Farming on shifting sands
Lorna Maybery discovers the challenges of farming sandy soils while protecting a unique habitat on Suffolk’s Euston Estate
When the soil in which you grow your crops would be at home on a beach, you know you’ll have your work cut out to keep it hydrated and full of goodness.
For Andrew Blenkiron, estate director at The Euston Estate, and other farmers in the Brecklands of Suffolk, the soil is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, its sandy structure means it never gets boggy, and is light and easy to grow in, on the other it acts just like normal sand and can blow away, become very hot or cold, and doesn’t retain water.
“There’s lots of stories back through history of whole villages disappearing under the sand in the Breckland area,” says Andrew. “Traditionally, it was healthland and scrub woodland and, in the past, people have tried to cultivate it, but it wasn’t until World War II that they managed to plough it and get it into production. And it’s only since the late 1970s that they could pump water around the area and turn it into productive agricultural land.”
The estate is home to the 12th Duke of Grafton and comprises just over 10,500 acres. The in-hand farm is grassland and 1,500 acres of irrigated root crops – that’s carrots, onions, parsnips and potatoes – as well as sugar beet, and the estate also specialises in early salad potatoes, which they are now supplying to M&S for Christmas. The farm also grows 1,000 acres of wheat and 500 or so of winter barley. As Breckland blowing sand makes up 70% of the soil on the estate, cultivating the land is challenging.
Andrew explains: “We have issues, particularly in the spring when the soil dries out too much, so it can blow away, especially when we have just established a new crop. The sand acts as a shot blast and peppers through the leaves and can destroy crops such as sugar beet.
“So we put in a nurse crop of barley or wheat beside it and let that get established and this protects the very sensitive sugar beet plants.”
Caring for this soil is a major undertaking, and one that has involved a series of environmental strategies to ensure it continues to be productive land, while at the same time enhancing the natural areas around the estate to encourage wildlife.
Water is a big issue for the area – the soil doesn’t hold onto it and so irrigation is vital. To ensure they have sufficient water year-round, the estate has built two reservoirs, which are served by a river running through the estate.
“We actually lose more through evaporation in the summer than we gain through rainwater in the winter. The water is pumped in from the river, but only if the flow rate is high enough. There’s been two or three winters where it’s been too dry; with the reservoirs we have built in extra capacity, so now at the end of the driest, hottest summers we still have enough to give us 40% of the water we need for next year.
“We now have that element of insurance, which is all part of resilience and trying to counter the worst of climate change.”
On the reverse of this is the river meadows and their vital role in preventing flooding. “When we have a lot of rain at once, these river meadows come into their own and act as buffers. Thetford didn’t get flooded because the meadows filled up.”
Keeping the soil irrigated is important, but it’s also essential to improve the structure with organic matter to help it hold more water and nutrients. The estate’s on-site anaerobic digester, installed five years ago, is making a vast difference in this respect.
“The digester is like a concrete cow and the equivalent to having a 2,000-cow dairy on site, in terms of what it takes to feed it and what it produces in organic matter at the other end. But instead of exporting milk to a dairy, we export gas to the national gas grid.
“The beauty of a gas grid plant is that all of the output that’s produced in the anaerobic process is utilised, whereas people driving turbines can produce a lot of waste heat that doesn’t always get used. All our gas is pumped into the national gas grid and it comes out in people’s cookers and boilers. There’s no waste.
“Around 1,800 acres of maize and rye goes into it and, as well as producing the gas, we also get 35,000 tonnes of organic matter out of it on an annual basis, which we need for the soil.”
As well as the AD plant, the estate also has 13MW of solar panels with another 50MW plant out for planning permission. The energy generated by these will also go back into the grid.
Transforming the soil
Ten years ago, Andrew introduced cover crop rotations and this, along with the organic matter from the digester, is now starting to make a difference to the soil, but he is realistic that this is a long-term project and it will take two or three generations for the soil composition to transform.
Cover crops have the added benefit of providing a rich habitat for wildlife. This complements the 24% of their total farmland that is grassland and another 15% that is woodland. The estate is part of the Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network, which strives to protect this rare and important habitat.
Andrew says: “It’s about the right solution in the right location and that’s what the Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network is all about.”
The wildlife group has 54 farmers throughout the Breckland Special Protection Area, which covers 39,433 hectares in Norfolk and Suffolk.One of its aims is to promote the cultivation of six-metre arable margins, which has been shown to improve species diversity.
“The breaking of the ground has been an important part in the development of the Brecklands and all of the plant, invertebrate and mammal species over the fullness of time,” explains Andrew. “The moment you break up the land, you grow some incredibly rare plant species. The seeds are in the soil, you cultivate it and it helps it to chit. The plants grow and you get lots of other wildlife, including insects and invertebrates, and that’s the start of the food chain. We plough it once a year, then leave it.
“The project has been about joining up all the Breckland areas and ensuring that any that haven’t been cultivated to form these margins are eventually cultivated in the future. It’s about persuading people of the benefits of doing that. The instinct is to leave them alone. But these are arable margins as opposed to grass margins and there is a significant difference as to what they try to do. We did a species count here and there were 80 different plants within those margins; lots of viper’s bugloss, field pansies, Mayweed, speedwells, and this encourages pollinators.
“It’s enhanced the stone curlew population because it encourages invertebrates to breed and their population to increase and that helps to feed the birds.
“What I want to do going forward is to demonstrate that the Brecks is a special place. We have 70 acres of wild bird and pollinator mixes; the next phase is to show that pollinator and wild bird mixes can be very effective in field corner management and that it can work on a landscape-scale rather than just on individual farms. What I would like to see is some form of financial encouragement for people who want to produce these habitats and be rewarded properly.
There is an abundance of bird life, including oystercatchers, curlews, skylarks as well as a good hare population, but not all wildlife is quite so easy to manage. There are about 1,500 red deer that roam the Brecklands and it’s not unusual to see
60 young stags destroying a wheat field.
The deer have no predators so number management is important. “We have a full-time deer stalker to keep the population of roe, fallow, muntjac and reds under control. It’s about properly managing the situation. We love to see them and its part of the landscape, but last autumn, for instance, we lost about 20 acres of forage maize after the deer went into the field and wiped it all out.”
Root and branch reform
Planting shelter belts of trees on the estate is also helping wildlife, as well as preventing soil from blowing off the fields. There are also large woodland areas that are managed as amenity woods rather than commercial, although there is an area of softwood that is clear-felled and the estate sells firewood from offcuts. The area is then left to regenerate naturally.
The estate is hoping to add to their woodland through the planting of 500 acres of trees, a proposal that is going through an environmental impact process with the Forestry Commission. This would put 10% of their arable area into a climate-friendly carbon sequestration project.
“We are a bit nervous because it’s a non-native species: Paulownia, which grows to about a metre across and potentially 15 metres tall in 10 years,” says Andrew. “The trees will seize a phenomenal amount of carbon, three or four times the amount of carbon as a native hardwood or Scots pine. Because it’s wide spacing we will plant flower meadows underneath to create a new habitat. We will get a biodiversity gain by planting 500 acres of this type of tree. We had to ask: ‘do we want this fast-growing tree to seize all this carbon or do we want to plant trees that will take 60-80 years?’ These are grown for 10 years, then will be harvested and regrown; we will do this six to seven times.”
Andrew agrees there are many issues facing farmers as they bid for net zero carbon emissions, “but I think we will rise to the challenge through better marketing, purchasing, collaborating, diversification and knowing our costs. All we are doing now is farming how my grandfather did, but with the use of modern technology and a better understanding of science.”