Opinion: 25 years an MoD farming tenant – it’s been a blast

We have now been tenants of our farm for 25 years. We celebrated with a very good dinner, followed, the next morning, by a joint pledge that we wouldn’t touch alcohol again. 

This proved as reliable as a politician’s promise, but at least we sincerely meant it at the time.

Looking back, I can’t really say we have been at the cutting edge of transformative new technology and we have not introduced any exotic breeds of livestock.

We continue to operate with restrictions on stocking numbers and diversification activities, as the primary purpose of our farm is military training.

However, I am surprised at how much the focus of our operation has changed and at how much we have learned.

See also: Not enough emphasis on profits and food choices

We started out just keeping sheep. The landlord’s view at the time was that cows made too much mess and interfered in army training exercises.

However, after a couple of years of poor lamb prices, we realised that relying on a single enterprise left us very exposed. 

Our solution was to enter a series of environmental schemes. These have formed a key strand of income throughout the period, but have involved a few learning experiences along the way.

Our first Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreement was too prescriptive, inflexible and fixated on reducing sheep numbers without proper regard to local conditions.

After a couple of years of poor lamb prices, we realised that relying on a single enterprise left us very exposed

The result was that the hill became undergrazed and some of the vegetation became rough, rank and a harbour for ticks. 

However, we went organic following the foot and mouth crisis of 2001 and got permission to start a suckler herd, so that we could have mixed grazing.

Grazing by cattle has proved the best tool for controlling vegetation on our hill ground. It turns rank vegetation into food, reduces the risk of wildfires and makes the terrain slightly easier going for troops.

Native breed cattle can fatten without concentrates and survive wintering outside, if necessary.  This collectively pleases environmentalists, the landlord, ourselves and, to an increasing and encouraging extent, consumers. 

The farm was organic for 17 years. Organic methods of land management work well here.  However, in latter years, we found the price premium was insufficient to cover the additional costs, so we let our registration lapse in July 2018.

This year we entered a new Higher Tier CS scheme – mainly around using cattle for upland grazing, improving vegetation for ground-nesting birds and converting some of the field ground for wildflower meadows.

Even in year one, we have found this area is species-rich – reflecting the fact that we have not used any inorganic fertiliser or sprays for 18 years. So far, apart from not getting paid, this scheme suits us and our ground better than all its predecessors.

We have moved from having just sheep in 1994 to having a larger percentage of livestock units in cattle. Yet, this year we produced more lambs than last year, despite having 100 fewer ewes.

It has been, as they say on Strictly Come Dancing, a “journey”.  Somehow, we have ended up in tune with the zeitgeist on environmental matters and are as prepared as we can be for whatever the new government throws at us. Here’s to the next 25 years.

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