The spring is always an exciting time at Conygree Farm. As the days lengthen and the skylarks rise and sing over the farms wildflower meadows, herb-rich leys and wild bird cover, Jonathan and Mel Brunyee, will be lambing their pedigree Cotswold sheep, tending Old Spot piglets and watching over their herd of rare Traditional Hereford suckler cows.
Conygree, anglo-saxon for rabbit warren, is something a little special. Forming part of the National Trusts’ Sherborne Park Estate near Northleach in the heart of the Cotswolds, the farm is 75ha of organic grass and arable land managed for farmland birds, bees and butterflies, as well as premium pasture fed meat. It is also the foreground to the Trusts’ historic Lodge Park.
ABOUT BEING FARMERS
Jonathan and Mel are passionate about farming and the natural environment believing that for the two to thrive they must go hand in hand. Rare breeds, local food, resource conservation (air, soil, water and carbon) and educational visits are also part of the mix.
‘We do not push for the highest yields or fastest growing lambs; we want our farm to be a landscape rich in heritage, flora and fauna, and grazed extensively by naturally maturing native breeds’ Jonathan explains. Our rare Cotswold sheep, otherwise known as the Cotswold Lion, are famed for their long golden fleece but they also make for very tasty lamb, hogget and mutton. Our cattle are from the original Horned Hereford strain and have never been crossed with other larger breeds. They can live outdoors all year and fatten gently on our species rich grasslands producing beef full of flavour, Omega 3 fatty acids, nutrients and fine marbling.’
Jonathan, from a farming family and conservation background, has been the tenant of the National Trust at Conygree for 10 years. He offers a farm advisory service to other farmers and landowners, and is a senior lecturer in farm business management at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester. He is also an active member of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association.
Mel, who previously helped manage some of Norfolk’s finest nature reserves with sheep, cattle and semi-feral ponies, moved to the Cotswolds in 2010, and now runs the farm with Jonathan and their young family.
Mel has fallen in love with the area which is a good job as the National Trust have just offered them a new 20 year tenancy that reflects the good work they have done so far and their plans for the future. ‘It’s a beautiful place to live and work, and we are very lucky to be part of a thriving rural community. We plan to make more of the environmental and business opportunities around us, including a green farm tourism enterprise, more farm educational work, wool craft and added value meat products’ explained Mel.
If life wasn’t hectic enough Jonathan has recently been awarded a prestigious Nuffield Farming Scholarship. He will be travelling around the world looking at how farmers, like himself, can build sustainable businesses based on a quality environment.
When you arrive at Conygree you first notice the sweet smell of wild flowers and herbs, and then you hear the chatter of 1000 finches. When the sun shines the air is full of butterflies, bees and other insects.
Jonathan explains ‘Government policies, consumer trends and farm practices have caused devastation to most of our important habitats, landscapes and ecosystems over the decades. Farmers have worked really hard to slow and reverse this trend but if we want a healthy functioning environment that can feed the world we must think beyond simple ‘farm conservation’ measures which, by their very nature, attempts to protect what we currently have and move toward wholesale regeneration. This means restoring our soils, recreating habitats at landscape scale and developing farming methods and food supply chains that reward ecologically beneficial systems’
They are doing their bit at Conygree. Over 45ha of ex-arable land is being reverted to species rich limestone grassland by a drilling native grasses, herbs and wildflowers into their fields and natural regeneration. Extensive grazing with cattle and a few sheep is crucial to sward development, and no sprays or artificial fertilsers are used. A late hay cut, allowing the plants to flower and set seed, is taken every other year.
Mel says ‘as a nation we have lost 98% of our species rich grasslands since the 1940s. They are as rare as tropical rainforest and an important natural asset and carbon sink. Not only are they a wonder to walk through on a hot summers’ day when they are alive with flowers and insects but our animals graze and fatten naturally on these diverse swards without any other inputs’.
Jonathan and Mel have also created over 3km of margin around field edges. These range from 6m wide tussocky cocksfoot based margins to wider 24m flower rich strips.
Jonathan explains ‘field margins offer a range of benefits to farmers and wildlife. They are important habitat corridors and nesting grounds for farmland birds such as the Corn Bunting. Partridge search for insects amongst the tussocks and Barn Owl hunt for voles. The wild carrot is great for hoverflies – one of our most important pollinators – and beneficial insects such as ladybirds are in abundance. Well placed margins also protect field boundaries and watercourses.
Another agricultural and environmental win-win at Conygree is the 14ha of herbal ley grassland. These temporary grasslands are based on an innovative mix designed by local company Cotswolds Seeds of chicory, clover, sainfoin, trefoil, plantain and ryegrass. The various rooting depths allow the plants to draw up water and nutrients from the shallow brashy soil and the legumes (clovers) help fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. The chicory lasts around 5 years and then the ley is re-established. The leys are left to flower in summer as they are a full of nectar rich sources for bees and other insects.
Mel says ‘The leys are great for sheep grazing and have natural anthelmintic (worming) properties. The legumes enrich the soil and the deep rooting chicory is improving our soil structure. We leave the sward to flower in the summer for the bees and butterflies, and lapwings often walk their chicks into the sward to feed. Leaving areas ungrazed can result in chicory growing to 6 foot high but we can sell this as silage or strip graze with cattle leaving some the vegetation to rot down adding to the soil organic content’.
The Cotswolds is an important area for threatened farmland birds including the Corn Bunting, Tree Sparrow, Lapwing and Grey Partridge. They need seed in the winter to build up their strength for mating and then insects for their chicks in the summer. They also need a range of arable habitats for successful nesting such as fallow areas, tussocky margins, spring crops and hedgerows.
While the flower rich margins, grasslands and leys at Conygree provide the insects and nesting habitat, winter feed is provided by 7ha of wild bird cover which is drilled every spring and allowed to set seed. This is left over winter for the birds to feed off. The mix includes triticale, mustard, quinoa, millet and fodder radish. Jonathan and Mel often add sunflower and other seed bearing crops to the mix for extra diversity.
Flocks of over 1000 finches including Yellowhammer, Linnet, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Corn Bunting can be seen feeding at Conygree in the winter. But these hungry birds need extra help as the winter marches on and the bird cover starts to deplete therefore 5 tonnes of supplementary feed is spread on tracks around the farm between December and April.
Farmers often question the conservation focus, and the funding programmes that go with it, on farmland bird populations. Should we be protecting LBJs (little brown jobs) when people are starving and the nation is broke?
Jonathan suggests that ‘farmland birds are our flying litmus test that helps show the health of our countryside. They need seed, insects and habitat and we need pollinators, clean water and good soils. If we haven’t got this diversity across the landscape then we lose our specialist farmland birds and our ability to produce food. We must farm with nature and not against it’.
PASTURE FOR LIFE
Red meat has had some bad press in recent years. Stories relating to increased cancer risk, horse meat contamination, deforestation, animal health issues, antibiotic use and the industries high carbon footprint have all taken its toll.
We now eat less red meat than we did 60 years ago. Beef sales have halved from 208 to 104 grams per person per week. In 1950 they were close to 250g. Lamb and mutton sales have fallen even more dramatically from 128 to 36g per person per week. However, we compensate by eating a lot more corn fed and factory farmed chicken and pork. It’s cheaper and we believe white meat is a healthy option.
But the tide is turning. Research has shown that beef and lamb from grass based systems has human health benefits and can help restore eco-systems and carbon sinks. Holistic management practices can be deployed to optimise outputs (meat yields and environmental gains).
Jonathan and Mel follow Pasture for Life principles and assurance protocols where all their stock live a natural life and eat nothing but grass, in their case, species rich grass. You can taste the difference in their sweet tasting and succulent meat.
Jonathan believes that ‘using land to grow soya and corn, to feed to animals, is crazy. We can grow grass with minimal artificial inputs, and cattle and sheep thrive on grass.’
While many consumers have become accustomed to discounted food purchasing, global supply and lack of provenance, more and more seek quality and traceability.
‘The true cost of cheap factory farmed food, when you consider the environmental impacts, the subsidy support systems and the social impacts, is huge’ explains Jonathan ‘one way we can make a difference is by buying locally from growers and farm shops that you trust. It keeps more of your spend in local business and it’s the equivalent of voting with your fork’.
ABOUT THE MEAT
Jonathan and Mel have recently won a National Trust Fine Food Award for their produce. Their pasture fed lamb, hogget and mutton and 28 day hung Hereford beef is available from the farm throughout the year. Free range pork is also offered. Meat is delivered locally and by national courier, or you can visit the farm and collect.
Mel gave us a shoulder of their Cotswold hogget to try following our visit to Conygree. It was absolutely delicious! Full of rich flavour and texture and just as delectable as spring lamb, hogget is lamb over 12 months old i.e. grazing in to its second spring. While lamb is in season from the autumn (a few months after being born in the spring) slow grown hogget is the best choice at Easter. It is still delicate enough to cook quickly and yet it has more taste to it than lamb.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT JONTY & MEL & THEIR WORK AT CONYGREE FARM