Meet the farmers looking after the Sherborne Park Estate
A traditional Cotswold landscape, Sherborne Park Estate has been farmed for generations. Six tenant farms make up the 4,000 acres of rolling farmland, parkland, woods and lakes. Thanks to the efforts of these farmers, Sherborne is one of the best places in the south west to see rare farmland birds like corn bunting and skylarks.
Peter Summers at Stones Farm
Peter Summers has been farming at Stones Farm, a 520-acre plot stretching from the A40 in the south to the River Windrush to the north, for more than 40 years. Under his stewardship, numbers of rare farmland birds have boomed on this part of the estate.
Around a fifth of the land is grazed by sheep and the rest is arable with beans, wheat and oil seed rape among the crops grown.
To encourage wildlife, Peter took the farm into a Higher Level Stewardship scheme in 2010 and created 30 skylark plots in the fields. Each four-metre-square plot is left fallow for the skylarks to land in and then nest in the surrounding crop. They also put out four tonnes of wild seed – sunflower hearts, white and red millet, wheat and oil seed rape – for the birds in the winter.
Since 2011 the number of skylarks has doubled, linnet territories have gone from 39 to 62 and the number of yellowhammers has increased by half. ‘I can hear them singing when I’m out on the farm – especially now I have a hearing aid,’ says Peter.
The water voles on the River Windrush have also been a huge success story thanks to the help from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, who have controlled the numbers of mink on the river.
Rob Jones at Sherborne Farm
Rob Jones has been farming on the Sherborne Old Park estate since 1993 and even hosted the BBC’s Springwatch team during 2017/18 when they put a camera in one of the barn owl nesting boxes.
The 800-acre plot was originally a dairy farm but, since stopping dairying in 2012, Rob and his family now have around a thousand ewes on the parkland and water meadows, as well as growing crops in about 350 acres of arable land.
When they originally applied for the tenancy, a Farm and Environment plan was drawn up – which was quite a ground-breaking thing at the time. It listed all the different aspects of land consideration from the location of an ancient Romano-British settlement to rare Red Data Book species of beetles.
They’re now in a Higher Level Stewardship scheme. Rob says ‘We’ve got water voles on our water meadows, so there are prescriptions in our agreement with Natural England to manage the river bank for the voles – cutting at certain times and keeping stock off the water meadows at certain times of the year for breeding waders.
Mel Brunyee at Conygree Farm
Mel Brunyee manages Conygree Farm on the Sherborne Park Estate along with husband Jonty and their three children.
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. The soil is a thin and stony brash – not great for growing crops but perfect for wildflowers like orchid, ox eye daisy, birds foot trefoil and scabious.
As well as being organic, the farm is 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’ says Mel. ‘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.’
Their fields are surrounded by wildlife margins and berry-rich hedgerows, and they also provide fallow habitat and unharvested cereal feeding areas for a range of important farmland birds like yellowhammer, barn owl and corn bunting. As well as all this, they also have two fields of herb-rich ley (temporary grass) with flowering clover and chicory which as well as enriching the soil, also provides nectar for bees and other invertebrates.
Jolyon Limbrick at Home Farm
Jolyon Limbrick grew up on Home Farm in the 1990s and his family have farmed on the Sherborne Park Estate for more than 70 years. He now runs the farm with his wife and young daughter.
The 900-acre farm is made up of historic parkland, which provides most of the grazing land, and the rest is arable – producing wheat, barley and rape.
They’ve just finished an entry-level stewardship scheme and have set about combining everyday farming practice and with wildlife management. ‘It does give you a real feel-good factor when you’re working in unison with the wildlife. We’ve got a lot of headlands, field margins and we've put habitat mixes in like woodlands, in among the grasslands,’ says Jolyon.
The farm was also selected to be one of a dozen farmers on the NFU’s cereals development programme. ‘We had six months of meetings and visits – farm visits through to research laboratories. We went across to the European parliament and had a trip to Westminster.’
Despite the hard work of a farming lifestyle, Jolyon still thinks it’s a magical place: ‘The view I have from my kitchen window every morning – you almost have to pinch yourself. I wouldn’t change it for the world. We’ve got hares and deer running across the lawn. It’s magical and it’s home.’
Nick Phillips, Woeful Lake Farm
Nick Phillips’s family have been farming at Woeful Lake since the 1950s. He now manages the 750 acres with his partner and young family where they mix arable and livestock farming. Crops include oil seed rape, spring barley, barley for malting and milling wheat while they also have a herd of stabiliser suckler cattle grazing the meadows and sheep grazing the parkland. The beef all goes to Morrison’s supermarket.
‘It’s a very peaceful place, despite being bordered by the A40’ he says.
They’ve been in a Higher Level Stewardship agreement since 2011 and have focussed on increasing farmland birds like corn bunting, grey partridge and skylarks. ‘I’ve put in beetle banks, skylark nesting plots, unharvested field margins, wild bird seed mixes and nectar rich grassland, all of which will provide food for the birds in the winter.’
Dick Roper at Lodge Park
Roper is estate manager for Broadfield Farms – farming 3,500 acres west of Sherborne village. His sheep and cattle – including 550 black Simmental-cross-Angus cattle – graze Lodge Park’s 400-year-old deer park, where courtiers would once have placed their bets on deer coursing. He’s been here for 40 years, starting off as an assistant farm manager, before rising to farm manager and now estate manager.
The land is a mixture of permanent grassland and arable rotation, and 200 acres at Lodge Park is rented from the National Trust. The whole farm has been organic for over 20 years and grazing at Lodge Park is part of their organic rotation on permanent grassland: first year cattle, second year sheep and third year cattle.
As the entire estate is organic it leads to fantastic wildlife populations: there are hares, corn buntings and lapwings nesting on the grassland. In winter the fields are full of skylarks as well as an array of finches attracted by the undersowing of the over-winter stubble with grass, which provides feed and great cover for wintering birds.
Dick’s other claim to fame is that he’s a champion shepherd, winning BBC Countryfile’s One Man and His Dog competition for England.
We’ve introduced wildlife corridors and water meadows to the Sherborne Estate so that farmers in the Windrush Valley can live in greater harmony with nature while still growing crops and raising livestock.
Sherborne estate is a great place for a walk throughout all seasons. It is also a haven for wildlife, so bring along your binoculars and see what you can spot.
Although much of the original landscape at Lodge Park has now been lost, there are still plenty of clues as to what may have looked like in the past. The designs, created by the gardener Charles Bridgeman, was considered revolutionary at the time.