A Conservation Showcase
In many respects, Paul Loudoun is a rare breed of farmer, becoming less so as the benefits of older methods of farming are better appreciated.
Full article plus extra photos and words from edition 3. By Geoffrey Stubbs. Images: Michael A Deane/G Stubbs
Arriving from Cornwall in the early eighties, Paul began his agricultural career in Purbeck “with a farmer at Kingston” but had ambitions, as he says, “to farm in my own right”. He negotiated a short term lease on 63 acres when The National Trust acquired the Kingston Lacey Estate in 1983, which proved an amicable arrangement. At that time, the Trust had begun practicing traditional grazing methods on many of their properties as a way of restoring pastures and heath-lands to a condition predating the advent of heavily mechanised farming. Paul proved not only a keen advocate but an effective practitioner. Trust with the Trust mutually accumulated and Paul took on the full tenancy of Wilkswood Farm in 1990 which he runs with help from his Lizzie, his wife, and their three year old, Evie. Evie spends a fair bit of time out on the property with Dad – a proper farm kid if ever there was one. (They’ve child since this article published.)
The farm comprises around 600 acres, roughly triangular from Secombe to Winspit, to the buildings and farmhouse in the wooded ‘Valley Road’, windswept quarries lying somewhere in the middle.
Paul believes a diverse range of plant species is needed for best grazing; to achieve that, a mix of livestock is required. Quite simply, ‘If you have the right type of animals at the right stocking rate you get the right pasture.’ Paul grazes cattle, sheep and New Forest ponies in rotation and in combination to condition his fields.
Wilkswood Farm comprises three soil types – chalk, greensand and clay – supporting different plant species. Ecologist Lindsay Carrington explains; “Instead of having a grassland with four or five species of grass, dominated by perennial rye-grass (Lolium perenne) and a few clovers and ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) for example, chalk would carry species such as yellow oat-grass (Trisetum flavenscens) and common quaking grass (Briza media) with a large number of herbs; typical chalk species being hoary plantain (Plantago media), kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), horseshoe vetch (Hippocrepis comosa), milkworts (Polygala), dwarf thistle, carline thistle, and greater knapweed to name a few. ‘It’s a really diverse community.‘
“On greensand, we have more acid tolerant species, typically sheep’s fescue (Festuca ovina), buck’s-horn plantain (Plantago coronpus), common centuary, tormentil, to name a few.
“Clay is the substrate associated with your typical hay meadow community. One of the main grass species is crested dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus) with herb species such as black knapweed (Centaurea nigra), oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), yellow rattle, tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) and common bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus).”
By more or less ‘crash grazing’, whereby the number of sheep in a given area is high, he is able to encourage all three stock types to eat plants they otherwise find unpalatable which helps keep undesirable species under control. Ragwort, for example, is deadly for horses and cattle yet not for sheep, who will eat it, reducing or eliminating the risk of poisoning other stock. Importantly, the spot-sprayer is relegated to the shed.
Tufty-grass, has been managed this way to the point that it no longer poses the invasive threat it once did. Impressively, neither herbicides nor pesticides are used on the farm, nor does he fertilise the fields. As a result, a yard-square patch of pasture on Wilkswood may contain around fifty plant species as opposed to the usual three or four in sown pasture. Lindsay Carrington again “An interesting thing about the different grazers is the fact that horses are the only ones with a top set of teeth and can therefore bite through the grasses, whereas sheep and cattle have more of a ripping action, using their tongues. This creates structural diversity which in turn leads to species diversity.”
Conservation grazing encouraged a reemergence of many native plant and insect species, resulting in spectacular wildflower displays – including orchids such as the pyramidal orchid, early spider orchid, bee orchid and the extremely rare wasp orchid; all observable along The Coast Path which runs along the edge of the property. This, alongside his work restoring springs and fulfilling other criteria – i.e. depth of knowledge, stocking a range of grazing species, having fencing and water in the right places – has earned Paul the Farming and Wildlife Conservation Award. He also picked up a Fine Food Award from the National Trust for his smoked haunch of venison – but that’s another story.
Typically, Wilkswood cattle will graze in the fields all year. There is no supplementary feeding of hay or silage. Paul runs Angus, North Devon ‘Ruby Reds’ (and the odd Dexter) because they are hardy breeds that have ‘good eatability’. Paul explains, “Native breeds tend to be hardier than our continental friends, maybe because they have the ability to lay down fat both under the skin and between the muscle – it is this fat that makes them so tasty [intramuscular fat, ‘marbling’, is rich in complex polyunsaturated fats – the good stuff] and of course what the animal has been eating will affect its flavour, as will the breed of cattle.”
The cattle go to slaughter at less than 30 months of age. Neither Angus nor Ruby Reds score top marks for live-weight to dress ratio and Hereford or the larger framed continentals like Limousine and Charolais often fare better at the sale yards. The hardy types come into their own on the lighter, shallower soils of Purbeck; our frequent, extended spells of blue sky can knock introduced grasses sideways as they struggle to find sub-soil moisture. Native species of grass, it seems, go very well with native species of cattle and with a farm shop all his own, Paul concerns himself with quality rather than quantity. “They may not compete in the commercial sale ring, but they always the chef’s first choice.”
Though Paul farms “extensively” there are times of the year when stocking rates are reduced further, trucking stock to where they are needed, be they water-meadow pastures near Wimborne or chalk downlands near Bradbury Rings – even as far as the Somerset Levels and the Chilton Hills. Paul makes the point – “The common factor in all livestock movement is conservation grazing, achieving different objectives in each region by using sheep and cattle very strategically. But there is a time of the year when, for the benefit of the sheep and the good of the land, the breeding ewes are housed. At this point, in early January, they are scanned, which means we can feed the ewes according to the number of lambs they are carrying.” His stockman in those foreign climes is Alex Gould, Somerset-man, who brings them all back to Purbeck – and shears the blighters too! (see below for our special shearing feature, not published in the hard-copy.)
Most lambs arrive as twins so the lambing rate is 150% or more. Triplets are not unknown but they do add a burden on the ewe’s ability to nurture them, often rejecting one lamb to favour the other two. (Yes, Paul and Lizzie do bottle-feed the ‘orphans’, the softies).
A dog’s life…
“By resting the fields from autumn to mid March, we should ensure enough grass to turn ewes and lambs out onto. With good grass and enough milk, single lambs might be big enough in ten weeks to go to slaughter. Some of the slower growing twins might take up to twelve months to reach the same weight, by which time they are known as hogget as opposed to spring or milk lamb; two different products, treated differently and should be cooked differently. The new season (lamb) is ready to cook without hanging and should be served as pink as you like. Hogget has a stronger flavour and needs at least fourteen days hanging, best cooked long and slowly and not served pink.
“The wonderful advantage we have with the farm shop is that we know exactly what we are selling, whether it’s lamb or beef. The only type of livestock you may have seen on the Wilkswood that you will not be able to purchase in the shop is my New Forest ponies. These are the real ‘survivors’ of the fields, with the benefit of top and bottom teeth they can nibble the shortest and roughest of grasses”
Turkeys, 200 of them, are bought in as day-old chicks in mid July, matured for 21 weeks, slaughtered and hand-plucked on the farm for the Christmas market.
You can visit Wilkswood Farm online or by calling in to their fabulous farm shop. If provenance is important, you’ll find tasty, Purbeck-fed meat grown and butchered on the farm. Look out for their fine selection of exotic cheeses.
Not previously published and exclusive to the website – a look inside Wilkswood Farm at shearing time.
Difficult creatures. Contrary and cantankerous; likely to charge as run away, notorious escapees, stubborn and unpredictable yet not without humour, even humanity. That’s shearers for you.
They work hard for their livings and more often than not their spines that are called to account. Both our shearers use slings for that reason and few shearers anywhere in the world work without them now days.
Farmer Loudoun’s shearers are a Somersetian and an Isle of Whiteman who inexplicably bears the emblem of the Welsh flag sown to his left buttock. Trousers, that is. He also sports the best set of lamb chops in the business; not without poetic irony. Between the two of them they will have dragged, sat, manoeuvred and relieved the keratin from over six hundred sheep over three days – just taking it easy.
The flock is sectioned off into holding pens and progressed into smaller yards feeding into the portable shearing system. With startling yelps and guttural barks and growls, the farmer assists his dogs in getting the sheep up the race, from where the shearers will haul them out for fleecing.
A reluctant Judas sheep is held at the front of the race to entice its fellows to follow. It’s marvellous when it works. Typically, it takes a couple of good dogs, a voice like a foghorn and the patience of Job.
The portable shearing stand is raised with sufficient decking for a sheep to be shorn without it and shearer tumbling over the edge, and for a rouse-about to collect the fleece without having to board the platform, thereby reducing the amount of bending they must endure (Rousie’s, rise up!). The ‘race’ in which the sheep wait immediately prior to being shorn is also raised for ease of access.
A comfortable hold for both shearer and sheep makes the experience that much easier for both.
First, the ‘bellies’ are shorn, taking care not damage teats or other sensitive parts (new ‘rousies’ should beware the shearers call for a ‘pizzle-guard’)
Next, the ‘top-knot’, face and neck, then down to the left back leg and a bit over half way round the rump.
The sheep is now on its side ready for ‘the long blow’, which removes the left side of the fleece; the sheep is repositioned for the shearer to start on the final four or five ‘blows’ starting from the right shoulder, descending diagonally over the ribcage to the back, right leg which, if pressed just so, will extend in a straight line permitting an easy finish.