5 December 1997

With calving underway it is time to tend SSSI

Looking after the

environment is a high

priority at Whelan Farms,

as Suzie Horne reports

TUPPING is complete, cows are calving at a steady 10 a week and milking well, and arable work is mainly of a winter variety at Whelan Farms.

Time then for manager Robert Kilby to take stock of other initiatives on the farm before he takes two weeks holiday with his family.

The last of the fencing has just been done on the farms 12.4ha (25-acre) SSSI known as Saltbox Hill. Work to clear scrub began three years ago to bring the land back to chalk downland. The steep sided valley had not been regularly grazed for around 15 years prior to this, so the scrub was thick and high.

Under a 10-year Countryside Commission Stewardship Scheme plan and advice from English Nature, the land is now ready for grazing again. "Normally they will restrict access at certain times of the year, but next year they want us to hit it really hard," says Mr Kilby.

A one-off payment of £4800 was made for scrub clearance, and the Countryside Stewardship Scheme pays £50/ha (£20/acre) a year for maintenance of the site as chalk downland. In addition to this, Mr Kilby has agreed to limited public access by arrangement, for which a further payment of £400 a year is made.

The scrub clearance has been carried out mainly with farm labour and some help from local volunteers. Fencing materials were paid for by English Nature and the work done by farm staff.

As well as providing a habitat for the rare grizzled skipper butterfly, last spring Saltbox Hill produced an impressive display of wild flowers such as primroses, lupins, orchids and campion. Rarer species which are recovering from the effects of the scrub invasion include yellow wort, wild marjoram, horseshoe vetch and yellow rattle.

Marginal value

As well as improving the habitat for these species, Mr Kilby has gained a useful enclosure for sheep, although the grazing will always be of marginal value. The work will, however, have contributed to a slight increase in the value of the land. Overall, costs have been covered on the project.

The farms 40ha (100 acres) of ancient and semi-natural woodland is also the subject of a long- term replanting plan and is currently in the fourth year of a five-year Woodland Grant Scheme.

The majority of this work is being carried out by contractors, and involves coppicing and replanting. An annual visit from the Forestry Authority establishes the work plan for the year. Replanting is with 40% oak, 30% ash and 20% beech, with the remaining 10% made up of hazel, holly and field maple.

The grant for this project is £2100 a year, with the contractors costs being roughly covered by the value of the wood he removes, says Mr Kilby. The grant goes to the purchase of new trees, protective covers and the cost of any farm labour used.

Staff rotas for the Christmas and New Year weeks have been drawn up, as well as weekend duties in the dairy for the next three months. Looking further ahead, Mr Kilby is planning staff training.

Management trainee Charles Asher is now in his second year and will be spending more time in the office with Mr Kilby in the New Year. "We are also probably looking to put both Neil and Nick from the dairy on a DIY AI course with a view to them starting next season to do all our AI. They are both keen to do this.

"It will cost in the region of £500 each. My biggest concern is if were not as good as the service we use at the moment. We only need to fail to get three in calf and weve lost as much as we could possibly have gained by it," says Mr Kilby.

Twenty cows remain outside on higher ground which is due for ploughing. With a rolling average of 7095 litres to the end of October, they are still milking better than planned.

"We would normally be looking to group the cows by now, but we wont split them until New Year because they are all milking well and we can vary their parlour feed. We have plenty of forage."

Before (inset) and after (above)… over 12ha (25 acres) of scrub has been returned to chalk downland as part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme at Whelan Farms.

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 649ha (1604 acre) arable, dairy and sheep holding owned by John Whelan and farmed by Sentry Farming.

&#8226 Chalky soil with some clay over chalk in Kent.

&#8226 356ha (880 acres) mixed combinable crops, including non-rotational set-aside.

&#8226 Dairy herd currently stands at 195 cows averaging just over 6500 litres.

&#8226 1300 ewes lambing mid-March, mainly Mules, some Scotch half-breds.

&#8226 Six full-time staff.