Stephen Prest has sent us this fascinating piece on conservation at the farm. The role of farmers in Countryside Stewardship is perhaps not fully appreciated. In spite of huge changes in the last few decades, farming remains central to our community here. If you farm near Slingsby and have a tale to tell, email us at [email protected]
Farming and Conservation at Castle Farm Slingsby.
Castle Farm is a farm of around 400 acres partly on the Howardian Hills south of Slingsby and the rest in the Vale of Pickering, north of the village. The land is well suited to growing arable crops and over the years we have grown potatoes, sugar beet, wheat, barley and oilseed rape. I also had a small herd of suckler cows for many years producing finished beef cattle at 18 months to 2 years of age.
I have been very interested and fairly active in doing conservation work around the farm. Of course when I first started getting involved in running the farm, along with my brothers way back in the 1960’s, conservation was not a word that we were particularly interested in. As you probably know, we were still in the aftermath of the war years with its real food shortages so we were encouraged by the government to maximize food production. Land was drained, fields made bigger and we were keen to take up the latest techniques with use of improved seed varieties, new chemicals and better use of fertilizers, and much improved machinery. The farming scene changed very rapidly and quite dramatically in the 60’s and 70’s.
Now, I think it is fair to say, the pendulum has swung back the other way quite a lot and there is a lot of emphasis on conservation and there is some very effective conservation work being done on farms.
I have taken part in 4 Government sponsored stewardship schemes beginning with the first 10 year Countryside Stewardship Scheme in 1996. I started another one in 2004 and in addition I have completed one Entry level stewardship scheme and started another 5 year programme in the year 2010. Before that I had participated in some North Yorkshire County Council tree planting schemes and planted several small plantations, firstly on the land I owned at Salton and then with the support of Castle Howard Estate I have planted several more small plantations around Slingsby. I suppose over the years I have planted around 6 acres of woodland and planted or selected many hedgerow trees as well.
All our hedgerows have been improved: in some, the gaps in the hedgerow have been planted with new plants and the hedges have been allowed to grow much bigger, many of them now 6 ft tall. Years ago all our hedges were cut every year. It was the mark of a good farmer to get the hedges cut every autumn and some of them, especially road side hedges, had to be cut before Malton Show to impress the neighbours. Now we let the hedges get much taller and only cut them every other year which means there are always some hedges with berries on over the winter months for the birds to feed on. When winter approaches we get large flocks of fieldfares and occasionally waxwings flying along a hedgerow and feeding on hawthorn and other berries. Yes, the hedges are much more wildlife-friendly. One big disadvantage of course is that when you are driving round the countryside you can’t see over the hedges to see what the neighbouring farmers are doing. In addition to caring for existing hedges I have also planted about 700 metres of new hedgerows as well.
I have sown about 4.5 miles of 6 metre grass margins round many of my arable fields which is good for insects, small mammals and ground nesting birds. I sow about 6 acres of seed crops for wild birds each year which consists of triticale, (a cross between wheat and rye) and linseed with kale, mustard fodder rape etc sown as a separate crop. In winter we see large flocks of small birds feeding on these seed crops.
I have constructed two small ponds down Slingsby Carr which attract moorhens, wild duck, snipe, herons etc.
I also have two grass fields in a scheme called arable reversion in which the fields receive no fertilizer or chemical sprays at all. We make hay from them once a year and allow the pastures to develop as they want to. This encourages the return of herbs and wild flowers which in turn also encourages more insect life including bumble bees, other wild bees, butterflies and many other insects.
We also have about 40 acres of land which is left as stubble over winter which again provides good feeding areas for wild birds. Then in spring we cultivate it over lightly and leave it as a summer fallow principally for ground nesting birds such as lapwings, skylarks, yellow hammers etc. I have seen an increase in many species over the last few years. We have a colony of tree sparrows which are not very common and we also have barn owls around the farm, and we have put nesting boxes up for both the sparrows and barn owls. In 2014 a pair of barn owls took up residence in one of our nesting boxes and successfully reared some young ones.
There are also beetle banks and other grassy conservation strips close to streams to encourage water voles, which thankfully seem to be making a slow recovery in numbers.
We are privileged to live in a beautiful part of the countryside, much of it shaped and maintained by farmers and landowners over many hundreds of years. It is our duty and responsibility to look after it in such a way that it is there for future generations to enjoy just as much as we have enjoyed it.