Hannah Genders visits a village farmer whose philosophy is to ‘give something back’ and to enhance the land.
During lockdown earlier this year, many of us explored and discovered footpaths and fields locally that we did not know before. If, like me, you have been walking around the village of Alvechurch, and in particular through the small hamlet of Withybed Green, you will have noticed something different about the fields. One of the footpaths runs from Withybed Green up the hill towards Foxhill Lane, and from May onwards these fields were covered with wildflowers; nestled in the long grass there were even some purple orchids, a variety called green winged orchid, recognisable because they have no spots on the leaves. In June, the fields were carpeted yellow with buttercups.
Now please do not call them weeds, these are wildflowers and the fields are farmed and cared for by the Bytom family. Asking Adrian Bytom how he describes this type of farming, he said: ”Well its farming with nature; it’s farming the way it used to be done, sustainably and without chemicals.”
Unlike many fields we walk through nowadays, often a monoculture of rye grass, bright green in colour due to the chemical fertilizers put on them, these fields had a matrix of wildflowers and they were alive with butterflies, moths, and bees during summer.
The commitment to this type of farming has a philosophy that I would like to think I follow in gardening, it’s about “giving something back” to nature and enhancing the land you have by increasing biodiversity and helping wildlife as much as you can.
Adrian and Alison started farming in Withybed Green in 1991. They have never used chemicals on the land and have over time increased the land they own to around 100 acres. The fields are grazed by their herd of Longhorn cattle, which are also rented out to graze other meadows in the Worcestershire area.
The Longhorns are particularly well suited to this because they command respect from the public walking through the fields with their dogs; they look fierce with their large, curved horns, but are surprisingly gentle. The Longhorn breed traces its ancestry back to the oxen used for pulling carts in the 16th century, and they are listed as a rare breed.
In Isabella Tree’s wonderful book Wilding, where she and her husband introduce Longhorn cattle to their newly rewilded farm, she notices the cattle choose to browse trees and hedges, and pond margins as well as the meadows. There is even an account of them “self-medicating” after they have gorged on a field of rye grass, left over from when their farm was run intensively.
Along with the grazing cattle, the Withybed fields are cut for hay in late July. This allows time for all the wildflowers to seed down for next year. Even in haymaking, there is a giving back. The cut is not taken right to the hedge margin, but a back swath is left as an area of long grass for wildlife and there were certainly crickets and grasshoppers around in the summer. This back swath is then eaten off later in the year by the cattle.
One field that sits towards the top of the farm, called Foxhill House Meadow, is set aside for nature. It has two streams running through it and is never cut, only grazed.
The Worcestershire Wildlife Trust has now listed this field as a Local Wildlife site, recognising its value to nature conservation.
In the summer there are some fabulous wildflowers growing in the stream margins; I spotted one of my favourites, Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) and a blue speedwell (Veronica beccabunga) both loving the damp conditions and attracting lots of moths and butterflies when the sun came out.
If your philosophy is to increase biodiversity and encourage nature, this applies to everything you do. So, when in 2004 the Bytom family had the chance to introduce a farm diversification project on their land, it needed to be guided by the same ethos.
After a long consultation, they were finally granted permission for a new marina on the canal in Withybed in 2008. Work began to dig out an area large enough to moor 54 narrowboats.
The design is simple, and it sits very well in its landscape being completely hidden by the surrounding fields, but just glimpsed off the canal towpath. The earthworks took 26 weeks to complete and 200,000 tonnes of soil were moved to reform the landscape. The whole marina basin is lined with clay, which was extracted from the farmland and the fields reinstated. Once all the groundworks were done, the idea was to surround the boats with wildflowers.
The story goes that they ran out of topsoil and scattered the wildflower seed straight onto the clay subsoil. It worked beautifully because wildflowers will often grow best with extraordinarily little nutrient.
The effect is a stunning array of wildflowers that surround the boats all summer. There is purple Lucerne, a pink Vetch with a flower like a sweet pea and one of my favourites, purple Loosestrife. The moorings here are non-residential, with people storing boats during the winter or calling in whilst on holiday to stay for a few days. But of course, during lockdown, things were different because people were stuck, but what a place to be stuck. It is quiet and beautiful.
The butterflies were also here in abundance. So, in August I asked Adrian if I could do the Big Butterfly Count at the site. I turned up with my notebook and camera, and the rule is you only have 15 minutes to count. The first four butterflies I counted were cabbage white, which was a little disappointing, but I went on to see small tortoiseshells, gatekeepers and the little common blue. I counted 22 butterflies in total within the time and sent in the results to the count.
This is the sort of farming we want to see in our countryside: a return to a sustainable landscape, that encourages and enjoys nature, increases biodiversity, and gives something back. Long may it continue.