An Update from Birches Farm

Monday 21st August 2017

Birches Farm – a traditional farm, nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) In 2015, thanks to the help of our generous members and supporters, we purchased this wonderful site. A couple of years on, much has been achieved though much remains to do.

The Team

Local farmer, Stuart Cross grazes his stock on the pasture at Birches, a place he has known well since the 1990’s and where he once lived, so he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the site.
In 2014, we employed a project officer, Jim Light, to take on the large-scale infrastructure improvements to the site and to implement our management plan. Jim undertook many practical tasks on the reserve before this post finished in 2017.
Today, Birches Farm is overseen by our Estates Manager, James Hitchcock, with much of the management work carried out by the Birches Farm Volunteer Group. They take on fence repairs, bracken control, and much more besides! (If you are interested in joining the group, please contact James.)

Hedging & Fencing

Jim Light leading a Hedge laying workshop, January 2016Over the last three years, we have fenced 90% of the site, mostly using cleft sweet chestnut, cut in Herefordshire. Secure fencing is essential so that we can control exactly where the livestock are, so that that each meadow gets just the right level of grazing to ensure a rich sward of wildflowers in future years. We still have two fields left to fence, and are currently applying for funds to allow us to do this.
We have laid over 100m of the hedgerows around the meadows and now actively manage all hedgerows on site, to ensure a diversity of ages, heights and thickness, providing more opportunities for nesting birds, small mammals and insects.

Livestock & grazing

Birches Farm is grazed at low intensity by Stuart’s sheep, cattle (including a rather magnificent bull!) and a couple of donkeys!
The flower rich sward of the meadows is mineral-rich as many wildflowers are deep-rooted perennials which drawing up minerals from far down into the soil. This means that the livestock at Birches don’t require mineral licks unlike animals which graze on newly sown grassland – who get through several blocks a season! The traditional pastures at Birches are low input and low cost. They may offer fewer calories per kg, meaning cows grow a little slower, but the meat produced is often leaner and healthier, containing more vitamins and minerals.
We have installed new troughs for clean drinking water which means the livestock no longer drink from the ponds. These now contain a much-improved quality of water and are of far more benefit to wildlife.
With help from Tarmac we have installed a new livestock handling area and surfaced farm yard which vastly improves our ability to get stock safely on and off site, as well as deal with any welfare issues that may arise. The surface of the yard is stone laid in a cellular mesh, this increases the permeability of the surface relieving pressure on the root system of the veteran ash tree that grows above the Dutch barn.

Making Hay

Packets of yellow rattle seed, harvested at Birches FarmThe meadows are also cut for hay by Stuart who takes a late hay cut after 15th July. We have been spreading green hay and seed from the botanically richest areas of the site each summer onto areas of lower diversity. This is because, despite the site’s history of having very few applications of artificial fertiliser or pesticide, the fields here were at times over-grazed or cut too early in the year to be beneficial to wildflowers. Through the spreading of the hay we are already seeing improvements with species like common spotted orchids popping up in place previously unseen along with better shows of knapweed and hay rattle.
This summer, volunteers harvested some hay rattle seed from site – we had very high levels so there will be no impact on the site’s population – and this is now available for sale in £3 packets from our shops at Queenswood Country Park and Ledbury.

Pond Life

The coppiced edge of the pond and laid hedge on the far side of the track, January 2017We have coppiced around the main pond on site This prevents leaf drop, which causes anaerobic conditions, and allows more light onto the water, increasing the suitability for invertebrates.

Image shows the coppice work beside the pond in teh left of the image and a recently laid hedge on the far side of the track in the right of the image. Image taken in January 2017.

Events

Scything workshop on Meadows Day, Summer 2016. Image courtesy of Peter WylesWe have run many events on site over the last few years – with more in the planning for 2018. We have given a host of guided walks, WildPlay ran a Big Camp Out and last year we held a Meadows Day at the farm – complete with Poldark-inspired scything (though shirts stayed demurely fastened!).

Access

While we were initially reluctant to officially open the farm to the public all year round with a jumbled yard and no clear paths, this summer, (with thanks to funding from Kingspan,) we have finished the new parking area and entrance gate and regularly mow paths around the site for visitors to follow. We will be adding more interpretation on site in due course so you can find out more about the farm’s natural history. Do stop by for a walk!

Farm Buildings

Five years ago, when we first discovered that Birches Farm was on the market, the Trust hoped that it could get money to buy the land and renovate the dilapidated farm buildings that came with it through the submission of one large Lottery grant (Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF)). HLF grants are, quite wisely, granted in two chunks. The first is smaller and used to develop a fully detailed proposal. This is what we were given but, once the architects and surveyors had worked up their plans and costings, we found that we had a serious problem.

To turn the existing buildings into functioning site management and visitor facilities whilst abiding by Lottery rules (which insisted on implementing conservation-grade restoration techniques) was going to cost us nearly £500K which we do not have and would struggle to raise as despite the HLF grant we would require considerable ‘match funding’.

Our plan is now as follows:

  • apply for planning permission for conversion to residential use for the L-shaped barn. Planning will specify that the building is converted in keeping and in style. As a residence, the building will have a life and purpose. The planning application was submitted in June, 2017.
  • We will then hope to sell the barn on the open market, with planning permission in place, the curtilage registered on Land Registry and conditions and caveats in place about usage, landscape design and development timescales. If planning permission is granted, this should take place at the end of 2017.
  • We will use the funds from the sale of the L-Shaped barn to build a tool store, volunteer facility and teaching space on the footprint of the Threshing barn. This building will be erected in a style that compliments the previous building and the character of the site but will have the benefits of a modern building. If planning permission is granted and a sale is made in early 2018, we will aim to have this completed by the end of 2018.

Once the buildings are complete, we will have a final, celebratory, grand opening of the reserve; a chance to thank all our donors and supporters and an opportunity to revel in the completion of what has been a challenging but very rewarding journey.

Thank you to all who have supported our purchase and management of this special site so far.


To donate to our current reserves appeal, go to www.justgiving.com/herefordshirenaturereserves

For more information about Birches Farm or the Birches Farm Volunteer Group, contact James Hitchcock on 01432 346872 / j.hitchcock@herefordshirewt.co.uk