Nature-friendly farming – ancient habitats, native livestock and dung beetles

Spring 2022

Sally-Ann Spence FLS FRES, Science, Education & Outreach –

My name is Sally-Ann Spence, and I am a farmer and scientist based beside the ancient Ridgeway in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Berrycroft Farm is a family farm, run by my husband and his brother. 

It produces wheat, barley, oats,

beans and oil seed rape – the rapeseed oil goes to McDonalds for frying, the wheat goes to Warburtons for bread.

I independently run the grassland and grazing part of the family farm, as well as have a grazing management agreement with the neighbouring National Trust. This makes a total of around 160 hectares (400 acres) of downland. I am passionate about restoring this incredibly ancient habitat, so graze with native-breed livestock and operate an extensive system that is based around dung beetles – focusing on one particularly sensitive species. The livestock restore both the soil and the pasture ecology. At different times of year, I fluctuate the numbers of animals on the grass according to how the grass and herbs are growing, which means I decrease animals when flowers are ready to set seed.

All the livestock is constantly monitored and selectively treated for parasites with a quarantine paddock used. Both the cattle herd and the sheep flock are kept as naturally as possible with only breeding males being bought in.

I have also built a research centre, Berrycroft Hub, which enables me to host student projects and research groups running experiments and trials on the grassland and the wider farm itself. This keeps us up to date on recent research on subjects such as soil-based carbon sequestration.

I am working collaboratively with various charities and organisations, such as Butterfly Conservation, to conserve the chalk hill blue butterfly population, and to hopefully be a reintroduction site for the Adonis blue. Here, farming and conservation go hand-in-hand. Nature- friendly farming is great for biodiversity and means that the bills can still be paid.

The arable farm is part of the Higher Entry Level Scheme, so there are grass margins, pollen and nectar strips, and bird cover and seed mixes planted with buffer zones around the waterways. We have planted woodland on the farm, and I am working with the Farmland Bird Project to encourage rare species, such as curlew and tree sparrows. To support farmland birds, this project involves feeding and ringing them to monitor numbers, putting up feeders and nest boxes. On the farm, we leave bigger field margins, and as part of the research project we have put out special songbird posts for corn buntings who will not mate unless the males have a song perch.

Healthy soils are crucial for growing our crops and for climate resilience. On the arable land, we grow cover crops preventing bare soils, grow legumes to increase natural nitrogen fixing, and practice no tillage or minimal tillage with a special drill. This makes sure our soil structure is as untouched as possible, which is good for the invertebrates and soil carbon.

The biodiversity has increased, especially on the grassland. A good example of this is the return of gentians and orchids. There is a phenomenal number of insects on the farm that are on the species red list, as well as mammal, bird, amphibian and reptile species.

We are also working with the Wildlife Trust to conserve our water vole population by managing the stream banks and have a PhD student running their research trial plots on mitigating pollutants into waterways.

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