Back in 2017 an opportunity presented itself for North Devon’s Kipscombe Farm near Lynmouth to come back to in-hand management as a tenancy came to an end. Area Ranger Josey Field and her team took the opportunity to start an exciting new project to implement a holistic farming system in this special place. Josey explains how the West Exmoor team have been looking after this special place and their plans for its future.
"Kipscombe Farm is part of West Exmoor National Trust; some 3500 acres of woodland, heathland and, enclosed pasture, of which Kipscombe Farm makes up 880 acres. Historically, Kipscombe has been farmed by a tenant, however, back in March 2017 the most recent tenant left, and a decision was taken to manage the farm ‘in-hand."
The habitats at Kipscombe comprise of enclosed (semi-improved acid) pasture, dry acid heathland (Site of Special Scientific Interest), and some wooded combes. Previously the land had been over-grazed by sheep, cattle, and Exmoor Ponies, ploughed for arable crops, and had root crops grown in it. Currently we graze Exmoor Ponies and Longhorn Cattle.
The area is home to many rare species of bird, is internally important for its waxcaps, and was once home to the now devastatingly rare High Brown Fritillary Butterfly. However, due to centuries of farming use the soils are drastically thin, and there is a distinct lack of trees (which would once have been common as wood pasture). In ecological terms things could be much better.
As such, our vision for the farm is to dramatically improve its wildlife value, through the implementation of a financially productive low-input farming system. Our aim is to deeply inter-connect conservation and farming, so that one is supportive of the other.
Sustainable livestock farming
When we took the farm back in-hand in March 2017, we bought 250 (mainly Welsh Mountain) sheep, and 35 Exmoor Ponies from the out-going tenant. At this time there were no cattle on the farm, but we all knew this was something that had to change.
Our ambition for all 880 acres of Kipscombe Farm is to develop a productive farming system, that is financially resilient to potential subsidy loss, whilst supporting, and enhancing our conservation management. We want Kipscombe to be alive with wildlife and a healthful place for our livestock to grow. After reviewing our soil, vegetation, climate, topography, and taking some expert advice, the team decided the best way to knit farming and conservation together (at Kipscombe) would be by implementing a holistic grazing system within wood pasture. The cattle are integral to this system for the following reasons:
- We needed animals that would be happy grazing in long grass; we intended to reduce stocking numbers and allow fields to ‘rest’ for longer
- We needed animals that would be heavy enough to trample uneaten grass into the soil; which will improve the condition and resilience of our soils
- We needed animals whose hooves would create small bare niches in the soil; thus allowing more delicate species of flora to penetrate through the coarser grasses.
- We needed animals who had co-evolved with pasture for centuries, and thus had gut bacteria adapted to work in harmony with that of the soil; again to improve the condition and resilience of our soil
- We needed animals who would offer a superior meat quality and quota; to make the farm financially sustainable.
Once the decision was made to have cattle at Kipscombe, the team then had to ask “which breed?” On a team learning trip to Wales, we stumbled across Bernard Llewellyn’s herd of English Long Horns at Carreg Cennen in Carmarthenshire. Their large ancient forms stuck with us, and increasingly the team revisited the notion of developing a herd of English Long Horns, a hardy heritage breed that are calm, easy calving outside and produce a superior meat quality.
The cattle have settled into their new home nicely. They were all young when they came to us, and the whole team looks forward to seeing the (newly named) Watersmeet herd of pedigree Long Horns grow and develop.
Beneath our feet: soil health
The team’s vision for Kipscombe Farm is to exponentially improve the land for wildlife and implement a productive farming system. More trees, grazing cattle, and lots of electric fence to enable rotational grazing. If we care for the land our animals will thrive, and the slowly depleting wildlife will return. But what do I mean by “care for the land?” To begin I would like to talk about the foundation of it all, soil health.
Soil is integral to our healthful life on this planet. The advent of intensive agricultural productivity, coupled with the ‘development’ of farming technology and science, urbanisation, and climate change have seen our soils ploughed up, overgrazed, chemically altered, built on, heated up, and generally depleted.
Maintaining healthy soil is important. Consequently, improving the health of our soil at Kipscombe Farm is central to our vision. If our soil is well maintained, our plants will grow well, and in turn provide nutritious food for our animals and wildlife, shade and protect the soil, and provide homes for more small mammals and invertebrates.
When we took the farm all the land had been overgrazed by sheep, some of the fields had been ploughed to plant rooting crops within the last 50 years, and lime had been applied. Certain fields were almost certainly suffering from compaction, and we had noticed puddling and run-off at the bottom of some of our steeper fields (especially during the first winter we had the farm).
We completed both standard and more specific farm soil surveys across all fields on the farm, which showed that in general our soil is not in dire condition, but it could be so much more abundant and productive. As a result of this survey it is apparent our sward is shallow rooting (meaning plants won’t benefit from nutrients held in all levels of the soil, or from moisture locked deep in the soil. The roots will not aerate the soil efficiently), we have compaction issues ( in places you can’t dig more than 120mm before hitting a very hard stony layer), the soil is probably lacking in glomalin (or soil glue – which helps to bind carbon into the soil) and does not readily stick to the plant roots, and there are very few earth worms – meaning less aerated soil and organic matter is less readily decomposed.
To help combat this situation, we are implementing a holistic grazing system. We hope that by rotationally grazing cattle, planting trees, and limiting vehicle access onto the site, we will improve the soil’s organic matter content, increase the fungi present in the soil, shelter the soil, and reduce any compaction issues. In combination with our tree planting, the cattle will also help dramatically improve our soil health. This isn’t a quick fix, but hopefully in time, with some determination, and consistent surveying will be begin to see some positive changes.
Plans for the future (our vision for Watersmeet Estate)
Upon visiting the wooded pasture and meadows of the Watersmeet Estate, you will be welcomed by our herd of pedigree Long Horn cattle and our herd of Exmoor ponies. In small numbers, these animals roam free amongst woodland pasture and heathland, providing the backbone of our habitat management.
Regularly moved to new grazing, by chewing, pooing, and trampling, the animals are a part of the natural process that maintain healthy, diverse, natural habitats here on West Exmoor. Rugged native breeds, they are suited to the landscape; thriving year-round off a diet of herb rich grazing and browsing, which provide essential nutrients and minerals necessary to produce vigorous offspring.
Woodland pasture, planted by Rangers and Volunteers, offers the animals shelter from the elements, and provides a connection between the coastal woodland of the Bristol Channel, and the sessile oak woodland of Watersmeet Valley. A variety of bird, bat, butterfly, reptile and invertebrate species flourish here, taking advantage of the expansive, breeding, hunting and nesting grounds.
The vitality of this area can be tasted in organic beef and lamb reared on the estate, which can be purchased in Watersmeet tea-gardens near Lynmouth or the Hunter’s Inn pub in the Heddon Valley. Meat sales ensure the farm is financially sustainable, and remains viable during a period of reducing government subsidy.
From Catering to Caretakers, Shop Staff to Rangers, the National Trust team on West Exmoor work hard to ensure visitors feel connect to their ethos of "nature friendly farming; building healthy habitats for all". And with a range of accommodation to suit every budget, from farm camping to holiday cottages, there is ample opportunity for guests to come, linger, and breathe in this magnificent place."