ORGANIC LAMB DEBUT
High on the Pennines near to Penistone, South Yorkshire,
one of the first flocks of organic sheep in the north is due
to give birth in the spring to a new enterprise – organic
lamb – as Derek Hine discovered
The 60 Masham-cross ewes which are grazing 17ha (42 acres) at Upper Denby owned by the Yorkshire-based charity Meadowlands Trust, form a vital part of the organisations campaign to restore the beauty of ancient grassland.
Grazing is an important management feature of the project to save these traditional wildflower meadows from extinction. It also helps to boost an enterprise – organic lamb – which, through the trusts forceful marketing, will be demanded by top restaurants and chefs.
As the charitys founder and chief ecologist Robert Hanna says: "We have commercialised the grazing to produce a high value product which is extremely tasty and by selling direct to the consumer we are demonstrating that farming tied to conservation and land of a high ecological value can be successful."
Although an idealist and fervent supporter of conservation Robert Hanna has his feet firmly on the ground and it was because of his concern at the disappearance of the wild flower grassland that the Meadowlands Trust was established in 1994.
Today the Trust owns 121ha (300 acres) of land, the majority of which is based in South and West Yorkshire with holdings also at Richmond, North Yorkshire, Cant Hill in Cornwall and at its most northerly site on the Isle of Arran. It also manages hundreds of acres of meadow land across the country. It is completely self-funding relying on its consultancies and above all its sale of wildflower and grass seeds and herbal extracts from the plants yarrow and meadow sweet for use in eco-friendly washing-up liquid.
When Robert Hanna took up the cudgels to save Yorkshires last remaining old wild flower meadow at Pye Flatts, Hoylandswaine, near Peni-stone, he stopped the lethargy which was having a disastrous effect on Britains most common natural habitat – grassland.
The sheep enterprise is a natural spin-off for the Meadowlands Trust. All the land is organic and is recognised as a demonstration project by the Soil Association.
Today most of the wild flower meadows are on steep slopes and banks where it is impossible or very difficult to plough. The sward is in most cases termed old relic ancient grassland which has never been improved and by its nature is land of high ecological value.
The saving of Pye Flatts at Hoylandswaine was a turning point in the trusts short life.When it was acquired it had not been fenced or grazed; and it looked disastrous.
Today those 2.4ha (6 acres), neatly walled and gated with "talking gates" – created by schoolchildren of the nearby villages of Silkstone and Cawthorne – provide £10,000 a year from the sale of wild flower and grass seeds.
The gates are a unique and attractive feature which interest tourists. They are sculptured in metal from designs drawn up by the children and include local natural history, especially magpies and rare butterflies.
"We are establishing ecological footprints across Kirklees and neighbouring authorities," said Mr Hanna.
Each plot under trust management involves the community and Thunderbridge Meadows, near to a famous beauty spot, for example, brought in the local Kirkburton Parish Council for consultations on improving the visual impact of the site.
Substantial grants from Kirklees Council and the chemical company Zeneca have been received for research work by the Trust and Sheffield University on The Methodology of Restoring Grasslands.
Surprisingly there has been little research into the meadows restoration project using low-tech approaches and this will occupy a young Sheffield graduate for three years.
One line of research was particularly successful and resulted in the Trust producing the first organic herbal extract from wildflower meadows in the UK. This was immediately taken up by a Belgian firm for us in its washing-up liquid, with the result that sales rose by 20 per cent.
Active participation in reseeding the margins of motorways has resulted in a section of the A1 at Dishforth, North Yorkshire, being supplied with wildflower seeds from the Trusts Richmond site.
In the past poor management and bad walling resulted in the land being overgrazed. These old sheep pastures are now being revitalised. Stocking rates are strictly controlled under Countryside Steward-ship to help to boost the diversity of the wild flowers in the meadows and the organic lamb project is not being entered into lightly.
"We are looking at more natural ways of managing the flock with the emphasis of animal welfare," says Mr Hanna, "so we are using a homoeopathic vet."