There has been a great written and said about the contribution of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions and thus climate change, much of it misleading. It is suggested that the number of ruminant animals must be cut drastically because of the methane they emit and that the resulting unwanted pastures must be planted to trees. That is the only way, it is claimed that we can ever hope to achieve carbon net zero by 2050. But there is an estate on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border that proves there are other ways.
Henry Edmonds has lived at Cholderton all his life and has farmed there since his father died forty five years ago. The estate is 2,500 acres of Grade 3 and 4 land, thin soils over chalk. When he came home from college, thinking he knew a thing or two, Henry planted barley in the confident expectation of achieving two tonnes per acre. He was bitterly disappointed when he managed only twelve cwt and realised that a new approach was needed. He determined to increase the organic matter and fertility of his soils using grazing livestock on long leys and converted to organic status. Now he grows two tonnes of barley per acre without any fertiliser or pesticides.
The success that he has achieved is widely recognised and the estate has been used as a case study in Defra’s Test and Trial Programme in the development of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). Consultants have been brought in to measure progress in a number of areas including carbon sequestration and emissions, biodiversity and fertility. One, eftec (Economics for the Environment Consultancy) has put values to the benefits using the Defra Biodiversity Net Gain and Natural Capital Accounting models.
At the core of the system is livestock, with a dairy herd of 200 cows, a suckler herd and followers. Altogether there are around 850 head of cattle and a sheep flock. The long leys are based on sainfoin, a drought resistant legume ideal for the thin chalk soils, together with lucerne, white clover, cocksfoot, timothy, meadow fescue, other grasses and herbs. The legumes provide the nitrate and build fertility in the soil. This provides first class fodder for the grazing animals as well as hay; lambs grow faster on sainfoin than on any other forage crop grown in this country. Sainfoin flowers are also rich in casein which helps to prevent disease in bees and thus helps pollinating insects. It has also been shown that ruminants fed on sainfoin produce less methane than any other forage crop.
Oats and vetches are grown for silage, providing excellent winter fodder. Nothing is bought in, all the food for the animals is grown on the farm. There are some 400 acres of arable crops each year, barley and oats for animal feed and winter rye for sale for milling. The leys are usually left down for at least five years and then ploughed in. Rye comes towards the end of the arable rotation whilst the leys are undersown under spring barley. Downland permanent pasture has been re-established using locally sourced seed complete with wild flowers.
The system has worked well for so long that the soil is very rich and fertile with an abundance of fungi and microorganisms. Above ground, too, there is a very wide range of wildlife, forty species of butterfly for example, farmland birds, small mammals and insects. On conventional farms, the use of pesticides often kills beneficial organisms as well as pests, resulting in unintended consequences. At Cholderton, for example, there is no problem with slugs because they are eaten by carabid beetles.
The results found by the consultants brought in for the Defra assessment are stunning. The soil of an average arable farm contains 3 to 6% organic matter, a figure that has dropped significantly in recent decades. An adjoining intensive arable unit has an average of 4.7%, but the range at Cholderton is 7.8 to 20.8% with an average of 12%. This has built up from 4 to 5% over the past thirty years. For every 1% of organic matter, 1.5 tonnes of carbon is sequestrated per ha per year, which should attract a grant under the forthcoming ELMS of £100 to £200. The estate is carbon positive, more carbon is sequestrated than greenhouse gases emitted, even after allowing for methane from the animals, diesel and other power use. There is around double the carbon in the soils at Cholderton than the arable farm next door.
But it is not just carbon and climate change that is exemplary. There is minimal pollution to water or air and the biodiversity on the estate is truly amazing. But how do you value biodiversity? Using the Biodiversity Net Gain calculation, to recreate the biodiversity at Cholderton somewhere else would cost £100 million! Using Natural Capital Accounting, the budget for the next sixty years shows £5.4 million in food production but public goods at £125 million. The achievement of the estate was recognised as it was an Award Winning Finalist (top 6) as a climate change innovator from across all industries from the UK and America in the Climate Challenge Cup announced on the 10th November in the COP26 Conference.
So is this a blueprint to be replicated everywhere else? Not entirely, as the output sold from the estate is almost entirely red meat and dairy produce at a time when we are all being told that we must reduce consumption. The best way to achieve that is to cut imports from countries with lower standards, whilst in a temperate climate animals grazing mixed grassland is one of the most efficient food production systems there is.
But there is a great deal to learn from Cholderton, not least that it is possible to address the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss in conjunction with profitable food production. That the best way to raise farm productivity is to improve soil health and fertility and that grazing livestock have a vital role to play. This also provides a patchwork landscape rather than planting trees everywhere, conserving beloved countryside such as the extensive downland of southern England. Cholderton is a deeply inspirational example of how our farmland can be better managed.