Chairman's report to follow

Visit to Smiling Tree Farm October 7th

This farm is found along the narrow lanes and rolling hills of this lovely part of South Shropshire near to Clun and a long drive for me but was it worth it? Christine Page is the farmer here and after gathering us all together and getting us to introduce ourselves she led us away from the immaculate farmyard and towards the fields. We’d all got clean boots on, but Christine maintains strict bio-security measures, so we all had to dip our boots in a footbath before we went any further. This attention to hygiene could be one of the reasons her herd has stayed TB free all these years.

So what else contributes to Christine’s success in her 70 acres, 75% of which is farmed as pasture for her animals and 25% for the wildlife. She has two herds of cattle, Herefords for beef and Jerseys for milk. The practice of ‘mob-grazing’ is followed, a method which means high density grazing for a short period, moving the cattle on and giving the grass a long time to recover and grow even better. There is an old saying;  Never leave the sheep in the same field long enough to hear the church bell ring twice. In other words, move them every week. This method has been followed here for four years and Christine uses electric fences to move the cattle from each grazing area, a method she finds easy for her to do. The pastures are rich and contain a range of over 15 different plants, including yarrow, salad burnet, chicory, birds foot trefoil as well as several different clovers, each with its own specific qualities. Some, like sainfoin and sheeps parsley, are particularly deep-rooting and pull up minerals from deep down in the soil. Others, like chicory and plantain, have unique anthelmintic properties that naturally remove any parasites from the sheep and cattle. 

When Christine bought her farm there were no shelter belts or trees, so she planted a forest garden and several hedges. These contain at least 20 varieties of hedging trees and shrubs which as well as providing food for pollinators and birds, also produces insect predatory species to help protect the animals. The cows are not so bothered by those horrible flies that are such a pest. The animals will also self-medicate on these trees and shrubs helping to build up their disease resistance which means that vets don’t visit and they are antibiotic free.  Having planted over 1,000 trees this not only provides shelter but also helps to prevent erosion. Mycorrhizal fungi was used to help the trees settle quickly and thrive to produce lots of fruit and nuts.

When we met the beautiful Jersey herd, small enough to manage, it was obvious that Christine cares very much for and respects her animals as they came to greet us.  Jerseys are renowned for their gentle nature and benefit from the lush pastures they feed on with no artificial fertilizers and rich in herbs, clovers and wildflowers.  Christine does her own milking which is once a day only. Paying fastidious attention to the cleanliness here means that she is able to sell her milk raw to her customers. The cows have lovely names such as Custard and then the calves’ name will be something appropriate such at Treacle. Their names are on each bottle of milk sold so are completely traceable. Button the mum and Moon her calf will stay together (cow-calf dairying) as they all do. The calves are only taken away when they are weaned and maybe sold to another farm, or for breeding or for meat. Christine also pointed out that the horns of her cows are not removed as they are important to them for digestion and metabolism. Probably far more than we realise. Bio-dynamics.

We then walked through the forest garden where a black bio-plastic sheeting is used to help keep weeds down and the path open, to the field containing Christine’s traditional Hereford herd with their lovely curly coats, which are reared for beef. She has a beautiful bull and the herd were making a lot of noise as we approached. We had a lovely welcome. When the time comes to be slaughtered, a local abattoir is used, and two butchers come to the farm to process the beef. Again, the cows all have names. One was called Moneypenny because her ear tag was 007. The Herefords are taken off the land in winter to a shed with outside space so that the land, being on a steep slope, is not damaged. None of the animals are ever fed grain, only grass. Hay is grass.

We returned to the barn for tea and cakes and to watch Christine’s comprehensive slide show but please visit the website for so much more information. Find them on Twitter too.

If you are vegetarian and reading this please think again now because Christine has the reason why it’s not best for nature, the planet and us. Is it right to take a life and eat meat and drink milk?  Her cows help to build and regenerate soil and the grazing stimulates the grasses to grow and suck in CO2 and store carbon. Less than 1% of that carbon is breathed out as methane. The cows also help create a habitat for 1000s of small mammals and other wildlife, including barn owls. The cows use the perennial source of pasture and sunlight. Cows that graze in sunlight also have vitamin D in their milk. Her cows lead a nice life for two years.

Growing a mono-culture vegetarian food means soils are ploughed and exposed to light and air so carbon escapes to the atmosphere. Chemical sprays and fertilizers harm soil microbial life and nutrients become less available to the crops. Thousands of small animals and other wildlife are killed, crushed or sliced and habitats are destroyed by machinery and chemicals. Many plant proteins have low nutritional value. This system also supports the agricultural chemical companies.

Words to ponder or google; mob-grazing, grass fed dairy, grass fed beef, pastoral farming, holistic farming, permaculture, browsing trees,

Some of us were able to purchase milk and beef products from the farm shop on leaving.  Thank you, Siobhan, for organising this superb outing, one of the best. and find on Twitter.

Sue Bosson


Shelf for bird's nest

I had heard that blackbirds in particular like a flat surface to build their nests on, and so I installed a small shelf, about 4 inches by 15 in a shrub.  The blackbirds started going in and out with nesting material within a couple of days.  When nesting time was over (one dead blackbird chick found nearby, alas) I was able to check inside the shrub, and there was the nest built on the shelf.  I have installed two more small shelves in shrubs in other parts of the garden so it will be interesting to see if they too attract nest-builders.

Marian Byrne


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