Pedigree Highland cattle breeder Julia Carr from Marrick Park farm in lower Swaledale didn’t really want her picture taken – who does?
But gladly she gave in and accepted an invitation to become the ‘case study’ for a news release about three programmes which are currently available to upland farmers in our area.
Ms Carr – seen here with the fold’s Highland bull, Ffion – is participating in the five-year-long Tees-Swale project, which is supporting ‘nature friendly farming’ in the north-east part of the National Park; a new, three-year woodland creation scheme called Grow Back Greener; and Farming in Protected Landscapes.
During the interview she shared fascinating details about her farming practices, as well as about meadow restoration, woodland creation and her trials of disease-resistant elm trees. This Q&A is being published to promote understanding of farming in the National Park and how it is changing in the light of the ‘climate and nature emergency’.
Q. Please introduce yourself
A. I’m Julia Carr, known as Julia. I’ve lived here at Marrick Park since 2004. I moved here with my family of three young boys then, and all the pastures and meadows were let out to neighbouring farmers. I was interested but had my hands full with three young boys, their relocation and new school, and a house still busy with builders. There was no garden, so that was also a high priority, and my temporary boundary.
After five years my husband left and inevitably my circumstances changed. I saw the opportunity to get more actively involved in the farming and actually do a lot of the planning and managing of it myself, which I have been doing now since 2009/10.
Q. Can you give an idea of the size of the farm?
It started at 350 acres and now it’s just under 400 all in. I still have graziers on the further reaches of the farm, nearest their farms. One third of the grazing land is kept in hand, for my fold of Highland cattle.
Q. How did you go about farming?
In 2009 my immediate aim was to improve the boundaries and gates, and then the pastures and meadows, for the benefit of the soil, sward, wildlife and wildflowers. In 2010 I set myself the objectives of improving the biodiversity of the land and enhance and extend existing woods, copses, infield trees and hedgerows – all the important things that others are talking about nowadays. I wanted to join up and improve the existing woodlands, providing continuous corridors for animals and birds. There were some isolated woods, but there were large areas without trees – and without hedges (this being Swaledale!).
The focus has always been on joining up the woods at the bottom of the land around the river area, coming up the bank to the woods around the farm buildings and then going up to the top land.
My intention was to reduce the intensity of sheep grazing, and introduce cattle. Previously the land was grazed fairly intensively by sheep, at a time when farmers were paid to put more sheep on the land. I removed sheep completely from some of the land and step by step introduced Highland cattle, a British native breed that stays out all year round. I chose Highland cattle they browse well on rough pasture, are good converters that perform on a 100% grass diet, and improve the biodiversity of the pastures. They are slow maturers and easy for me as a single mum to handle and manage round the year. And, of course, are a good source of flavourful, succulent and healthy beef.
I started small with a cow, a calf and a yearling and now I’m at a level I can cope with which is around about 40. In those early days I was increasing the fold and showing successfully. My main focus is beef production now.
At any one time I have got three groups of cattle running on the land. There’s a group of steers ranging from yearlings up to four-year-olds, which is when I choose to kill out. I use a local abattoir in Wensleydale and the carcass is dry hung for 28 days, cut and vacuum packed and labelled to my own spec. I then sell this beef from home by a box scheme, and word of mouth. Its in a class of its own, hence the repeat business. There’s a group of breeding cows with their calves. And then a group of followers – usually heifers between the age of weaning and three when they go to the bull. Some breeders are pulling this forward to two-year-olds, to calve at three. I still think it’s best to bull at three years, as do the majority of Highland cattle breeders.
Q. How much space does the fold of cattle take up?
Each group needs three parcels to move around. They do pop in and out of the woods a couple of times a year for grazing, to keep the woods open and provide areas which are supportive of wildflower and scrub regeneration. It’s a very fine line to get that grazing right, especially when you’ve got heavy steers.
I keep the horns on the cattle. Most Highland breeders only keep the horns on the breeding cows and take them off the beef stock. My theory is that they were born with these horns for a particular reason and keeping them on has advantages. For social reasons – it’s quick and easy for them to establish a hierarchy if they’ve got horns; they only need a flick of the horn and the message is clear. For grazing – they use the horns for pulling down some lower branches to get the tasty leaves at the end, so they are used as a tool. Some of those leaves also have medicinal qualities. And they are also used for grooming, keeping ectoparasite levels down. As well as looking the part, they do much better as a group.
I rear them to be friendly. They are halter trained at weaning, which is nearer 12 months for me. This is less stressful for them. I bring them in a few at a time and tie them up. They’re in for about two weeks. I slowly get them to a stage when I can walk them a fair way on a halter.
Even though I am no longer showing, being able to halter an animal has huge benefits. For example, I had to move one yearling – a bullock- because he’d escaped under an electric fence. I was easily able to put a halter on him and walk him back, in a stress free manner, to where he should have been, rather than trying to chase him through gaps unwillingly.
Q. How is the land changing as a result of your farming practices?
A. It wasn’t long before I saw a huge benefit to the land as a result of it not being a bowling green and not having the bottom eaten out of the grass. It has become rougher pasture, with wildflowers coming back, together with large and small mammals significantly increasing in numbers, birdlife improving and biodiversity increasing in general. Recent soil analyses are also very positive. This way of farming clearly suits the Highland cattle very well too. The cattle swipe at the grass with their tongues rather than nibble right down to the roots, pulling them out in some cases. And their footprints are ideal catchment areas for wildflower seeds to land and start to grow.
[Julia points to a map of the farm.] Here’s the river Swale at the bottom. Where you see the three natural springs running down the banks [the hillside between the farm house and the river] we’ve fenced both sides leaving an 8 metre width across the springs. We have planted suitable species of trees in here. The springs and water edges will be protected and the new vegetation and increase in biodiversity will encourage growth of additional plants and scrub, providing effective corridors for wildlife coming up the hillside.
Also under the Tees-Swales Initiative, we put hedges with trees on one side of some of the stone walls, to help link up from the bottom. This planting accounts for more than 5000 hedge plants and more 1000 trees [This may be a bit contentious for some people, the planting is well away from walls and on one side only views; the stone walls will still be seen. And I defend it by saying that keeping up with the stone walls is really challenging, and over the next 300 years I’m not sure that many of the walls will still be up, because of the skilled manpower needed.
The planting was done by volunteers and YDNPA and AONB staff and apprentices. We’ve had refugees, we’ve had Muslim good deeds groups – young boys from Leeds area – we’ve had ragged robins [a volunteer group], Young Rangers and we’ve had Sedbergh School on one of their good deeds days. This approach is slower than using a contractor, but ticks many more boxes, as well as being great fun. So that’s year one of Tees-Swale; we’ve got some more areas to do next year.
I know it’s difficult for local people who don’t agree with planting trees and hedges on nearby grazing land, who don’t like seeing green tree guards, and don’t like change. But we should be thinking forward, not just about ourselves. What we think about green tubes over the next 20 years is irrelevant. What is relevant is the long term future of the environment and humankind if we carry on in the status quo.
Q. But it’s not only the plastic tree guards that are contentious, it’s the removal of a bit of grazing land, which attracts criticism about taking land out of food production?
A. I haven’t taken a lot of grazing land away during this Tees-Swale project. It’s just been on the side of springs and a couple of metres alongside walls, plus a very small copse on wet land.
The story is different further up towards Marrick village. Last year I bought some land off a local non-farmer and have always thought that there weren’t enough trees and woodland there. For all the good things woodland does – shelter, carbon, wildlife, biodiversity – I decided to plant trees on about half of the area. I told the relevant people locally that’s what I was going to do very early on, in October. Planting started 6 months later. Soon after, I had a real backlash on social media. The only thing talked about was the food, you know, how much food I’m preventing from being produced, plus sentimental aspects. At that elevation it’s not brilliant grassland. And the soil is shallow. So it’s not like the lowland pastures down by the river or those in arable areas.
The other negative concern how it’ll look and how sad local people are to see the change. Let us hope that together with walkers they will enjoy walking through the developing woodland on my approved permissive footpath rather than on a stone track exposed to the elements. If new woodlands are created, they must surely also impact positively on people’s outdoor experiences. Signposts and a small information board will explain the woodland and the path as well as point to an old stone well and handpump into a large stone drinking trough straddling two pastures, for grazing animals. For me the project makes complete sense from many aspects.
The third development here is the Tees-Swale initiative of regenerating hay meadows. Last year two of our meadows had species rich seeds put into them. After harvesting, the meadows were scarified, and then seeds taken from well-known, local, species-rich wildflower meadows were brought here and broadcast on the scarified land. The aim is to increase the species in the grassland. Those meadows had obviously had inorganic as well as organic fertiliser in the past so there wasn’t much biodiversity. The same thing will happen this season on other meadows here.
Q. What’s the motivation for doing this?
Well, I have a responsibility. I’m very lucky here. I’m lucky to live here in Swaledale with beautiful countryside and all that goes along with that. I know it’s a bit of a cliché but I am only a caretaker of the land. Nature provides things free for me – all of which are unaccounted for business wise. It waters my fields and provides the right warmth and sunshine (mostly!) for the grass to grow to feed the animals. So by my reckoning I get quite a lot of free help with the business and I think there are other farmers that would agree with that. I farm in a way that is low input, which suits the Highlanders as well as being important from lots of points of view. I just see myself as a caretaker and it’s my duty to improve the land as much as I possibly can, and help the environment in even a small way.
Q. To return to the ‘woodland vs food’ argument, how much is the balance changing on your farm towards woodland? Should people be thinking, ‘is that farm turning to woodland’?
I don’t look at it like that – there are so many different terrains here. There’s the lowest section which is good soil and good for food production and good for rearing lambs and sheep as well as cattle. Then there’s the middle bit, some of it is good pasture, some of it very definitely isn’t. And the top bit – there’s not a lot of depth to the soil up there. So it’s not a calculation I do, I don’t think ‘I’d like to increase the woodland cover and hedges to say ultimately 50%’. I look at the area and look what is logical and sensible for it and for me.
I base my decision on where to plant on biodiversity, wildlife and shelter, and of course carbon. You know, everybody argues you get as much carbon benefit from the open pastures as you do from the trees and hedgerows. There are studies going on about that all the time. And I would say that is not true. Trees do a better job, and hedgerows also. But it’s an ongoing research thing that will carry on for a long time.
Q. Would you say you are keeping the best areas of grassland for stock?
Yes. And the only reason for creating woodland up near Marrick is because I’m keen for more tree cover up there for shelter, to break the winds a little bit as well as for nature and carbon. It’s pretty bare up there.
Q. There’s at least one other interesting story here at Marrick Park, isn’t there? You are helping to find disease-resistant elms?
In the 1970s, 600 beautiful English elm trees here were devastated by the Dutch elm beetle. The iconic English elms are home to one of the rare butterflies, the white hairstreak, which has obviously lost its habitat. There are people working all the time on disease resistant strains. It’s only recently that we’ve got the most disease-resistant strains coming out of research.
Some of the elms that we put in ten and twenty years ago are still doing well. This season we have planted 15 of two different strains which are thought to be more highly resistant. What I’ll do is monitor the girth and check them all every June, looking for wilted leaves and drooping limbs – signs of the beetle infection – and see which species are proving most resistant in various positions up here.
Postscript: Thank you Julia Carr for taking the time to share your knowledge and experiences of farming during an interview on Thurs 28 April 2022. I know you thought we’d let this blog post run for too long. But the view here is that Dales farmers who are producing great food while increasing biodiversity in partnership with others must be heard – and heard in full.