Biodiversity with Carrie Rimes of Brefu Bach

Our final interview as part of our series on biodiversity and cheesemaking is with Carrie Rimes, of Cosyn Cymru, where Brefu Bach is made.

From the point of view of a cheese maker who values the quality of your pasture-fed milk, what do you see as the main issues affecting cheese, milk and biodiversity at the moment and in the near future?

It does seem that we’re at some sort of crossroads for the countryside. The changes being talked about for agriculture and the environment are potentially more important than at any time during my life….or at least, since the wholescale intensification of the 1970’s. Opinions seem to getting more and more polarised. Do we tag along with those who put climate change and our carbon footprint first and foremost, or do we prioritise biodiversity and the needs of wildlife? Or is the top priority to feed ourselves, or to support our rural communities and farming families? The opposing teams are rapidly gathering strength. In one corner, ruminants are the latest baddies and all problems could be solved by adopting an entirely plant-based diet. Whereas across the battlefield, the very words vegan and re-wilding can barely be uttered without spluttering contempt.

As a cheese maker and farmer’s daughter, I’m clearly biased in favour of ruminants. But I’ve also spent most of my working life in conservation, am very fond of veggie stews and salads and am as keen as anyone to do my bit to make sure my grandchildren have a reasonable world in which to live. So there surely has to be a middle road?

You buy your milk in, but we wanted to talk to you on the subject of biodiversity because of your experience working in conservation agencies. What has this experience taught you in relation to farming grassland and its impact on biodiversity?

Yes, I spent 20+ years working for the conservation agencies, mainly trying to save and promote species-rich grassland…probably with limited success. There are real difficulties in balancing the theory of grassland management with the practicalities of farming. The ancient flower-rich pastures and meadows that that we were trying to conserve and promote are so rare in the UK these days. Ironically, these treasures are impractical for the majority of conventional dairy farmers who need fertile, productive pastures to keep their milk supply in full flow. So the vast majority of dairy farmers in the UK produce their milk from highly improved ryegrass or ryegrass/clover leys. They use lots of fertiliser (artificial or manure and slurry) on grasslands which are grazed by animals fed on protein concentrates, all of which means the soils are awash with nutrients. The competitive grasses then grow vigorously and the slow-growing flowering plants don’t get a look-in.

But not all is lost! We do have a suite of what are disparagingly called ‘semi-improved’ grassland – the marginal land, especially surrounding the uplands. These grasslands are generally not sufficiently productive for intensive dairy farmers but offer a real opportunity for those more interested in quality than quantity. Here there’s scope to find a compromise. Grasslands that are still producing enough to keep lactating animals in condition as well as giving them a good, varied diet. Plus, a wildlife bonus; not as good as the ancient meadows but an improvement on the lush ryegrass swards.

In conservation circles sheep were generally thought of as being bad for species-rich grassland. To some extent that’s true, they graze down to the last millimetre of grass and will eat out any flowers growing through. Whereas cattle graze more like a tall lawnmower – flowers and all, but not quite to ground level. Horses and ponies tend to be picky, carefully browsing around the plants they don’t like….often leaving an annoying field of docks. However, if you look back at traditional mixed farming, it would have been a bit of all sorts - some cattle, some sheep, some horses – a mixture of grazing styles that complement each other.

To complicate matters still further, there are many different grassland types all around the country, according to geology and climate, so it’s a different situation in the wet, hilly land of the north and west of the UK, compared to neutral and calcareous grassland in the south and east.

As someone who buys in milk, how easy is it to find milk from a system that supports biodiversity?

It’s a big challenge! As we’ve seen above, with the sort of forage yields farmers need for conventional milk production (to be financially viable), are generally not achieved from marginal, semi-improved, species-rich grassland. There are one or two notable exceptions - the upland hay meadows of the Northern Pennines still have relatively fertile species-rich grassland, rather like some alpine meadows. Then there are very occasional species-rich lowland meadows left. But the vast bulk of fertile UK lowland grasslands are depressingly species-poor.

By contrast, where I was working in the Auvergne in France some 7-10 years ago, gorgeous species-rich grasslands were amazingly abundant – I couldn’t believe it when I first arrived! Admittedly that was at around 800m altitude, and yields were low by UK standards. Small-scale dairy farms were commonplace, with most of the milk either delivered locally or made into cheese and yogurt on the farm and sold at local markets. A lot of value was added to the milk. If it’s possible in France, why not here?

It needs a bit of a change in mind-set. Species-rich grassland means slower-growing grassland, where more traditional breeds of grazing stock will be better-adapted to a high roughage diet. The milk yield will inevitably be lower, but with luck, will be higher quality and more interesting. Importantly, the cheesemakers need to be willing to pay a higher price per litre.

The Brefu Bach at Neal's Yard Dairy is all made with milk from traditional Lleyn ewes which graze a mixture of semi-improved grassland with woodland and wetland on Alan Parry Jones’ small organic farm in Eifionydd on the Llyn Peninsula. Hand on heart, I can’t really say that these Derwen Gam (Crooked Oak) grasslands are likely to be nature reserve material….but on the other hand; they would still be supporting a good deal more wildlife than the average lowland grassland ‘green deserts’. Alan is happy to run his ewes less intensively - where each ewe produces a smaller quantity of milk just from grass. They’re out all year; generally healthier and less stressed. Even though we still need to calculate the carbon footprint of the Brefu Bach milk (fraught with difficulties), I’d eat my hat if it doesn’t turn out to be at least neutral and probably negative.

I’ve also been working with a small farm on the ffridd or inbye land on the northern edge of Eryri / Snowdonia. There’s an array of rich wildlife habitat and an enviable grassland species list, but not surprisingly, low fertility. It’s proving difficult to come up with a system that works for dairy production. Saying that, historically, dual-purpose Welsh Black cattle were milked there 50 years ago or more, producing much sought-after butter. I haven’t given up hope - but it’s a big ask.

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?

I think it really depends on what grassland you’re talking about and why you want to increase plant biodiversity. Herbal leys surely have a role even though conservationists tend to be anti-reseeding. If you want to make a rapid change from improved ryegrass pastures or from arable land then re-seeding with herbal leys would clearly be a positive move. That is, if your main aim is to introduce a bit of diversity whilst maintaining fertility and you’re not too concerned about wildlife habitat as such.

On the other hand, if your aim is to produce a flower-filled hay meadow and you’re prepared to sacrifice some of your grassland productivity, it might be better to go slowly and encourage a more natural, local recolonising. The first step is to reduce the soil nutrient levels, something that is counter-intuitive for most dairy farmers. Then you need lots of patience as those grassland flowering plants gradually find their way back into your meadow.

It’s tempting to speed up the process by re-seeding. The trouble here is that most herbal seed mixes are generic and may not be suited to your local conditions, and unless you’re careful, the plant species that you’re introducing may be genetically very different from the wild species in your area – which is sometimes, although not always a problem.

Going back to the French situation – it’s a mystery to us cheesemongers, why do the French have such lovely meadows when we have so few?

That’s the question we’ve all been asking! The answer isn’t straightforward. Inevitably French government support for small farmers has been important, plus the historical traditions of land inheritance (in marginal areas at any rate), coupled with customer demand for quality cheese etc. In the UK, land holding size has increased more rapidly, along with intensification as customers have demanded cheaper food. Even so, it doesn’t entirely account for the big contrast in our meadows.

Previously in my conservation life, colleagues were studying the beautiful flower-filled northern hay meadows in the Pennines. Some of these meadows were losing species (‘greener’ more productive grassland with fewer flowers) and this often occurred where cattle had been let out early in the season. Climate change has brought milder winters with grass growing earlier. With animals grazing the grassland in early spring from February or even January, the soil nitrogen cycle gets going more rapidly in comparison with ungrazed grassland. Competitive grasses are much more efficient at mopping up available nitrogen than the majority of flowering plants especially the hay meadow rarities. Add to this the life cycle complexities of some of the hay meadow flowers, which may include day length, mycorrhizal or symbiotic relationships in the soil or specific pollinators. It becomes clear why grasses do so much better than hay meadow flowers in temperate conditions where temperature and nutrients are not limiting.

Early grass growth has another complication, in that the nutritional value of the grass is at its highest earlier in the year, so there’s a clear incentive for farmers to take hay or haylage/silage crops as early as possible. Traditionally, hay would have been cut in July once the flowers had seeded, making the most of hot, sunny weather. In recent years here in Wales, periods of warm, dry weather seem to occur frequently in April, May or June, whereas July and August feel more like a temperate monsoon. This has strongly favoured early cuts of silage or haylage. Haymaking is a relatively minor activity these days and this is clearly bad news for hay-meadow flowers.

In the high plateau of the Auvergne by contrast, winter often carries on until early April, which keeps the nitrogen cycle fairly dormant for longer. Grasses and flowering plants then get going at the same time – and this really favours the flowers or at least doesn’t overly favour the grasses. Haymaking is still the norm, and indeed for many French AOP cheeses, milk produced from silage is ‘interdit’.

Climate change has had a big impact in other ways, with elevated airborne CO2. Atmospheric nitrogen levels have also increased from intensive pig and chicken rearing, slurry management as well as vehicle emissions. All of this tends to favour grasses and means we must work twice as hard if we want to keep hold of other species. The upside of course, is that all this grassland growth is fixing and removing a quantity of carbon from the atmosphere – the situation is nothing if not complicated!

(In fact, grassland management can be just as complicated and full of contradictions as cheese making – but that had better wait for another conversation.)

In view of climate change, as a population we probably do need to reduce our meat and dairy consumption. But to cut out meat and dairy altogether (apart from culinary deprivation) would completely transform our countryside. At least in the wetter, north-west of the UK, our rural communities, our grasslands, our hay meadows and other habitats absolutely depend upon careful grazing management. I love woodland as much as the next person, but personally I don’t want to live in an entirely forested landscape. Much better to keep the rich patchwork of small family farms with small-scale, carbon-neutral meat and dairy production and of course plenty of artisan cheese producers!

Maybe consumers could be encouraged to consume less but better?

Diolch yn fawr!