Farming with nature in mind
Lorna Maybery meets a farmer who is doing his bit to mitigate climate change in the heart of a national park
Solar panels, leaky dams and tree planting are just three of the climate-friendly projects being undertaken by Steven Crabtree on his hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Steven is a third-generation beef and sheep farmer at the tenanted Bolton Park Farm, part of the Duke of Devonshire’s Bolton Abbey Estate, which was taken on by his grandparents in 1957.
“My father took over in 1965 and I followed on in 1992, seven years after I married my wife, Ann,” explains Steven. “Once upon a time we were lambing up to 1,400 ewes and 200 suckler cows, but, as time has gone on, we have realised we can get more from less, so we have gone to 750 lambers and about 100 suckler cows. The land that we have acquired over the years is rented out to other farmers, as a lot of it is 15 or so miles from here, which was not easy to manage.
“We don’t have a family member coming through to take things on, so we have taken a step back from mass production to more targeted and economical production, with much more of a leaning towards nature and the environment.”
One of the first climate-friendly things Steven did was to install ground-mounted solar panels, shortly followed by the installation of a small biomass boiler.
“We put solar panels in about 10 years ago – it’s only a small 10kw unit, but we have generated something like 79,000kw of electricity in that time. It’s maintenance-free and just ticks over and any power we generate goes back to the grid
“The biomass boiler was installed about seven years ago. It’s a non-domestic biomass system – it heats the main house, farm cottage and the staff room and I can honestly say we have never been as warm, and it cost us as little. It was the financial side of alternative energy that initially got me interested, but, as time went by, I began to realise it was a good move towards net zero.”
Root and branch reform
Like many farmers, Steven has always had an eye towards taking care of the landscape around him. Back in 2006, his farm entered a Higher Level Stewardship Scheme and, after taking advice, on what he could be doing for the environment, he fenced off between 30 and 40 acres of land covered in bracken and small streams that was unsuitable for livestock and planted trees on it.
“Then, eight years ago, we bought a derelict farm in Malhamdale,” says Steven. “It has no infrastructure but a lot of diversification potential and covers 1,050 acres – 580 acres are an a SSSI where black grouse are being encouraged to breed. I let part of the land to a farmer who grazes Highland Cattle all year round, and I am told the grouse are starting to return, which is great news.”
Steven is in the throes of applying for planning permission to turn the buildings into holiday lets, but, in the meantime, he is making sure the land is working for the environment by planting trees and taking part on a flood management project.
“We are right at the top of the River Aire catchment area – the River Aire serves Leeds and the River Aire valley has a lot of trouble with flooding – the authorities were trying to prevent flooding by stopping soil erosion at source,” he explains. “So, we fenced off a number of areas around streams to exclude livestock and planted 30,000 trees over two sessions. It was partly funded by the River Aire Catchment Scheme, along with Forestry Commission grants.”
Steven got advice from the Yorkshire Farming and Wildlife Partnership on what to plant and used contractors for the planting.
“They came with an army of people and did it in two sessions. We planted native species such as alders, ash, hawthorn and birch. We have registered the trees as carbon credits, but you must be careful as you are selling them a long time in advance. You sell what the trees will displace in carbon over the years, but you need to sell them as an established woodland, not lots of saplings, so the first five-to-seven years of woodland establishment is critical.
“People think that you just plant trees and they will grow, but actually there’s a lot of ongoing maintenance, and that’s what we have been doing for the past five years to get them to a size where they will be saleable. As they grow and the amount of carbon they displace increases, they become more valuable. They have been in for five years now and are doing well.
“Then we were asked by the authorities in Leeds if we would put in leaky dams, which are either timber or soil based, which means when there is a flood, the water reaches the dam and then just trickles out quietly rather than gushing down the stream. It works when it’s really wet and helps to protect the valley from floods. We put in about 14 and they seem to be working very well, but it’s difficult to quantify exactly how much its helping. It’s been used as a bit of a flagship project in the area.
With the tree-planting, it’s a win-win situation, you get trees for the carbon and trees to stop soil erosion.
“The biodiversity has also increased because of the trees. We have long, ungrazed grass between the trees, which is good for insect life, we have dying and rotting timber which is good for insects, and also lots of birds. In time, it will be lovely.
“We also have a lot of birds around the main farm. We don’t have hedges – it’s all dry-stone walls – but these provide their own habitat, so voles live in the bottom and there is moss growing and lots of insects in the nooks and crannies. It’s not like a hedge, but it’s certainly not devoid of wildlife either, there are birds nesting and the walls provide shelter for animals and livestock.
“Up on the tops of the hills, which is wilder, it’s good for ground-nesting birds, as we don’t use any machinery on the land. We get lapwing, curlew, and I have seen a few oystercatchers up there too.”
Steven doesn’t grow crops but does grow grass for silage for the livestock. “Muck from the cattle goes back on the land – we have a slurry separator, which separates the solid from liquid and we store both.
“We use the liquid as a fertiliser on the fields, which is efficient and the solid we spread later in the year after the second cut of silage. We have reduced the need for artiicial fertiliser by using our own more efficiently, as and when, and in the areas we need it.”
Steven believes that many farmers are already doing a lot for the environment, but they’re just not shouting about it.
“I think sometimes it’s difficult to quantify what farmers are doing. I haven’t done a carbon calculation yet because I’m not sure which is the best method to use. There needs to be one consistent way that everyone calculates and we need to establish a proper protocol which is accepted by science.”
Steven is pleased with the climate-friendly work he has undertaken and knows that the projects are a win-win for both his farming business and for the future of the extraordinary and unique Yorkshire Dales landscape.
Find out more about British farming’s efforts to get to net zero at: nfuonline.com/cross-sector/environment/net-zero