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Willow grower forced to take ‘violent’ action to protect his unusual crop from midge pest

Robert Yates, who grows willow for fencing and ornamental sculptures from the supple wood, was plagued with pests affecting the growth of the willow. Picture: Nick Butcher

Robert Yates, who grows willow for fencing and ornamental sculptures from the supple wood, was plagued with pests affecting the growth of the willow. Picture: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2018

An East Anglian willow grower has taken surprisingly severe action to rid his unusual crop of pests – after suffering a problem which will be familiar to many mainstream farmers.

Robert Yates has been growing willow for 30 years in Brampton, near Beccles, which is made into high-grade woven fencing for clients including Badminton and Burghley Horse Trials, as well as decorative structures for private buyers as far afield as the Seychelles and the Bahamas.

The crop is grown on a former grazing marsh, part of the legacy of his family’s former 1,000-acre mixed farm, most of which has now been sold off.

Of the remaining 40 acres, about 18 acres of coppiced willow provide all the raw materials for his Brampton Willows enterprise, which employs a team of four people, using nearly half a tonne of willow a day.

But this year’s valuable crop was threatened by pests after the insecticide used to control them was banned.

Robert Yates, who grows willow for fencing and ornamental sculptures from the supple wood. Picture: Nick ButcherRobert Yates, who grows willow for fencing and ornamental sculptures from the supple wood. Picture: Nick Butcher

“This particular variety we use is very vigorous, but it does have a drawback as it is susceptible to this wretched bug called the button top midge,” he said. “The eggs hatch into maggots which eat the leading shoot and start the side shoots growing. If it is a really bad attack it stunts the growth.

“We used to control it with an insecticide which worked really well, but three or four years ago it was taken off the market and we couldn’t use it any more.

“The infestation got progressively worse, until last year the crop was severely branched and difficult to use. I knew I had to do something about it, and I had to think outside the box.”

The solution was a mechanical one, said Mr Yates, inspired by growers on the Somerset Levels, who put cattle and sheep on their willow beds in the spring.

Button-top midge larvae which have damaged the growing trees at Brampton Willows. Picture: Nick ButcherButton-top midge larvae which have damaged the growing trees at Brampton Willows. Picture: Nick Butcher

“They are eating off all the early growth so there is nothing for that first generation of bugs to land on. I thought I would apply that idea here, but rather than cattle or sheep, I went over it with a flail mower.

“It is totally violent, and you would think: ‘Why is this idiot doing it?’ But it seems to have worked.

“With this particular bed, I went over it in the third week of May, which is hair-raisingly late. But I thought I had nothing left to lose, because it would have been such a poor crop we couldn’t use it.”

The willow, aided by moisture in the marshes during the summer, is now 7ft tall and will grow for another month before it is cut in the winter.

Robert Yates, who grows willow for fencing and ornamental sculptures from the supple wood, was plagued with pests affecting the growth of the willow. Picture: Nick ButcherRobert Yates, who grows willow for fencing and ornamental sculptures from the supple wood, was plagued with pests affecting the growth of the willow. Picture: Nick Butcher

Mr Yates described his land at Town Fen as the “worst plot of land in Brampton” – but his willow operation is more lucrative and employs more people than the much larger mixed farm which preceded it.

“On 1,000 acres we had one employee,” he said. “Now over 18 acres of willow we are employing four people.

“I am from a farming family and I trained as a chartered surveyor, so I have got my letters. But when I started this everybody said: ‘What are you doing?’

“We aim very much for the top end of the market, but even at the Chelsea Flower Show, I had someone coming onto the stand saying: ‘What a lovely hobby, what is your real job?’

Robert Yates from Brampton Willows with a King Kong sculpture, made from willow for a client in the Seychelles.Robert Yates from Brampton Willows with a King Kong sculpture, made from willow for a client in the Seychelles.

“But some of my clients are incredibly high-powered businessmen and they really value it.”

Mr Yates said the unusual nature of his crop meant he needed to use his own initiative to solve farming problems.

“It is not like mainstream farming when you are growing wheat or oilseed rape,” he said. “I cannot just ring up my agronomist because I am growing such an oddball thing. I have got to work it out for myself.”

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