Mel Brunyee, Conygree Farm
Mel Brunyee, 44, manages Conygree Farm on the Sherborne Park Estate with husband Jonty, 47. The couple’s Cotswold sheep and Traditional Hereford cattle graze Conygree’s wildflower-rich limestone grassland and herb rich leys. The 75 hectare farm also provides habitat and feeding areas for a range of important farmland birds such as yellowhammer, barn owl and corn bunting.
Describe Conygree Farm
We farm 75 hectares of species rich limestone grassland, herb rich ley and arable. We keep around 100 rare breed Cotswold sheep and 15 Traditional Hereford cattle, and we rear a few Gloucester Old Spot piglets each summer too. Conygree is set in an open Cotswold landscape, framed with dry stone walls, hedges and beech woodland. The soil is a thin and stony brash – not great for growing crops but perfect for wildflowers.
All our animals eat a natural organic and pasture fed diet of grass, wildflowers and herbs. We sell all our meat from the farm door and people say it’s just the best beef, lamb and hogget they’ve ever tasted – winning a National Trust Fine Farm Produce Award each year.
What do you do to help wildlife on the farm?
Both of us are conservationists at heart. We believe that food production doesn’t have to come at the expense of the environment. The two have to go hand in hand.
More than half of our farm is native wildflower-rich meadow full of orchid, ox eye daisy, birds foot trefoil and scabious. We also have two fields of herb rich ley (temporary grass) with the flowering clover and chicory providing a nectar source for bees and other invertebrates. Our fields are surrounded by wildlife margins and berry rich hedgerows. We also provide fallow habitat and unharvested cereal feeding areas for a range of important farmland birds such as yellowhammer, barn owl and corn bunting. In addition we are trying to regenerate our soil – the most important habitat on the farm.
Most of the farm is in the Higher Level Stewardship scheme - which allows us to farm the way that we want – in harmony with the environment.
Our sheep and cattle are our conservation grazing tools. We had to pick the right breeds to make sure they’ll do the job and still fatten on our low input pastures. Traditional, native breeds are best for this.
As well as being organic we’re part of the Pasture for Life movement: we believe that cattle and sheep are best fed a natural and diverse grass based diet and not one containing imported soya and grains. It’s better for the animal, the planet and the consumer.
What's the best thing about being a farmer?
It’s being able to be outside and being close to the things that I love. Listening to the skylarks singing over the meadows makes me smile.
And the worst?
Not being able to switch off. If I try and relax in the garden, reading a book and enjoying the sun, I will start thinking about something that we have to do. We have to physically leave the farm to stop doing and enjoy being.
How did you get into farming?
Jonty is from a farming background but I’m not; I grew up in an Essex town. My brother and I would use an old pair of binoculars to spot birds in the back garden and go on bike rides looking for wildlife. We would often bring back dead things to identify and then give them a burial! The best thing we ever found was an injured slow worm. Sadly it didn’t survive. These forays ignited a passion for nature and the environment which was further encouraged by some great children’s TV programmes – I loved Animal Magic and The Really Wild Show – and the work of Sir David Attenborough. Consequently I studied for a degree in Environmental Science at UEA in Norwich and later managed the conservation grazing animals on Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves for 12 years before I joined Jonty at Conygree in 2010.
You've got three children - the youngest just five years old. Do they help out on the farm?
Yes, William and Katie lend a hand with our orphan lambs and moving electric fencing etc. Our five-year-old, Eliza, loves coming out with me and gets stuck in, and is showing an interest in nature. I hope there is a future in the land for them one day.