14 April 2000

Highgroves

flora and

fauna swell

The continuing success of Prince Charles organic farming

system at Highgrove in Gloucestershire is having a big

impact on the environment. Jeremy Hunt paid a return

visit to the 400ha (1000-acre) estate to witness the

hidden benefits of sustainable agriculture

WHILE its been given every encouragement, one cant help thinking that much of it has happened simply as a consequence. The environmental benefits that have evolved as a result of the organic farming system on Prince Charles Highgrove Estate are inextricably linked to his quest for sustainable food production.

Hitch a ride in the Land Rover with farm manager David Wilson and take a tour of these 1000 acres of Gloucestershire countryside. While no one can fail to be impressed by the "good heart" of this land, it takes a disciplined eye to side-step the farming and soak up the surroundings.

This is nature at its very best – burgeoning, thriving, existing in total compatibility with profitable agriculture.

Prince Charles is deeply committed to the Highgrove Estate. To those who live and work on the Duchy Home Farm the future monarch is often to be seen on a Sunday morning, pruner in hand, working alone, tending some of the many hundreds of trees planted on the estate.

To the world outside he has made his views known with candid simplicity: "I have put my heart and soul into Highgrove …all the things I have tried to do in this small corner of Gloucestershire have been the physical expression of a personal philosophy."

But diversity is not the sole preserve of the habitat here. The farm is more than a weekend retreat where a prince comes to revitalise his soul. Bottom-line profits are as important here as on any farm, possibly even more so since the spotlight ranged down on a future king who has become one of the most staunch supporters of organic principles.

But the demands of a herd of 130 Ayrshire milkers, 90 beef suckler cows including a pedigree Aberdeen Angus herd, almost 500 ewes plus 372 acres in arable rotation have not interfered with the environmental priorities that have become an integral part of the farms management.

Ecological excellence

While the Highgrove estate may be an island of ecological excellence surrounded by some of the most aggressively farmed arable land in the UK, the huge diversity of flora and fauna now established here owes its success to a mind-set. As David Wilson succinctly puts it: "We have changed our method of farming. Thats the key."

He is charged with the job of making it all happen for Prince Charles. And that means running a profitable farm but also ensuring that the environment is not being "starved". Its the word he uses when talking about some conventional farmland which he refers to as sterile in terms of the wildlife it can support.

Kneel with him in the corner of a field of growing wheat and peer deep into the crop, down towards the soil. "Our crops may appear clean in terms of being weed-free, but there are all sorts of plants growing in there.

"Theres a microcosm of life in the depths of these corn fields with flowers providing nectar for insects and seeds and all kinds of food for the birds. The whole crop has a value far beyond its monetary worth as it hits the combine," he points out.

Green lanes, new hedges, field margins and woodlands have all been just as much a part of the developing structure of organic farming at the Duchy Home Farm as the more conventional husbandry concerns associated with running an estate of this size – albeit organically.

As the farming crisis has switched attention to organic methods almost overnight, the Highgrove Estate has become the focus of attention for many of those who poured scorn on the value of such agricultural principles. But while conventional farmers begin to question the level of inputs that have dictated their livelihoods for decades, Prince Charles is now reaping a bumper crop. It may not be one that will figure on the farms balance sheet but its one that has inestimable value as part of the ethos of a sustainable approach to agriculture.

As the agriculturists only just begin to home in on Highgroves farming achievements, the scientists and environmentalists are much further advanced in their evaluations. Five years ago the first ecological assessments were instigated. Their findings are a remarkable vindication of organic farmings beneficial impact across the entire wildlife spectrum.

Bird populations, both in numbers and variety of species, are a proven barometer of the value of habitat as a food source for successful breeding. Highgrove has been part of a British Trust for Ornithology survey that has been under way on 11 organic farms each of which were compared with a conventionally managed unit.

Large number of finches

During the winter Highgroves field boundaries support large numbers of finches of several species. There are greenfinches, chaffinches and bullfinches and as well particularly high numbers of great tits. Open fields in winter have been favoured by higher than average numbers of linnets while skylark counts in the breeding season have been noticeably higher.

Kestrels and sparrowhawks are now a common sight at Highgrove although their success may be partly responsible for the disappearance of a bird that might even have had Prince Charles reaching for the ornithological reference books.

"We had heard an unusual bird call, a sort of liquid whistling. It was identified as the call of quail. We are on the northern boundary for quail in the UK; apparently they have eruptive breeding cycles so we may have to wait some years before they return," says David Wilson.

Hedges have played a vital part in the wealth of bird species that now inhabit the estate. The 10 miles of newly planted hedgerows are an impressive feat by any standards. Planting is ongoing. And there are new woodlands too where native hardwood trees such as oak, ash, beech, and field maple are among the favoured species.

Standing on one of the green lanes created at Highgrove, David Wilson is flanked on either side by hedges, vigorous in stature and diverse in form. He reaches to look at the rosette of berries carried by a young wayfaring tree twisting its way through the hedge. "You can count several species in here hawthorn, blackthorn, dogwood, guelder rose and hazel. Creating a diverse habitat is essential to ensure a range of species for birds and insects to exploit."

High populations of predatory insects which thrive in hedge and field-margin habitats, are considered a boon to a system where sprays are no line of defence against aphid attack. The Duchy Home Farm was part of an official research project to monitor aphids on organic crops. Numbers were found to be much lower than on conventional farms and concluded that the bio-diversity of the environment and the presence of natural predators had an effect.

Walk across the summer meadows along the hedge boundaries and watch butterflies feeding on nectar from an abundance of flowers and grasses. When the experts took a tally of butterfly species on organic farms – including the Duchy Home Farm – they described their findings as "dramatic".

More grassland and bigger hedges typically found on organic farms were cited as being responsible for the increase.

Species such as meadow brown and gatekeeper over-winter as caterpillars in grassy swards while tall, thick hedges provide shelter and a rich nectar source. Herbicides and fungicides used in conventional farming reduce butterfly populations by killing them at the caterpillar stage and destroying the plants on which they feed.

Surprising results

The Duchy Home Farm was one of three pairs of organic/conventional units which underwent a detailed study of flora species. The results were surprising to say the least. A total of 120 different flowers, 30 grasses and 30 hedgerow trees and shrubs were identified. Field margins were rich in grass species such as fescue, bent and timothy and the edges of organically grown crops were found to contain several endangered plant species.

David Wilson admits that even without the human influence in terms of hedge and tree planting, there would have been a natural regeneration of habitat as a consequence of farming the land organically.

"But there are practical advantages too. Because of the shelter provided by the hedges we have planted across open fields we are now able to keep stock on large tracts of exposed land that were once only fit for arable crops."

The Duchy Home Farm is a modern, working agricultural unit operating at a profit and based on a wide range of enterprises. But while environmental concerns are given priority, its a policy carefully designed within the framework of management not to impede profitability.

Bigger hedges found on organic farms account for the improvement in wildlife.

Left: A herd of 130 Ayrshire milkers, 90 beef suckler cows, 500 ewes and 370 acres of arable make this a truly mixed farm. Below: "We have changed our method of farming," says David Wilson. Below left: Field margins were found to be rich in plant species.