Working with nature
How we protect and enhance our farm environment
The term "custodians of the countryside" is a somewhat clichéd phrase that is often applied to farmers and other land managers, but it is a title that best describes a large part of our own farming practise, especially within an organic system. As in all industries there is good practise and bad and while I can not speak for the rest of the farming industry, I can tell you a little about what we do at Overtown to encourage bio-diversity, protect existing habitats and create new ones.
We have a policy of co-existing with the rest of nature wherever possible and there are in truth very few species of creature that do not have at least one redeeming feature or useful function!
To go straight to our picture gallery and see some of the plants, animals and landscape of Overtown, click on the link.
Hedges and trees
Hedges and trees are a vital part of any eco-system. They provide shelter for small mammals and invertebrates, food for birds and a wind-break for livestock to shelter under.
The accepted myth is that farmers spend their lives ripping out hedges wherever possible, and while that may have been true in the east of England 20-30 years ago, there are probably more new hedges being planted and old ones being regenerated in Britain now than at any time since the second world war, thanks to various agri-environmental schemes that encourage bio-diversity as an every day part of modern faming practise.
There are several hedges that have been established on our farm in the last 20 years but the bulk of our planting has been undertaken since 2002 when we kicked off with a 500m run of mixed native hedging, made up of Hawthorn, Guelder Rose and Holly. This was along the line of a long since crumbled Cotswold stone wall and by establishing a hedge here, it has created an amazingly diverse wildlife corridor with food for birds on the berry bearing bushes and nectar for the bees, butterflies and other insects in the myriad of wildflowers that have sprung up as if from nowhere in the fenced off margin of field either side of the hedge. The following year, we "gapped-up" several existing hedges that were getting thin by re-planting a mix of native species in the thin areas. These are now growing well and the hedges are thickening up to form a dense, stock-proof barrier that is also an excellent shelter for the cattle, sheep and horses in winter.
Left: National Trust Wardens preparing the site of the new hedge in summer 2002.
Left: The same hedge 7 years on. The Yellow flowers are Ladies Bedstraw which has a wonderful honey smell and the purple flowers are various types of Vetch.
As part of this scheme, we also planted some small copses...mini woodlands in areas of the farm that were not used for anything much other than parking the odd bit of farm machinery.
Research shows that Scots Pine and Rowan trees made up a large part of the ancient forests of Britain. There is a private driveway through the middle of the farm that ends at the National Trust's administrative offices. This is lined for over half a mile by a double row of Scots pines that really stand out on the horizon. To mirror that, we have recreated our own tiny patch of ancient forest on the edge of the farm yard. The pines will eventually carry fir cones that will provide food for seed eating birds and Rowan trees carry a heavy crop of berries in autumn that birds flock to. We have also planted an under-story of dog rose, viburnum and blackthorn so that those creatures that rely on cover have somewhere to shelter and to provide more nesting sites for birds.
In our second phase of planting in winter 2007/10 we continued with several new runs of hedge and further gapping and regeneration. We also fenced off a wet area alongside the farm track and panted a mixture of alder and willow in the dampest area, and hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel and dog-rose where it was drier. Finally, we inter-planted this with the Lime trees (the broadleaved tree not the citrus fruit) which are a joy in summer as their flowers are very insignificant to look at but their perfume is wonderful! This will eventually create a fantastic wind-break for the livestock buildings and will also create a new natural feature in the landscape.
We also have some specimen trees planted in memorial of various friends and family members, (most of them 4-legged!). These trees include the small-leaved Lime, Rowan, Sweet Chestnut and Whitebeam.
Headlands and field margins
Headlands are the strips of grass-covered, un-planted land that can be seen around all arable fields. Traditionally, these are left to make it easier to turn tractors when they are carrying out field cultivations and are then incorporated into the ploughing at the end of the day, but under the current agri-environmental scheme that covers all of england, it is now a legal requirement that this is left in place on all arable fields. There is a minimum area that must be left, measured from the centre of the field boundary and it is wider whenever their are mature trees in the hedge line so as to prevent root disturbance when carrying out deep cultivations such as ploughing.
Clearly, this means that nationally there is a lot of land that has been compulsorarily taken out of production and with food security constantly in the news it could be argued that this is a wasted resource, but one thing that is for certain is that headlands are good news for wildlife. They provide a place for small mammals such as voles to forage, for invertebrates such a butterflies and bees to find nectar on the hedge plants and wildflowers and a space for ground nesting birds to nest or simply sit and dry out after a rainstorm!
Another role played by headlands is that of a wildlife corridor. Nationally, and especially here in Gloucestershire, we have many sites where endangered species are protected or that are generally rich in wildlife but they are often small, isolated pockets and there is always a risk of inbreeding or the species dying out. Headlands provide a way for wildlife to move from site to site and using this leap-frogging method, it is quite amazing what species can suddenly turn up. See the Nature section of the photo gallery for some examples of plants that have done just this plus more of the plants and wildlife to be found on our farm.
In 2005, we started to carry out an informal wildflower survey on parts of the farm, including headlands and shelter belts (areas of trees planted around the edge of fields to provide a wind-break). We discovered 4 species of orchid and 4 other species of wildflower that had not been spotted before and they continue to increase in number each year. Hand-in-hand with that, we have also seen the return or increase of many wild birds such as Yellow Hammers, Stone Chats, Golden Plover and Goldfinches.
We run occasional wildflower and nature walks in season so if you are interested please go to the Courses and Events page for more information.
Archaeological features ... Dew ponds, burial mounds and ridge and furrow.
This section is still under construction while awaiting photographs. Please check back later.