A ‘paradigm shift’ is needed to restore the green potential of our grasslands

The future of grassland was discussed by leading farmers at a virtual meeting held by Norfolk's Yiel

The future of grassland was discussed by leading farmers at a virtual meeting held by Norfolk's Yield network. Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Chris Hill

A “paradigm shift” is needed in the way the nation’s grasslands are managed to reverse ecological declines and maximise their agricultural value, Norfolk farmers were told.

Jake Fiennes, general manager for conservation at the Holkham Estate. Picture: Carl Ellis

Jake Fiennes, general manager for conservation at the Holkham Estate. Picture: Carl Ellis - Credit: Carl Ellis

The subject was discussed at an online virtual meeting hosted by Yield (Young, Innovative, Enterprising, Learning and Developing) – a network for younger members of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association.

Guest speakers were Jake Fiennes, conservation manager at the 25,000-acre Holkham Estate, and James Robinson, a dairy farmer from Cumbria followed by thousands on Twitter as @JRfromStrickley.

Mr Fiennes said “mob grazing” and woodland planting are among the ways grasslands could fulfil their potential as an environmental asset, while he was hopeful that new land management policies currently being developed to replace the EU’s system of land-based subsidies would recognise the importance of grazing livestock within arable rotations.

“Grassland is the largest crop in England and we must embrace new ways of managing it,” he said. “We have lost 97pc of our hay meadows, and we’ve seen our traditional flood plains and meadows drained and converted to arable production.

Deer on the parkland at the Holkham estate. Picture: Martin Sizeland / iWitness24

Deer on the parkland at the Holkham estate. Picture: Martin Sizeland / iWitness24 - Credit: citizenside.com

“Everywhere you go you see grassland, whether it is wet grassland, chalk grassland, heathland, or roadside verge. It is everywhere in our urban spaces and in our countryside. But it has lost its integrity over time.

“The importance of the resilience of species-rich grassland is key to the future sustainability of some of our farming systems.

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“We’ve seen 40 years of the CAP (the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy) and some of our grassland completely removed from our landscape, and some of it driven to the point of extinction.

“We are under huge pressure with the number of sheep on our uplands and the methane emitted by our bovines, but actually we need to eat less meat and it needs to be a better quality. How do we achieve better quality? It is through the diversity of our grassland. The by-product of that is the environment – all the birds, bees and butterflies that then also benefit. So we must be more open-minded about the future of how we manage this wonderful asset.”

READ MORE: Can East Anglia’s farming industry emerge stronger from the coronavirus crisis?Mr Robinson said his organic dairy farm has 300 acres of grassland including 15 acre of woodland, 10 acres of wetland and 15 acre of traditional species-rich hay meadow. “That is really diverse and the invertebrate and insect life in there is phenomenal compared to our grazing ground,” he said.

“Coming from a livestock farmer, I can see that grassland is as much to blame for the lack of invertebrates as arable areas are. We’ve got a cropping system now, especially on dairy farms, where we are taking grass so young and very quickly across a massive area and invertebrates don’t really stand a chance, so we need to get much more diversity in the height of the crop and root depth and things like that. I’m still learning and still trying to find the right crop for our farm.”

In response to a question about climate-driven incentives to plant more trees, Mr Fiennes said: “There is nothing wrong with wood pasture. It is a new terminology but basically it is the classic British parkland scenario and Norfolk is littered with wood pasture. There is no reason we cannot plant trees within our pasture because it can offer biodiversity gains, and also acts as shade and protection for our livestock.”

He said he is also installing a “mob grazing” system to improve the biodiversity in Holkham’s grassland. “Initially we will bring the cattle in at low densities, probably one livestock unit per hectare, that’s mainly to preserve ground-nesting birds, then we will treble the size of the roaming herds and put them on areas for a short period of time,” he said. “Already this year we are seeing more resilience to the sward because we are only removing 60pc of the leaf and leaving the remaining 40pc for re-growth, so we are seeing more resilience in our crop, thereby prolonging the season.”

READ MORE: Slump in lockdown beer demand leaves farmers grappling with a huge barley backlogMr Robinson said he was trying something similar with his animals on the environmental areas of his farm’s grassland.

“Sometimes we leave it to grow long and put them in at the end of July, sometimes it will be earlier on in the spring, and then again in mid summer. We play around with it really. We’ve seen some new late-flowering plants coming up by doing that.

“We are doing this on a small scale really, of five or eight hectares. It would be nice to have a massive area where we could play about with this a lot more, but we’d need environmental payments to make that worthwhile. The land has to pay for itself.”

While grass is the main crop for Mr Robinson’s Cumbrian dairy farm, Norfolk livestock farmer James Runciman asked how grass could be incorporated into East Anglia’s predominantly arable landscape to build soil fertility and organic matter in an area where permanent pasture has been “degraded due to the CAP and forgotten as we have lost a lot of the stock and infrastructure”.

Mr Fiennes said: “I think there will be a recognition from arable farmers of the benefits of livestock. There is going to be a paradigm shift in the importance of livestock in all our farming systems, and I am of the belief that the future support system will recognise the importance of livestock within that system.”