A Shaftesbury couple wants to transform their French Mill Lane farm into a natural habitat, rich with birds, plants and wildlife. This ‘rewilding’ project, which will address the climate emergency. Alfred’s Keri Jones visited.
Spend ten minutes with Jonathan and Lucy Purssell at Horders Farm and you’ll soon sense the couple’s passion for their green, leafy, sloping piece of North Dorset countryside. Guests who stay in their farm’s shepherd hut fall in love with this scenic setting and the commanding views towards Duncliffe, with Shaftesbury’s church towers rising from the distant hill. It’s picturesque, but there’s a problem beneath our feet.
“We are walking around our countryside and it is dead, and we need to do something about it,” explained Lucy. “There are thirty to forty harvests left in the soil,” she added, quoting former Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s 2017 speech. “There’s research from Sheffield University which talks about a hundred harvests left, but ultimately were running short in regard to the quality of our soil.”
In the post-war years, farmers had to intensify farming methods to get as much produce out of each acre. Now the land is exhausted. “The soil is getting more damaged in terms of what we’re putting into our animals and onto our crops. Fertilisers and pesticides will have an effect on the soil. There’s compaction from ploughing and large amounts of animals. The intensification of agriculture has had a detrimental effect,” said Lucy.
Jonathan chipped in, recalling a statistic that claims that the amount of nutrients found in root vegetables has decreased since the 1950s and 1960s. “We’re getting less than a fifth of that now, because there’s no nutrients left in the soil,” he said.
It’s not just crops that have changed. Jonathan took on the farm thirteen years ago after a career working for an exhibition display business. Over the last decade he’s noticed that a type of falcon, known as a hobby, has vanished. “When I first came down, we had hobbies. I haven’t seen those for eight or nine years now. It would be great to see the hobbies back. Obviously, they came down with the swifts and the swallows,” said Jonathan
“The phone lines were black with swifts, swallows and housemartins,” Lucy recalled. “Now we see hardly any. As a child, I saw lots of dung beetles and stag beetles. We don’t really see anything anymore.”
And the couple have had problems with their livestock, too. “There were a few years where we lost an awful lot of lambs and ewes and we had no idea why. We had an agronomist come and look at the soil. We were told it was highly acidic,” said Lucy.
Jonathan believes that fertilizers might be to blame. “I had a very old shepherd come down. He took one look at the place and said, ‘There’s something wrong here’. He couldn’t tell me what but thought there had been sheep on this land for too long. The pathogen passing through the sheep is now in the soil and the ground has not had a chance to rest, so the pathogens die off. If you only have sheep, you’re only going to get sheep pathogens,” said Jonathan. “That’s why more animals will be introduced to Horders Hill. We are trying to bring in three or four grazing animals which all have different pathogens, and all move in different ways.”
The key to rewilding is creating an organically rich and natural soil structure. Animals will move the soil around, disturb the vegetation and promote a natural process that will allow the soil to recover.“We are not talking about bringing in wild boar or wolves but there will be grazing animals and fairly ancient breeds of cattle. We’ll have Exmoor ponies, the closest we can get to ancient breeds. We have roe deer here and will be looking at Tamworth pigs. They are ideal for running around wild spaces rather than being farmed commercially,” said Jonathan.
And that should encourage more insects, wildlife and birds. “We have to really start at the bottom holding up that chain again. It goes right through the soil, through the fungal and microbial mass, into insects, birds and the plants. It comes further up the food chain. You build a trophic system of wildlife. That’s what nature does. It’s not for us to try and break that chain. Just let nature do what it is supposed to do,” said Jonathan.
Rewilding could also become a tool in tackling the climate emergency. In simplistic terms, if soil is healthier soil, it captures more carbon. “The more plant life there is growing, the more carbon you sequester,” confirmed Jonathan.
Jonathan and Lucy own their land on the south side of the River Sturkle valley.
The couple hope to encourage a flourishing water meadow because they are effective in sequestering carbon, and they also reduce the risk of the Sturkle flooding. “The better quality and more aerated soil you have, the more water it will absorb. We have had this over the last two months. It hasn’t stopped raining and the water comes off this hill like you wouldn’t believe. It floods down,” said Jonathan. “We would hope in five- or six-years’ time to see less water coming off the hill and it would be able to soak up more water.”
When we walk down French Mill Lane in five years’ time, Jonathan says we’ll notice a marked difference when looking towards Horders Farm. “You will see a growth in scrub. You’ll see weeds, but what is a weed? We call it a weed. It is not ‘a weed’ in nature. The hedgerows will grow out with a ‘cathedral’ effect, naturally and vertically. Wetlands will be wetlands. Rather than trying to drain them, you will see different grasses with a huge proliferation in insects. Walking down French Mill Lane, we hope you will hear a lot of different varieties of birds, with deer grazing in the fields along with a few cattle and some pigs,” said Jonathan.
Lucy was inspired by the book ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree. The author, who grew up in the Shaftesbury area, will return to talk at November’s Shaftesbury Book Fest about her experience’s rewilding her 3,500-acre estate, Knepp, in West Sussex.
Lucy hopes that many species that have returned to the south coast estate will return to Horders Farm. “They’ve managed to encourage large amounts of nightingales and turtle doves in the project. Admittedly, that has been over the last 20 years. They’ve seen purple emperor and painted lady butterflies. Encouraging any species on the verge of extinction would be so exciting,” Lucy said.
Jonathan isn’t critical of farmers who pursue intensive farming practices because they are reliant on their land for their income. He and Lucy have additional income sources. He is a Shaftesbury firefighter and Lucy works as a clinician.
He doesn’t accept that he’s making a sacrifice, even though rewilding could potentially reduce the value of his land if he wanted to sell it to a commercial farmer. “There is a possibility of that. I don’t know anybody who can say what the value of 65 acres of North Dorset is. I would see it as the increased value of what the land can do and the benefit it brings to the Shaftesbury area, with a wildlife zone which will be organic within three years. That, for me, has to be a benefit, to provide a legacy going forward which is doing something positive rather than not doing anything at all,” he said.
Jonathan also wants to spread the message to his glamping visitors and sees education as an important aspect of the project. Lucy and Jonathan led me along a farm track to a large open sided barn a few minutes stroll from their house. “The thought is to convert one of these barns into a small lecture or school room. We can do PowerPoint presentations on here. Come and stay for the weekend but learn about rewilding, the insects, the wildlife, the sustainable soil,” said Jonathan.
“And when they stay, they can reduce their plastic and think about the energy they use,” added Lucy, who has found that many visitors who choose their shepherd hut to immerse themselves with nature don’t consider their impact on the environment. “We found over the last few years that people will turn up and not really connect with nature and the world around them, by introducing lots of takeaway cartons.”
Last week the couple pitched their ideas to Dorset Council’s climate emergency committee. Jonathan says it looks like a new approach from government will encourage more rewilding. “The new gricultural bill is looking like it will turn into an Act and will reward farmers and landowners for this kind of project. It’s no longer about the size of acreage or what you produce. It’s how well you look after what you have, your water sources, your soil and the wildlife on your farm.”
New national policies could help to transform our nation’s landscape. “We need to rewild about one-fifth of the UK’s farmland and turn it back to nature. We need to let the ecosystems re-establish themselves and they will act as steppingstones from one section to another. That’s key to what we are trying to do here,” said Jonathan, as he pointed in the direction of Duncliffe Woods, in the distance. “You can imagine birds flying over, going from one place to the next taking seeds.”
And maybe, in a few years, more wildlife and plantlife in this corner of North Dorset will be a reality, rather than this couple’s vision.