Biodiversity with Becky Holden of Hafod

Our first interview as part of our series on biodiversity and cheesemaking is with Becky Holden, of Holden Farm Dairy, where Hafod is made.

How do you encourage biodiversity on your farm? Is this a priority? How does it compare to other environmental challenges particularly carbon sequestration?

We don't see biodiversity or carbon sequestration for that matter as a separate outcome to be managed or encouraged differently - it is an integral part of our farming system. We’re stewarding this hill, including its natural and farm biodiversity, as a complete and thriving ecosystem and harvesting the surplus without mining its natural capital. 

Diversity is one of the informing principles for the way we farm - a simple example is the hedge - we are on a wet and windy hill and pretty exposed. The hedges serve as boundaries, windbreaks, shade in the summer,  shelter in a storm while being an important ecosystem in themselves and another habitat for diverse flora and fauna. The cows also browse them for nutrition and medicinal healing. They’ll pick out different plants they need at different times throughout the year. It’s an example of how something that is good for the farm is also good for nature.

How easy is it for you to track biodiversity on your farm? What species do you monitor and how often does this happen? How many plant species do you have per square meter in your richest field? And how many grass species?

Measuring is really important - we’ve been here for 47 years farming organically but we can’t be complacent. We need to capture data and measure so that we have a baseline and can track our progress. We should do this collaboratively whenever possible — for example the West Wales Biodiversity Network came and did an amazing audit, and they have expertise in identifying and counting lichens, etc. which we don’t have. We’re also working with the British Bumblebee Conservation Trust including whole-farm surveys of the habitat. It’s data that is valuable for us and them and the more we can capture the better. On farm, we are trialling better tracking of soil biodiversity too with an app that allows us to build up our own data on soil health. We assume it’s going to be good because we’ve been farming organically for so long, but we want to do the measurements: for example, counting earthworms, in order to understand what the soil is telling us. There is so much more that’s possible now; citizen science for bee walks, RSPB bird count and butterfly counts.

Is there anything you need to quantify for grants?

At the moment it’s for our own baseline data, interest and knowledge but grant makers do use our farming practices as proxy data. Subsidies will have to go in that direction though if we are moving towards public money for public goods and biodiversity is an important measurement, just like emissions or carbon sequestration. My partner Patrick’s organisation, the Sustainable Food Trust, is working on a Global Farm Metric, which will measure outcomes such as biodiversity, soil, water, air, social capital to a harmonised framework that can then be used as a common measure of sustainability for all stakeholders - governments to design future support schemes, retailers to aid supply chain transparency and consumers to help their purchasing decisions. Most importantly, it can help farmers understand exactly and take responsibility for the impact of their farming practice.

What role does reseeding have to play in increasing plant biodiversity, as opposed to changing your fertiliser usage or management of animals on the land?

Our permanent pastures are beautifully diverse with plant mixtures that change and evolve over the years. We reseed with herbal leys in our arable rotation, which is a seven-year rotation moving around about half of our fields: combinable cereals for two years, then a year of oats/peas/barley cut as an arable silage in July and undersown with a herbal ley, which will be fertility building for the next 5-6 years. Herbal leys are a mixture of herbs, legumes and grasses, normally 12-20 species, ours include cocksfoot, chicory, red, white and sweet clovers, fescue, burnet, yarrow, etc. Patrick has been using diverse seed mixes since he started farming here in 1973.

That’s the thing about a whole-farm approach and a mixed farming system, there are lots of different things going on and a patchwork of natural and farmed biodiversity. Some very steep fields that you can’t put slurry on or cultivate with a tractor will have their own unique biodiversity just from being unimproved. Then we have lower fields which are very marshy, a different habitat; it’s about having this whole farm view which is so important for biodiversity to thrive —different things going on in watercourses, ditch banks, tracks, hedgerows, permanent pasture, fields of cereals, etc.

We’ve never used any bought-in nitrogen fertiliser in 47 years so our seed mixes have an important role to play. Newman Turner, a big proponent of herbal leys in the early 20th century, called them his ‘fertiliser merchant, food manufacturer, and vet’ all in one. The legumes fix nitrogen, different depths of root structures aerate the soil, find moisture in drought times and permeate deep to aid drainage in wet times, bring up nutrients, have different nutritional and medicinal properties for the cows. We benefit from their diversity and so does nature - the number of pollinators across the farm is evidence of that.

We’ve heard from some of  the producers that we work with that mixed grazing can be damaging to efforts to restore pasture biodiversity. What are your thoughts on sheep?

We do have tack sheep (another organic farmer pays us to graze them when our cows are inside from Oct-March) for the winter. They’re light and don’t poach the land, and they take the grass down to allow it to grow well in the spring. Mixed grazing also breaks some worm and parasite cycles.

From our point of view, in that we’re only running them in the winter, we do try to manage them quite tightly, to not leave them too long to overgraze. We’ve been lucky enough to get fencing grants for hedgerow restoration so we can manage them more tightly, rotate them like we do the cows. They graze and move on so I hope that we are keeping a good balance.

Is it possible to go from an intensive farming system to a similar level of biodiversity without that funding or in a short time?

I think that there is huge potential in Wales to start from the point of empowerment: if you have a farmer who’s hanging on by their fingernails they will need enabling not penalising. The Welsh Government, as part of its Sustainable Farming Scheme, plans to come on farm and do a sustainability audit, which will of course include biodiversity. If this starting point is seen as your farm’s capital, then it becomes an opportunity to improve on that. Creating that starting baseline for natural capital, which may need to be improved a little or a lot, puts them in a position of empowerment rather than judging them with a stick—it’s more of a carrot. We’re all on a sustainability journey—there are a lot of big dairy farmers who also want to do the right thing, and there are various ways that they can start to achieve that. I think the most important one is reducing nitrogen use. This farm is showing that you can have good productive grassland with healthy soil an d high biodiversity after 47 years of not adding any nitrogen. We have the benefit of 47 years of observation and learning from farming this way. Other farmers may not decide to go all the way towards organic agriculture, but they can go more towards diverse leys with nitrogen-fixing legumes, for example. Things like the drought and floods of recent years may also have shown some farmers about the diversity above and below soil that they lack and need for extreme weather events.

Do you engage with any funded stewardship programmes?

Yes, the Welsh Assembly has had some very good funding programmes for quite a long time now, currently we’re still in the Glastir Advanced program (equivalent of HLS scheme in England), a whole-farm approach which has helped us with capital funding to coppice and replant some existing hedgerows, and some new hedgerow planting plus the double fencing to protect them until they’re established. In Wales, these schemes are evolving again and I think they’ll keep on putting sustainability at the heart of the funding programmes.

Wales seems to be leading the way in putting together a good policy framework that they can use post-Brexit. For example, a lot of the capital funding (say for sorting out your slurry storage) has always been 40% capped, and perhaps that was EU regulation—so there may be the opportunity to give bigger grants, which could make it more possible for small family farmers that are tight on cash who would need to borrow a lot of money to make the changes necessary.

What do you think of the philosophy espoused by the Pasture For Life Association and others, that the best diet for rumi-nants is one that includes only forage and pasture, and no starches or concentrates whatsoever?

From our own herd’s perspective, I want to feel that they can thrive on a diet produced from this hill, including our spring sown oats and peas, without the need for any external inputs. Could we go over to a pasture fed system and do away with cereals? Possibly, probably even! I definitely share the PFLA philosophy but don't feel absolutist about it. Our cows eat a small amount of cereals in the parlour and alongside hay it is an excellent feed for young stock in the early stages and we and they are all used to it that way but if the harvest failed I like to think we could rely on our pasture and home produced forage.

Just as importantly though is that cereals are an integral part of our farming - we’d still want to grow them - in that case maybe for people (Patrick grew milling wheat here in the early years). Apart from the obvious aim of self sufficiency (which we aspire to be but do not at present grow a large enough acreage for), cereals are a traditional part of the family scale mixed farming heritage in Wales, which is at risk of being lost.

We know that the cows much prefer home produced feed to anything bought in, just as we as a family can taste and digest the vitality and nutrient density of our homegrown fruit and veg and the amazing vegetables grown by our neighbour Peter, who has been stewarding his soil organically for nearly fifty years too. I feel absolutely confident that there is more nutritional value in our home produced feed and forage than anything that we can buy in, and I mean the micro nutrients as much as the macro nutrients. The cereals also provide bedding - we are self sufficient in bedding, either rush hay, or fantastic oat, barley and pea straw and touch wood, we always manage to get the grain and the straw despite the small weather windows of opportunity to harvest in September.

Going back to biodiversity, the cereals, sown in the Spring through until harvest in September, then the stubbles in winter (and all the ground cover that is maintained through not using herbicides) as well as the ungrazed and unmown field margins provide another diversity of food and habitat for the insects, birds and mammals and thus enrich the overall farm ecosystem.

Would you say that the biodiversity is important for the flavour of the cheese?

The beauty of making a raw milk cheese is that it will reflect each day as much as each season. We try to keep as many notes as we can about where the cows are grazing, what the weather is like, etc. so we can cross-check our grading notes against these flavour informers from before the milk right through to maturation. We can’t say what any particular plant or herb will do for the cheese but we know that the whole farm is a good starting point.

Our cheese is the end expression of our farming. For us it starts with this hill; what is the natural capital that this hill gives us, and what’s the best way to steward that and harvest its surplus? For Patrick back in the 70s it was to keep a dairy herd and he chose Ayrshires because they were suited to a wet, windy environment and a low input, grass-based diet. Then he decided how many cows is right for this hill, and once you’ve got your farming right and are working in harmony with nature on this hill, then you work forward from that, and your milk and cheese should be an expression of that, which is terroir at the end of the day. We’re starting with the positive health of this land and working towards the outcomes, which include the cheese, rather than starting with the cheese and then trying to make the system fit that. If you’ve got the farming right, and the animals are healthy and happy and they are thriving, and nature and soil health is thriving, then the cheese should reflect that in a positive way. Our wish is that Hafod is a true and authentic reflection of the place, a direct connection for the consumer that is also delicious to eat!

The frightening statistics on biodiversity loss are also leading to a lot of calls for rewilding and there is a place for that in certain landscapes. However, I do feel there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water and that it is the industrialisation of agriculture that needs to be addressed rather than further intensification of food production and then larger scale greening around the edges. Natural and farm biodiversity can exist together and are not mutually exclusive and there is an important place for the biodiversity that has evolved alongside traditional mixed farming - just think of the flora and fauna found in hay meadows.

Our intervention in the landscape is necessary as farmers and food producers but it must also be respectful. Going back to the hedge example if we over manage them by planting single species or mechanically hedge trimming too severely, too often or too early in the Autumn we are suppressing the biodiversity potential of that hedge. We farm 300 acres and each field has its own unique identity, character and possibility. By embracing and learning from that diversity and not seeking to dominate it but be sensitive about the balance of human intervention we can farm in harmony with nature.