Sunday, 11 July 2021
Re-wilding the fields
I've been visiting a farm with so much wildlife you could easily imagine it to be a nature reserve. How's this for starters – 137 bird species, 40 butterfly species, 740 moth species. All officially recorded by expert naturalists. Amazing.
But it isn't a reserve or even some new location for rewilding. It's a working commercial farm whose owner has as much need of profit as any other farmer. It's just that his passion for wildlife has produced a system that's not only nature-friendly, rolled out across Britain it would bring wildlife flooding back to our sterile fields. It might even give us our best chance yet of ending the climate crisis.
For me it was a particularly pleasing visit. I was on the farm to produce a short documentary film, due for release later this summer. The story was of a farmer who'd turned his back on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the toxic substances that have wiped out so many of our wild plants and animals. Instead he was using traditional crop rotations including grasslands and grazing animals.
However there's another element in his wildlife triumph, a solar power-source that sends energy flooding through the whole farm ecosystem. To see it producing such great results came as quite a relief, I can tell you. A few years earlier I'd seeded the idea into my storylines for the Radio 4 drama series, The Archers. I'd been a writer on the show for 30 years, much of it in charge of the farming stories.
Out in the real countryside I could see the chemical methods used by most farmers were fast killing off our wildlife. So I sneaked into my storylines a few nature-friendly alternatives to this deadly process in our fields. I thought of myself as a kind of under-cover agent for nature on the long-running show.
My top secret weapon was the 'herbal ley'. You could think of it as a kind of flower-filled meadow but with a couple of important differences. The herbal ley includes deep-rooting and – for cattle and sheep – nutritious plants like blue-flowered chicory and the drought-tolerant sainfoin, with its beautiful magenta flowers.
Both are favourites with bees and other pollinators which are attracted in huge numbers. They also energise life underground, supplying energy-rich compounds through their roots to the soil ecosystem. They're nature's own fertility builders, freeing farmers from their reliance on toxic chemicals.
The other difference with conventional flower meadows is that the herbal ley becomes part of the farm's rotation cycle. It's sown in a field for three or four years, during which it's grazed with cattle or sheep. The field - now enriched – is then sown with a food crop like wheat, while another herbal ley is planted elsewhere on the farm. In this way the whole farm is maintained at a high level of fertility without the need for damaging chemical fertilisers.
During my time on The Archers I realised that herbal leys could be a game-changer in the countryside. In the absence of the chemicals, nature would surely come flooding back. So I had farmer Adam Macy sow them as an experiment. To link the story with the idea of fertility, I had young Pip Archer spend time amid the flowers with her lover Toby Fairbrother. Pip subsequently became pregnant and gave birth to daughter Rosie, though I don't claim this to be in any way connected with deep-rooting herbs.
Where the story will go in the future I've no way of knowing. Herbal leys seldom get a mention in The Archers these days. What I do know is that outside Ambridge in the real countryside they're rapidly gaining converts. As I saw on the farm I filmed recently, they're the best method we have of re-wilding our fields.
To read the full story of Adam's herbal leys, please make a pledge to help the publication of my book Underneath The Archers. Then join me in getting the nature-friendly, planet-protecting power of flowers spread across the fields of Britain.
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