Regenerative Farming at Gowbarrow Hall Farm
by Anne Lloyd
All photos © Richard Lloyd
How it all started
Gowbarrow Hall Farm is a ring-fenced farm of approximately 230 hectares in the Ullswater Valley. It is comprised of improved grassland at the valley bottom (146m) rising through rougher pasture to Great Meldrum Fell (437m). It also incorporates both large and small tracts of mixed and conifer woodlands. It has the advantage of being on a south facing slope with several springs feeding the various enclosures.
Our family has been here since 1979, when my parents bought the farm, having moved from further north in the county. From that time until 2019, the farm was managed in a conventional way with predominantly sheep, and also some cattle grazing. From the 1990s we entered into a continuation of Countryside Stewardship Schemes with DEFRA under which, amongst other undertakings, we agreed to place all the land under permanent pasture.
The change came for us in the Spring of 2019. We were faced with the uncertainty of Brexit together with the unknown new subsidy scheme, and the desire on our part to have a more resilient farming business. This was coupled with a desire, by the next generation in our family, to try to address climate change and the fall in the biodiversity of our countryside. As a result we decided to take a hard look at our business model.
What really hit home to us was the difference in our soils. After taking two samples, one from a field closely cropped by sheep and another from the edge of a nearby woodland pasture that had not been grazed for several years, it was abundantly clear that the latter looked and felt healthier and more fertile. It had a dark brown colour, a crumbly texture, deep roots from the grass which had been allowed to grow much longer and it smelled great. The ideal, evidently, is to have soil that looks like chocolate cheesecake!
The question was how could we address this difference and improve the soils on the rest of our farm? To do that we embraced regenerative farming.
What is Regenerative Farming?
There are five basic principles to regenerative farming and they are all aimed at preserving and stimulating the vast network of living organisms in our soils or in other words, our soil biology.
Keep as many deep plant roots in the soil as possible. The rule is that the growth you see above the ground reflects the root depth found below. Sugary exudates from plant roots feed the microbes and fungi in the soil, which promote its health.
Keep the soil as well covered as you can. This protects the soil biology from heat, cold, drought and flood. For example, Spring will come sooner if the soil temperature is protected from the cold.
Avoid compacting the soil with heavy machinery as much as you can.
Avoid the use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. For example, fertilisers can compromise that vital symbiosis between plants on the one hand and fungi and microbes on the other. This feeds the plants on the large range of essential minerals which in turn passes through them and into our food chain. Fungi, in particular have the ability to absorb minerals from the soil and release them in a form the plants can readily take up.
Manage the important and fundamental role herbivores have in the health of the soil. In our case, as farmers, that means the sheep and cattle.
Implementing Regenerative Farming Principles at Gowbarrow Hall Farm
Most of the rules of Regenerative Farming are self-explanatory, apart from the last one, concerning the importance of animal impact.
In successful grasslands, huge numbers of herbivores have evolved together with fertile soils. A fundamental key to this success has been that these herbivores are predated. This results in the herds keeping together, grazing and fertilising the soil as they pass through an area. They will not return to the same area for several weeks or even months, allowing the ground to rest.
To try and replicate this on our farm we first of all turned our grazing regime on its head.
Our normal summer grazing in the rougher pasture, we turned into the winter grazing block. This means that approximately 130 hectares of mixed semi-improved grassland and woods are left ungrazed right through the summer months. In the winter our cattle, Instead of being housed indoors, have free range to forage over this area. This also means that we can make less hay, thus implementing some of the other principles of regenerative farming.
Cows enjoying Douglas Fir in the winter block (below)
In the Summer, we graze our cattle using a mob grazing system on what has historically been our hay meadows. Using movable electric fencing, each strip of meadow is grazed, fertilised by the cattle and then rested for as many as 90 days, replicating the roving herds on large grasslands.
We chose to have shorthorn cattle on our farm. They are an indigenous breed which can thrive on rough pasture. They winter well outdoors and historically, prior to modern farming methods, were the type of cattle on this farm and indeed, in this part of the world.
We have also introduced Cumbrian Fell ponies and Kunekune pigs to encourage the biodiversity on the farm.
What are the results so far?
It is early days. As a means of assessing any changes we commissioned, in our first summer, a survey of the flora and fauna on the farm. This was carried out by the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre and we hope to have them back in five year’s time. We ourselves are monitoring the soils using Sectormentor, a system of software specifically designed for assessing the health of the soil.
We have noticed already an increase in the variety of wild flowers, especially in the winter block which is left alone throughout the summer months. We are also seeing young saplings appearing amongst the sward. There was an abundance of orb weaver spiders there too, which I had never seen before in such numbers.
We were told that we would not be able to “finish” our cattle on grass alone and that we would need mineral supplements and commercial cattle feed. To date we have successfully raised our calves to slaughter weight on our pasture for life philosophy without any supplements. Recent blood tests showed that our cattle had very healthy levels of essential minerals.
This method of farming has never been attempted before in an upland setting in the modern farming era, although I believe that much of what we are doing does replicate some of the older farming practices.
by Anne Lloyd
Other Topics you may find of interest
Countrystride Podcast in which James Rebanks talks to Mark Richards about his latest book, English Pastoral
Veronica Gore talks to the Director of Ullswater Catchment Management about nature-friendly farming and the changes in farming practice he has seen during his lifetime.