National Trust aims to reap what it sows in Suffolk

PUBLISHED: 14:50 23 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:03 20 February 2013

Running a commercial farm and a visitor attraction certainly has its challenges, but Richard Morris, loves it. We go 'behind the scenes' to find out what it's like to be a National Trust farm manager.

Running a commercial farm and a visitor attraction certainly has its challenges, but Richard Morris, loves it. We go behind the scenes to find out what its like to be a National Trust farm manager.

Farming life revolves around the seasons. March is when the farming year kicks off for our animals with lambing and calving, under the watchful eye of our stockman Mark Field.

In contrast with commercial farming, we set the dates for lambing time as an experience for our visitors, and then work backwards to when we need to let the tups (rams) out into the fields with the ewes (November). Lambing at Wimpole is slightly later than youd normally expect, but with the winter weve had, its an advantage.

Lambing time dictates the programme of all the other work we do through the year in terms of animal husbandry and breeding cycles. Once a ewe has lambed, we separate her with her lamb for 24 hours so they can bond, then turn them out in the field.

We turn the cows out into the fields as soon as the ground is decent. Its much healthier for them to calve outdoors. Being rare breeds theyre pretty robust and dont need our intervention.

Marks work continues, moving the sheep around the park to ensure they have grass in front of them, and keeping up-to-date with any treatments to combat disease and parasites. As each calf is born, it has to be tagged and identified. Our farm administrator Wendy Oakley spends most of her time keeping on top of admin, registering with all the different pedigree societies.

Field work also starts in spring, as soon as the ground can bear the weight of the tractor without causing damage. Being clay, our soil gets very soggy in winter.

Albert Dunn is in charge of the arable farm. His first tasks will be harrowing and rolling the grassland of Wimpole Park to tear out old dead grass and consolidate any surface the frost has lifted. This process will help maximise the production of grass through the year, essential for all our grazing livestock.

Going organic

Were now into the third year of our conversion to organic farming. I was incredibly impressed with the immediate improvement in populations of bumblebees, butterflies and insects up on the arable fields. Weve gone from just seeing one or two butterflies in the fields to seeing thousands thats really satisfying.

From a very low baseline, weve already come a long way in improving the health, and carbon store, of our soils. This is the first time in 30 years that the soil has been left to over-winter. Just doing this has made a major improvement.

Were doing a lot of monitoring so we can really measure the benefits of the organic conversion. Ian Bradbury, a retired soil scientist, is now volunteering for us and has started a programme of surveying soil. Hes looking at soil structure and health, and doing worm counts as he goes. At the moment, large parts of Rectory Farm the land yet to go through conversion have no worms whatsoever. This is a clear demonstration of the soils low health status and carbon storage.

Were doing lots of baseline studies on birds, invertebrates, even dung beetles, so we can re-measure in years to come and really see the benefits. Theres a lot of bureaucracy to wade through though, keeping documentation up-to-date and applying for subsidies.

Im just really happy to keep learning what the best techniques are to look after the land.

During early summer, Mark will wean the lambs off their mothers. This is a time when youve got to be on the ball observing stock, looking out for fly strike, dehydration and loss of condition which long hot summer days can bring on. We also keep a beady eye out for dogs loose in the fields. In July, the life-cycle begins again as we put the bulls out in the fields with the cows.

Come autumn, we leave the cattle out as long as the weather stays reasonably dry. During the first week of November they come into the sheds for winter so our clay soil doesnt get poached.

Well analyse our livestock feed, the hay and silage, so we can work out how much our animals need. Mineral intake is very important too. Our soil is short on phosphorus and copper, so we put organic minerals in the water troughs.

This learning curve is all part of farming. Ive been here nearly three years, so Ive got a pretty good feel for the land from watching the way grass grows and knowing where the sun comes up.

Throughout the winter, our cattle in the sheds are fed every day. This is our opportunity to do the livestock husbandry that we dont do when theyre in the field, such as foot trimming.

The tups will have health checks, to make sure theyre in good order, and well work out if we need to buy in any more stock. Because our sheep are rare breeds, its essential to keep the gene pool as wide as possible so we tend not to keep our own tups for breeding. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust helps us with this.

Farming a visitor attraction

One of the things that attracted me to working for the National Trust was the opportunity to help people understand farming. So this more than compensates for aspects which go against my farming instincts. My biggest concern is public safety, because were a working farm, with disease risks to both people and livestock.

My aim is to move away from the petting farm experience to helping people see the work of a real farm, everything we do. Many of our visitors are already interested and want to learn more. I want to help people learn about the provenance of their food and were starting to set ourselves up to do our normal work in a way thats accessible to people. For example, Im working on extending the visitor route to take in the arable farm.

Our community growing scheme is another big step in achieving this. Weve now got the management group in place, and at least 70 people have signed up for a share. By the time you read this well be well on the way to harvesting the first vegetables for all our scheme members.

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