Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Farming on a peat bog

Farming on a peat bog (only part of the farm)

Almost a quarter of our farm is on a peat bog, at one time each of the farms in the village had a proportion of this peat ground, splitting and fragmenting the farms.
In the last forty years as farms became vacant with retirements the estate amalgamated the farms into bigger units and got them into ring fence units. My farm being to the east side of the estate nearly all this peat ground fell into my circle on the map.
When I first started farming, and fresh from farm college, keen to try out new ideas, I had a small area of peat and some river side land as well, both areas prone to flooding once the river bloke its banks.
 The peat grassland was full of buttercups and the soft rush, and when neglected the soft rushes became what we called ‘sniggle bogs' the centre of which rose up and made it impossible top cut with the old finger bar mowers.
So being keen I contacted my local MAFF  (Ministry of Agriculture fisheries and Food) adviser. He was and old man who had had plenty of experience and seen these type of meadows before.
Being peat it was very acidic and no amount of lime would bring the PH levels up to that required by modern seed mixtures he advised. Best way was to improve the indigenous species of grass that was already growing down there.
First job was to rake or harrow the centre out of these ‘sniggle bogs' and if that did not work it was advised that I take some bags of Sulphate of Ammonia fertilizer and a bucket onto the meadows and place a handful of the fertilizer into the middle of each bog of rushes, the aim was to burn the centre out of the bog and the nitrogen fertilizer would benefit and encourage the surrounding grass.
After a couple of years these risen bogs had disappeared and the remaining rushes could be cut twice or three times a year with the finger bar mower. In later years, and as I took over more of the meadows the finger bar mowers had been supper seeded by the drum or disc mowers, and these were capable of cutting directly under and sniggle bogs cutting out the hand work involved in burning the centres out with fertilizer.
Back to the early days, once the meadows were mow-able, I started to leave a good proportion to cut for hay, it was before silage was invented in our area, and we managed to get the baler on to the meadows to bale the crop.
Confidence building and wishing to increase the yield of hay a complete fertilizer was applied and a tremendous response was seen from the old grasses that grew on the meadows, it was difficult to mow with the finger bar mower as there was a certain amount of rotting vegetation at the bottom of the sward so dense that it lacked sunlight. It was okay for the first one or two summers when the weather was with us, then we hit a bad year weather wise
It was mowed as usual and after two days was turned with an old ‘dickey swath turner' this flipped up just over half of the heavy side of the swath, a second turning the next day brought the rest of the swath to the top, it was at this point that  the weather bloke and we had a very heavy down pour. A deluge that went on for most of the night, bringing the brook that run through the meadows to over flow, of course at mowing time of year, the brook and the river lower down were also weeded up which impeded the flow.
So it was the following day we watched with dismay, the water rose in between the heavy swaths, and later that day the swaths were actually floating and drifting to one side of the meadows. As the water receded so the swaths settled nice and neatly over each other each four foot swath now being four inches apart with overlapping. The whole crop was lost and that part of the meadow ruined for the next two years where the swaths lay and rotted down.
On reflecting back without the fertilizer, and with lighter crop that hay could have been baled a day earlier and the bales carted. That was imprinted on my mind for the rest of my farming days, however on the odd occasion we have had bales stranded and standing in flood water when rucked into piles of eight, only the bottom two were ruined and the other not up to much by the time they were carted. But that is the risk taken on these meadows.
Up to these modern times, the meadows are the same, we take the crop it produces usually towards August being the best time to cut, they are cut with a fifteen foot disc mower conditioner, wilted one day rowed up and baled in the following day or two days depending on the forecast, being big round bales these are loaded and moved without much physical effort on my part, that suit me fine, and stacked at home outside.

These ditches are bottomless, and the meadows mown leaving two metres uncut by the water course. 

  This type peat meadows now are getting rare and Natural England, the modern equivalent of MAFF have asked if they could monitor these meadows of ours and sent out advisers to study them. Some groups have been round from Nottingham University and now they are monitored and controlled by the Stewardship Schemes that I participate in.

Some of the principle rules that I have now got to abide by to maintain these meadows and receive a subsidy for doing so is,
1 Not to go on the meadows for any reason before 15th July.
 This is so we do not rut and poach the ground; this is what I have already done over the last fifty years
2 Do not apply fertilizer or lime or farm yard manure.
Its impossible to get on the ground to spread FYM and as from experience no fertilizer or lime has ever been spread by me over the last fifty years. (Other than the few years explained above)

3 Graze the aftermath growth of grass and remove stock by 1st November every year.This is what we have done on the meadows over the last fifty years. 

4 The Ditches and dykes only to be cleaned of every third year in rotation.
Well that job is taken out of my hands, I have never done that job, it is undertaken by the River Board who clean out all the main rivers and water courses below a certain contour line. Never done that job over fifty years.
5       Leave two metres un-mown along side all water courses.
This is new to me, with the modern disc mowers you can only cut to the top of the bank or edge of the ditch, with the old finger bar mower you could hang the cutter bar down almost to the waters edge. The longest swath with the most grass is always the outside one. We loose out on that last swath of grass. So this rule is already catered for with the use of the disc mowers. 

Year 2008 was interesting in that I was approached by the Environment Agency, Natural England, they wanted me to go on a scheme Farming Flood plains for the future project.
They are looking at raising the water levels of our moor (peat) during the winter month. This they did by inserting some controllable dams in key sections of the ditches, and held the water at field level through to May when a sluice was opened in each dam to return the water level back to what was it natural levels. Below and above each dam was a censor, to measure the water levels by computer, and again censors out I the middle of the fields to register the water table again they connected to a computer to read the levels every few weeks.
All this work and altering the water table levels did not affect the crop of grass that we harvested at the end of July and August.
Conclusion, not enough infield standing water to benefit wading and wet land birds, so the dams were not closed in the winter of 2010, but the levels are still being monitored.
So it looks like I should be telling them how to maintain the meadows, and do like I have done for the last fifty years, but some folk just will not be told.
Another project was under taken on the moors when I was asked if the Wildlife trust could do a botanical survey of all the interesting indigenous species of plant growing on the peat. Apparently there are not many of these old untouched meadows left in the country, and this is what they found almost 40 different species.
  Habitat: Neutral grassland: unimproved  29/05/2008
Recorder(s): -----(I won't name them here)-
flowering plant
Alopecurus geniculatus  Marsh Foxtail locally  frequent       
Alopecurus pratensis      Meadow Foxtail           abundant
Anthoxanthum odoratum Sweet Vernal              Grass abundant
Caltha palustris               Marsh-marigold          rare
Cardamine pratensis       Cuckooflower             frequent
Carex acutiformis           Lesser Pond-sedge      locally frequent
Carex disticha                Brown Sedge               frequent
Carex hirta                      Hairy Sedge                frequent
Carex panicea                 Carnation Sedge          rare
Cerastium fontanum        Common Mouse-Ear occasional
Cirsium palustre              Marsh Thistle              rare
Deschampsia cespitosa  Tufted Hair-Grass        occasional
Eleocharis palustris        Common Spike-rush locally abundant
Festuca rubra                  Red Fescue                 occasional
Filipendula ulmaria        Meadowsweet locally frequent
Galium palustre              Marsh-bedstraw           frequent
Glyceria fluitans             Floating Sweet-grass   abundant
Holcus lanatus                Yorkshire-fog               frequent
Juncus articulatus           Jointed Rush                 occasional
Juncus conglomeratus    Compact Rush               frequent
Juncus effusus                 Soft-rush                      occasional
Lathyrus pratensis          Meadow Vetchling          rare
Leontodon autumnalis    Autumnal Hawkbit           rare
Lychnis flos-cuculi           Ragged-Robin                   rare
Persicaria maculosa        Redshank locally            frequent
Plantago lanceolata           Ribwort Plantain            frequent
Poa pratensis                 Smooth Meadow-Grass    occasional
Ranunculus acris           Meadow Buttercup            frequent
Ranunculus bulbosus        Bulbous Buttercup            occasional
Ranunculus flammula        Lesser Spearwort locally    frequent
Ranunculus repens             Creeping Buttercup            frequent
Rumex acetosa                   Common Sorrel                 occasional
Senecio aquaticus             Marsh Ragwort                         rare
Stellaria alsine                 Bog Stitchwort                          rare
Taraxacum officinale agg.  Taraxacum officinale agg.     rare
Trifolium pratense            Red Clover                         occasional
Veronica serpyllifolia      Thyme-leaved Speedwell              rare
Vicia hirsute                        Hairy Tare                                rare
We were asked if one of our meadows could act as a donor meadow, to provide seeds to another meadow 20miles away. 
 So on a pre-booked day we mowed (mower without the conditioner we need the seeds to stay on the plants) and baled the grass/crop loaded it on their transport and by mid afternoon it was being spread on the receiving  meadow, for the seeds of all the above plants to establish on a new meadow. Not had any feed back on the results but I imagine it will take a long while before it can be said to be successful. 

Old Maps.

Its nice to look at very old maps, all faded and dog eared,
See what has change over the years, and what has disappeared,
Years ago they measured the land, all in furlong and chain 
The length of a furlong a chain wide and an acre to attain,
Most roads and lanes are still the same, so are most the fields,
Village houses have increased built in corners quite concealed.

Countryman  (Owd Fred)