Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: Why my sheep are mobsters

Mob-grazing sheep are just one of the many nature-friendly initiatives in my farm plan for 2030
October 4, 2023

The year 2030 may seem like a long time away. But for me the years seem to pass like days, so I know it will soon be upon us. A couple of years ago, I made my farm plan for 2030. The plan outlines what we are working towards—what I want the farm to look and feel like in the years to come. I have a farm map showing the 5 per cent of our land that's set aside for pollinators and overwintering birds, plus the dozen or so woodlands we have planted in the recent decades. There are many ponds and waterways, grassy buffer strips and in-field habitats, created in the last few years thanks to government support for environmental stewardship. New planned developments include a community garden, plus an area of agroforestry where 600 trees will be planted in rows within arable fields, enabling cereal, legumes and oilseed to be grown alongside local-variety fruit trees. 

There is an overarching plan to link up our older oak trees with newly planted ones, so that wildlife moving through the landscape can use a network of native trees. These trees provide a home and feeding ground for more minibeasts and megafauna than any other kind. We also plan to reinstate and diversify the corridors between our hedgerows, which provide that “woodland edge” environment favoured by so many creatures including butterflies, moths, birds and more. And I’ve included 109 acres of super-rich, abundant and diverse traditional grassland that will be managed by mob-grazing sheep, where a small area is grazed intensively for a short period and then left for a long time to recover, mimicking natural processes. All of this will take place beneath ground-mounted solar panels that will produce renewable energy for our community and beyond. 

There’s more detail, including our sequestering hundreds of tons of carbon every year using adapted farming practice, but it’s too much for this column.

Nowadays we have a modern, scientific understanding overlaid with ancient, traditional practice and know-how

And so it was with interest—or perhaps intrigue—that I received an invitation from the Natural Cambridgeshire Partnership Forum to give a presentation as part of an online meeting on the topic “Do farmers care about nature?”. Thankfully this was amended to “Why farmers care about nature”. I feel the fact that farmers do is pretty obvious, although I concede that there have been examples to the contrary, ranging from misunderstanding of proper farming practices through to outright abuse of the natural world. Not so—I hope—on our farm.

I started by looking back through history, to when simple farmers knew nature and the world around them, better in many ways than we do today. They followed lunar cycles intimately, understanding soils and land, managing habitats from nature-friendly coppice woodland to meadow and marsh, and valuing wildlife as a companion and an essential indicator of the farming conditions.

The postwar interruption of the green (chemical) revolution developed artificial fertiliser and high-yield wheat that saved millions (arguably billions) from hunger, but it also served to distance us from our former knowledge of nature. Nowadays we have a modern, scientific understanding overlaid with ancient, traditional practice and know-how. (For those with an interest beyond my regular column here in Prospect, you can follow us on social media by searching for “Farmer Tom” or “Village Farm”.)

It’s an exciting time on the farm, as we look ahead to stewarding the environment with care. My challenge is in providing for our environment and helping to combat climate change while remaining profitable. We will need support from government, where timelines typically run over just a few years, and politicians cannot see beyond a forthcoming general election. Farmers farm—and live—in an environment where time passes in seasons and decades pass in a flash.