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Farming practice - introduction

The Cholderton Estate is a large, organic, mixed farm comprising several hundred acres of crops and extensive pasture and downland that supports two dairy herds, a beef herd and hundreds of sheep. The Estate is home to rare breeds of stock, including the purebred Cleveland Bay horses and Hampshire Down sheep.

Rotations between crops and pasture are aligned to the needs of wildlife, particularly birds. The farm is as self-sufficient as possible, with crops grown to feed the farm’s livestock. Field headlands support rare arable weeds, and a traditional variety of the legume sainfoin is grown as forage for sheep, for fixing nitrogen and to attract insects.

Over 40 miles of hedgerows are managed for invertebrates, birds and small mammals. Other land management involves rough grass field margins, beetle banks, coppicing of woodland, tree planting and low-intensity grazing to promote wild flowers.

In addition to sustainable management practices, the Estate has an impressive programme of environmental enhancement, including chalk downland restoration, pond creation and the provision of nestboxes for owls and a hibernaculum for bats.

All of the farm management practices contribute to a beautiful landscape and an exceptional wealth and diversity of wildlife.

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Crops & fields margins

The Estate’s 2,500 acres (1,000ha) are divided broadly as follows: 1,100 acres (440ha) is put down to grass, forage and leys; 550 acres (220ha) is arable; 50 acres (20ha) is kale and turnips; 500 acres (200ha) is held under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, and the rest is woodland.


Cereal crops are sown at Cholderton in the autumn and the spring. Autumn sowing commences in early October and spring sowing generally in February or March, depending on soil conditions.

Oats are the favoured crop for autumn sowing, as these are particularly suited for growing in organic conditions. They are vigorous, tend to suppress weeds, and produce a nutritious grain that can be fed to livestock or sold for rolling to make porridge. Harvesting takes place in September, and all the straw is baled and retained for animal feed or for bedding.

Barley is sown in the spring into seedbeds that have been made in the autumn by ploughing stubble or grass fields that have reached the end of their productive life. Barley is not as vigorous as oats and does not suppress weeds to the same extent. Weeds may be controlled by the careful use of a flexi tine harrow but this is only used occasionally and never when ground-nesting birds are present. This implement is drawn by a tractor up and down the rows of young barley and is able to remove weeds mechanically while doing the minimum amount of damage to the crop. Normally one pass is adequate to achieve the required weed control in the growing crop.

The barley is harvested in August. All the grain is stored at the main granary and is rolled for consumption by the cattle. Normally enough grain is gathered in to feed the stock until the next harvest. All straw is baled and is used for bedding and for feeding to the livestock.

Cereal crops form part of a rotation. This takes the following form:

Year 1 legume/grass ley
Year 2 legume/grass ley
Year 3 legume/grass ley
Year 4 spring barley
Year 5 winter oats
Year 6 winter oats
Year 7 legume/grass ley
Year 8 legume/grass ley

Greater flexibility can be put into the system by the use of fodder crops such as kale and protein crops such as vetches.
Kale is grown as forage for the dairy herds and to build soil fertility. Growing extremely vigorously in the autumn, it is frost-hardy and is grazed by the cows, access being controlled by an electric fence. When the grazing has been completed, the kale stubble is topped and spread with well-rotted manure. Spring barley follows.

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Vetches are an extremely vigorous leguminous crop. They completely smother all weeds and are very attractive to pollinating insects during the mid-summer flowering season. They die off and are harvested in mid-September. The seed can be used as a protein supplement for cattle feed. Vetches clean the ground and build soil fertility. Vetches are also sown with oats in the autumn and used for silage in the following spring, producing exceptional crops.

Field margins

In line with Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) guidelines, the headlands or margins of some arable fields are allowed to become grassy strips. These have immediate, and low cost, benefits for wildlife. They provide nest sites and forage areas for grey partridges; provide cover for rodents, which in turn become prey for barn owls; and act as ‘wildlife corridors’ connecting different natural features of the Estate for the benefit of wildlife. The bigger fields are divided by 'beetle banks', which have a similar botanical composition to the arable margins. As the organic regime at Cholderton becomes mature, it seems likely that these margins will become richer in beneficial wild plants.

The Transition from 'Inorganic' to Organic Grassland

For many years the farm has been managed on a semi-organic basis. Nitrogen fertilisers were used on the grassland, amounting to approximately 200 units of nitrogen per acre (0.4ha) per annum; but about 10–15% of the total acreage of pasture was composed of legumes such as red clover, sainfoin and Lucerne, mixed with cocksfoot, meadow fescue, timothy and perennial ryegrass. These leys received no fertiliser, but were dressed with manure in the autumn or after a hay or silage cut. The remaining pastures were composed of ryegrass, timothy and white clover mixtures. The white clover varieties then available were not persistent and these leys required a supplementary nitrate dressing to boost production to levels necessary to maintain the stock enterprises.

The transition to an organic system has meant the complete cessation of the use of artificial nitrogenous fertilisers. All nitrate is now supplied from composted manure derived from the grazing stock and from the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that attach themselves to the roots of leguminous plants.

The principal species of leguminous plant in use are:

Sainfoin This has been grown at Cholderton since 1730. There were once several local (Landrace) varieties of this important fodder plant; these types included Cotswold common, Essex common, Cambridge common and Vale of Glamorgan common. Of these only Cotswold common and our variety, Hampshire common, remain in cultivation. Each variety was selected over generations for the particular local conditions.

Sainfoin means holy hay – it is a magical plant, with beautiful racemes of pink flowers in June. Animals thrive on its high protein, non-bloating fodder. It is the best source of nectar for honey bees. It is also very attractive to a whole range of pollinating insects; bumble bees being present in huge numbers in flowering crops. Sainfoin seed is harvested most years and is used on the Estate to sow an additional acreage. It can remain in the same field for up to 80 years.

Red Clover This later flowering legume is ideal for silage production. It responds well to the application of farmyard manure and is mixed with perennial ryegrass and timothy to boost yields. It is not grazed in the spring, but a silage or hay cut is taken later and the aftermath grazed until the late autumn, care being taken to ensure the plant is not damaged by trampling in wet conditions. These leys are left down for three to four years before being ploughed for cereal production.

Lucerne Like red clover, this later flowering legume is good for silage or hay production. It is frequently strip-grazed by the dairy cows and then dressed with farmyard manure. It can be particularly productive in late summer and autumn and is very resistant to drought. Butterflies are very attracted to its flowers in August and September. In a favourable year many thousands of butterflies – 12 different species – can be seen nectaring.

Lucerne can cause bloat, so it is necessary to restrict its accessibility. In time cattle do appear to become less susceptible. Lucerne is sown as a part of a mixture with cocksfoot, ryegrass and timothy. These grasses help the cattle to digest this highly nutritious fodder crop.

White Clover This is the most widely grown forage legume on the Estate. It is the main workhorse of the general purpose, grazing-forage conservation ley.

White clover can produce up to 250 units of nitrogen per acre (0.4ha) per annum. It is therefore capable of giving a huge boost to its accompanying grasses. White Clover is highly nutritious but in certain conditions is quite likely to give stock bloat. The flowers are attractive to honey bees; while it does not compete with sainfoin as a nectar producer, it does flower over a longer period. White clover leys are both grazed and used for silage and hay production. Fertility is maintained by the application of farmyard manure. Leys are left down for one to six years and are then followed by a cereal crop.

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Grassland is the essential basis for the livestock enterprises on the Estate. The dairy herds and their followers, the Hampshire Down sheep and the Cleveland Bays, all graze over the grass fields for most, if not all, of the year. They also rely on forage harvested during the spring and summer for winter feed, in the form of either hay or silage.

The grassland falls into two main categories. Approximately one third is managed under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in order to regenerate chalk downland and assist those birds and insects that are associated with this important habitat. Some of the fields were previously part of the arable enterprise, but were allowed to regenerate into grassland, without the addition of purchased seed. These fields now have over a hundred species of wild flowers and grasses. This has been achieved through a combination of late topping, which allows desirable species to set seed, and low-density livestock grazing regimes.

Other fields have never been ploughed but were overgrown with scrub or by rank grasses. A vigorous regime of selective scrub clearance and well-timed grazing has initiated a remarkable renaissance, so that some sites now carry over 130 species of plants and a complex insect fauna as well. One locality can swarm with hornet robber flies, as well as having a population of adonis and chalkhill blue butterflies. A further site has recently also been reclaimed by the chalkhill blue and grizzled skipper butterflies.

Managing Leys

The remainder of the grassland consists of leys that carry livestock at a higher density and provide the great bulk of hay and silage. These leys are formed from seed mixtures carefully tailored for each particular field, with a view to optimising grazing and/or forage conservation. There is a strong leguminous content. Legumes provide the grasses with essential nitrogenous compounds, which will boost soil fertility and encourage grass growth. They are also an important source of protein for grazing animals and a source of nectar for pollinating insects. Legumes are a crucial component of life in the countryside: land deficient in legumes will have a paucity of insect life, and this will have further knock-on effects on the environment as a whole.

Care is taken to ensure that a selection of legumes is incorporated in the leys so that there is flowering for as much of the growing season as possible. White Clover, used as a mix of different forms, flowers from early summer through to the autumn. Red clover is a summer and autumn flowerer, and is particularly attractive to bumble bees. Lucerne flowers in the late summer and autumn and is very attractive to butterflies and a wide variety of other insects. Sainfoin is the highest nectar producer of all. It flowers in June and will attract so many bees that great care must be taken when walking through the crops.

The structure of a ley should be planned not only with a view to top growth but also to the rooting characteristics of the species incorporated within it. Cocksfoot grass is a vigorous rooter, producing great mop-heads of roots that spread and penetrate deeply into the soil. Such is the effect of these roots that land formerly devoid of structure will be turned into a beautifully crumbly garden compost in a few seasons. Subsequent crops grown in this soil will benefit from soil that is higher in organic matter, more moisture-retentive and better able to maintain fertility. The higher organic matter content boosts the levels of micro organisms in the soil – the complex interaction of these bacteria, microforms and fungi is little understood, but that they are highly beneficial, and indeed essential, to the sustainability of agriculture is beyond contention. Legumes are also generally deep-rooting and when ploughed help to develop the soil structure – the decomposition of the nitrogen-fixing rhyzobia attached to their roots releases nitrogen compounds, which will boost the performance of subsequent crops.

Increasing Fertility

It is interesting to reflect that the most promoted and widely used species of grass – perennial ryegrass – is actually not good at building soil fertility. It has a shallow and very limited rooting system and consequently is very prone to drought. Though capable of good growth in the spring and early summer, when soils are still damp, it can be virtually useless in the summer and autumn until the wet weather returns.

Leys at Cholderton incorporate perennial ryegrasses to optimise early growth, but also contain other species, such as timothy and cocksfoot, to boost mid and late season growth, in addition to building soil fertility. White clover will be incorporated in a mix of types to encourage forage conservation or grazing throughout the season. Herbs such as chicory and plantain are also included both to encourage deep-rooting and to boost the mineral uptake of grazing stock.

A typical Cholderton general purpose ley (per acre/0.4ha) consists of:

4.5lb (2kg) cocksfoot
6.5lb (3kg) white clover (blend)
15.5lb (7kg) perennial ryegrass (blend)
1lb (0.5kg) plantain
6.5lb (3kg) timothy

A large acreage of sainfoin is grown at Cholderton. Sainfoin must be mixed with a less competitive grass if the rosettes are not to be overshadowed during the winter and late summer. Generally meadow grass and red fescue are satisfactory in these circumstances.

A typical Cholderton type sainfoin ley mix per acre (0.4ha) might be:

62lb (28kg) sainfoin
9lb (4kg) meadow fescue
1lb (0.5kg) plantain
6.5lb (3kg) red fescue

Lucerne may be taken as hay or silage with the aftermath then grazed by cattle. Less competitive grasses are again incorporated in the mix (per acre/0.4ha):

18lb (8kg) lucerne
10lb (4.5kg) meadow fescue

Red clover performs well on our deepest soils but does not prosper on the thinnest chalk, where sainfoin reigns supreme. Red clover mixes have tended to be incorporated with a more general purpose ley:

6.5lb (3kg) red clover
11lb (5kg) perennial ryegrass
4.5lb (2kg) cocksfoot
2lb (1kg) white clover blend
5.5lb (2.5kg) timothy (wild white)

Grass and legume seeds vary in size and weight. It is essential to take this into account when working on the composition of new mixtures.

Number of seeds per lb/0.45kg weight

Timothy – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 1,170,500 seeds
Meadow fescue – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 236,000 seeds
Cocksfoot – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 426,000 seeds
Italian ryegrass – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 285,000 seeds
Perennial ryegrass – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 223,000 seeds
Red clover – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 230,000 seeds
White clover – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 740,000 seeds
Lucerne – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 200,000 seeds
Sainfoin – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 22,500 seeds
Red fescue – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 400,000 seeds
Sheep fescue – 1lb (0.45kg) contains 680,000 seeds

Grass leys are normally established by undersowing spring barley. This involves working down the seedbed with discs and harrows prior to drilling the barley at half the normal rate. After drilling the barley, the ground is harrowed and rolled with a Cambridge roller. The grass seed is then drilled over the barley, with the drill merely scraping the surface of the ground to ensure that the small seeds are not buried too deeply. The field is then rolled again by the Cambridge roller, the action of which both covers in and consolidates the seed bed.

Given the right weather conditions, a fine young pasture should be apparent by the autumn, when the barley crop is harvested and the straw removed. An undersown stubble such as this offers excellent feeding and protection for birds such as grey partridge, corn bunting and yellowhammer.

Leys are left down for five years before being ploughed to revert to arable for two or three years. In the course of its life, the ley will have improved soil structure and fertility, and will also have suppressed arable weeds.

The arable crop will have the best possible start, in a fine, crumbly seedbed rich in nutrients, and will probably require little, if any, weed control.

Hedgerow Management

The hedgerows at Cholderton make a tremendous impact on the overall landscape, and they make a significant contribution to wildlife diversity. They are carefully managed to maintain maximum benefit for wildlife.

The hedges fall into three main types. Some are sporadic with grass between usually untrimmed bushes, mostly of Hawthorn and Blackthorn. These tend only to be trimmed occasionally; when time permits or when repairs have to be carried out on the fences. Others are continuous but carefully trimmed and hold a wide diversity of herbaceous species. The continuous trimmed hedges, particularly those on the roadside, are cut annually, but with great care and generally allowing the hedge to thicken and increase in width slowly. These hedges are only cut on one side and on the top, the field side is generally left uncut or very lightly trimmed. Yet others are continuous but rampant, high and wide, receiving only a light trimming to one side and having a wide spectrum of species.

Where the hedges have become gappy or need renewing, they are replanted with a mixture of hawthorn, blackthorn and other native species.

Woodland Management

Felling is carried out only on a selective basis. Timber is cut to allow more light into the woodland, for thinning or the removal of over-mature or dead trees. However, every effort has been made to retain a wide age range within every woodland. To encourage as broad a spectrum of wildlife as possible, it is essential to retain this diversity. Trees vary from saplings to maturing and over-mature, or actually dead. Hazel can form dense stands in some areas of the woodlands. These were over-mature and had shaded out the woodland flora. These old hazels have all been coppiced and are now resprouting. It is hoped there will soon be enough hazel to encourage a hurdlemaker to harvest it on a regular basis. This would ensure that the developing woodland flora continues to flourish.

When planted, shrubby species are protected by spiral shelters with a bamboo cane. Trees are protected against deer with a tube and stake. This is very effective against roe and muntjac deer, the two species resident here. Cleavers (goosegrass) and old man’s beard are the most troublesome weeds of new plantings. These are cleared away by cutting or treading down during the summer and autumn. No chemical control is used. Woodland thinnings are used for firewood. Ash and oak have been cut at the Estate sawmill for joinery.

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Coppicing woodlands

Many of the estate woodlands have areas of hazel that were formerly coppiced. The hazel was cut to produce ‘shores’ – small round stakes driven into the ground to secure hurdles. The small sticks were used to make thatching spars and the brush saved as stakes for garden peas. Larger hazel was cut for firewood. Some hurdles were made, though many were purchased, to enclose the folded flocks of sheep.

Some of the most threatened British species of butterfly like the pearl bordered fritillary, small pearl bordered fritillary and the Duke of Burgundy fritillary require the early successive habitat offered by recently coppiced or felled areas of woodland. They breed on dog violet and primrose which flourish on these sunny sheltered sites.

The hazel is now being cut regularly again and dog violet and primrose are being introduced to sites where they do not occur. Some trees, particularly yew, will be cut in areas to reduce the woodland canopy to 20% of cover. When the violets and primrose are proliferating, a reintroduction of the pearl bordered fritillaries will be attempted.