ecological processes of the Dales can help them balance all these priorities.

ONE wag in the farming press once defined success in farming as 'still being in business next year’. That clearly qualifies as a ‘priority’.

However, we have a centralised and metropolitan government, which seems to echo President Eisenhower when he said: ‘Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from a cornfield.’ In short, we are being asked to not only produce food and fibre but also to mitigate the effects of fossil fuel use and the consequent damage to the climate. Add in the moves likewise for biodiversity, recreation, right to roam etc and the old-school definition of a farmer being the producer of food and fibre seems a little dated, to say the least.

All the while government support for agriculture is being reduced/abolished. 'Multitasking' hardly covers it.

So I suggest our actual priority is to produce food profitably without government support and replace lost biodiversity to offset others’ ongoing environmental damage increasingly with private finance. Both priorities to be achieved with as near zero fossil fuel use as possible as well as fixing the issues caused by the legacy of chemistry-driven agriculture.

This feels like a big, if not overwhelming, prospect but there is ‘good’ news. I can scarcely pick up a copy of the farming press without there being another story about how a particular agricultural sector is reducing its use of machinery and chemistry and increasingly incorporating livestock.

There is a quiet return to ‘mixed’ farming, which is gradually replacing the mechanical movement of soil and using cover crops grazed by ruminants.

The effects of this on depleted soils and their crops is all positive. Less chemistry, more biology, less mechanical operations and the sequestering of carbon into soils.

There are positive improvements to the bottom line as well. In effect, livestock is reducing the use of fossil fuels, chemicals and damage to the environment. Better still for Dales farmers is the improved demand for ruminants to be sold into arable areas.

Closer to home the way farmers are managing their livestock and forage is changing too. Diversity is being reintroduced to the make-up of the forage being grown. There is the planting of ‘multi-species’ leys.

These will include many different species of grass, legumes and herbs. Increasingly these will be grown without fertiliser – indeed, not using nitrogen fertiliser assists legumes to thrive and extract nitrogen from the atmosphere for free. On the downside some of the stewardship schemes, whilst supporting these changes, want further changes based on dates. An example is preset livestock exclusion or mowing dates.

The problem is that the weather hasn’t read the calendar. There is talk of these schemes moving to ‘outcomes’ rather than process or calendar dates. That should be a priority.

There is, though, perhaps another change to a farmer’s priorities. In addition to the producing of food, land is being sought for biodiversity net gain and tree planting. This seems to me to be a conundrum. If developers cannot build without trashing the environment, I am not sure I as a farmer should be asked to clear up their mess and/or host their offsets. I already have my own job, after all. I suspect ultimately money will overcome the misgivings.

But the following quote I think came from Defra: ‘Too often production methods have been at the expense of nature rather than being symbiotic. We need farmers and other land managers to improve the natural environment alongside food production with environmental goods and services playing a key role in all farm businesses.’ In my neck of the woods we are ably assisted by the Ribble Rivers Trust and the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust in the Ribblesdale Farmers Group to achieve the aim of harnessing natural processes.

That group grew out of the Long Preston Wet Grassland project. We are looking at biodiversity net gain as well as the traditional stewardship schemes to expand that work. It is hoped it will extend the work already done whilst helping us farm as well — ie ‘win-win’ scenarios.

What we also have is the growth of managed grazing regimes. So ‘rotational, mob, paddock and holistic grazing’ are a part of the agricultural lexicon unimaginable even a few years ago. There is some guff expressed around this but the Defra use of the word ‘symbiotic’ is key here. Both grass and other grazed plants co-evolved with grazing ruminants. They also co-evolved with predators, which included humans.

This means ruminants are predisposed to form herds or flocks for their own protection or safety in numbers. They had to continually move as they left behind their muck, trampled vegetation, moved to fresh grazing and tried to stay ahead of the predators.

So as farmers with domesticated livestock we can mimic that co-evolved behaviour. That is, I can put lots of stock on a small area for a short time before moving them swiftly to a fresh grazing area. Here in the Dales we have replaced the wild predators with stone walls, hedges and sometimes electric fences. Effectively the human place in the system is also symbiotic.

What then are the priorities for ruminant agriculture in the Dales? I think we will still grow grass but it will be a more diverse ley. We will include non-grass species such as clover and herbs. That might mean in some places more old-school hay meadows with the associated increase in wildlife both above and below ground. There will be buffer zones next to watercourses to exclude livestock. These will become wildlife habitats in their own right. In their turn they will link to other areas with livestock exclusion for various reasons.

It doesn’t take Einstein to work out that wildlife habitat will attract more wildlife, which will attract more and more diversity. The livestock we keep will be a symbiotic part of that increasingly diverse farmed landscape we manage. We will use fewer inputs and ideally none based on fossil fuel. Our carbon use will be what we can capture via photosynthesis. Our nitrogen use will be from legumes.

The additional elements will be cycled and recycled by an increasing diversity of fungi in the soil, which will also be adding more carbon to that very same soil.

Looking at the payments for ‘wood pasture’ in some ‘schemes’ there could very well be a priority at Chez Bradley for some more tree planting. I will also keep opening and closing gates and moving stock to pastures new as a surrogate but symbiotic pack of predators.

This feature originally appeared in the Yorkshire Dales Review and is reproduced thanks to Friends of the Dales.