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January 2022

Written for Cumbria Life

John: January is a month of short days and long nights, which gives us time for planning and reflection. It’s also been a year since we started writing this column. A lot has happened in the last year, including some exciting new beginnings. Maria has started the Lake District Tweed project and I was voted on as Chair of the Rare Breed Survival Trust. We both have more than enough on our plates but we both love new challenges where we feel we can make a positive difference. The past year also had the extended pandemic, a long summer drought, then floods, and more recently storm Arwen. Let’s hope the year ahead is a little less eventful, but one thing’s for sure we won’t be short of firewood for a while.

The whole world is changing as we look to counter the effects of global warming, the way we farm also needs to change. One way to change is by using less inputs and to produce livestock more naturally. This can mean extra planning as the shortcuts of artificial fertiliser, sprays and medication are given over to a more natural way of management. We stopped using fertiliser and sprays some years ago, but more recently I’ve been looking at using modern testing techniques to reduce the use of medication in our animals. It means we can reduce the need for worming and other standard treatments that can become a habit where animals are routinely treated because it was always done that way. By taking regular tests we can increase the tolerance within the animals, save costs and help the environment. For example, sheep wormer can kill dung beetles and other invertebrates. Dung beetles are an important part of the carbon cycle they help pull nutritious animal dung down into the soil, improving soil health and fertility and they are also an important food for bats and birds. 

These tests are a major help in only treating animals that have a problem not just giving out blanket medicines. We also use rotational grazing to further reduce the worm burden with the added plus of helping the environment and biodiversity.

It’s all small steps and there’s always lots of conflicting ideas and advice but working with and alongside nature has to be a large step in the right direction.

Maria: There has been so little time to hunker down and hibernate in the dark months but I’ve tried my best to slow down. A wise friend once told me, “Nothing in nature grows in winter; everything takes a break till spring.” I try to do the same but there are just too many exciting projects on the back burner that I need to keep an eye on. 

John and I have been asked to give a presentation at The Oxford Real Farming Conference in January for RBST (Rare Breed Survival Trust) under the title: ‘Farming profitably and sustainably with native livestock breeds. It’s an important and timely issue for farmers. John has always kept native breeds when the trend was for bigger Continental breeds but with the increased cost of additional feed these breeds need, the tide is turning back to looking at the value of smaller, native breeds that thrive on poorer land. I will talk about how we have diversified, working with the potential of what we already have on the farm. I am really looking forward to this. It’s a brilliant event with so many inspiring speakers so as soon as we’ve done our talk, the rest of the time will be spent, highlighted programme in hand, racing between venues.  

Unless we have another lockdown, it looks like I will be going to Nepal in February to work on a Social Enterprise Development in a village near the Chitwan National Park. A one acre plot of land has been purchased and a simple building will be erected. I have been asked to talk about my experience of developing resilient income streams from what we produce on our farm and work with a group of marginalised women to develop a goat milk soap business. There’s a lot of work to do before I go so I can maximise what is possible to achieve in the two weeks I am over there. It’s an incredible opportunity to be part of supporting a new business enterprise which I hope not only empowers the women involved in the business, but gives others in the margins encouragement to set up small scale enterprises too. It will be interesting to compare the two National Parks: the Lake District and the Chitwan National Park. The tourists packed on elephants maybe aren’t so different to the streams of hired 4×4’s that trundle past our farm for an off-road adventure!

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