Farming with nature

Farming with nature #4 – Dalefoot Farm

Simon Bland & Jane Barker

Snaking across a gorse-studded common where skylarks play chicken with the sparse traffic, a lane leads towards Dalefoot Farm. On the face of it, Dalefoot looks much like the other farms that are dotted along this side of the Lowther Valley. Machinery is scattered haphazardly around a group of fell ponies munching on last summer’s hay. House martin nests decorate the eaves of the weather-beaten farmhouse, which is home to farming and environmental innovators Simon Bland and Jane Barker.

Simon has deep roots here. He has been at Dalefoot Farm his whole life, as was his father before him. His family were here before United Utilities acquired the farm and huge swathes of the land around it from the Lowther Estate in order to create Haweswater reservoir.

Jane grew up across the Eden Valley and met Simon in the pub in Askham. A highly trained environmentalist, Jane has enough letters after her name to make a business card designer wince. She is Professor in Practice at the University of Cumbria, and last year was granted freedom of the City of London and ‘clothed’ as a member of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, honours granted for the impact the work at Dalefoot has had.

Dalefoot is a small farm and a hard place to make living in the cut and thrust world of modern farming. In the late 90’s, the union of Simon’s agricultural mindset and lateral thinking, and Jane’s environmental knowledge and creativity sparked two new and innovative income streams, both centred on nature.

For peat’s sake

It has long been known that peat – that dark, waterlogged soil that clothes huge swathes of our damp islands – is a vital store of carbon. Even so, we haven’t been treating it with the care it deserves. Drained for agricultural improvement, dried out by moorland burning and harvested for fuel and compost, it’s estimated that only 20% of the UK’s peat is in good condition. When peat is wet and well looked after, it acts as vast carbon store. When dried out and damaged, the carbon it contains reacts with oxygen in the air, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

There is more than ten times as much carbon stored in the peat soil of the UK than in all of our forests put together, and so restoring our peatlands will be vital if we’re to stand a chance of keeping climate change at bay.   

As awareness of the value of peat and the need to keep it wet grew, Simon and Jane came up with a way to help. Utilising Simon’s mechanical skills and Jane’s ecological understanding, they established Barker & Bland Ltd, an environmental contracting company, working for organisations like Natural England, Cumbria Wildlife Trust and the RSPB to block artificial drains in peat bogs to return them to soggy state that nature intended.

Restoring peat bogs is essential, but there is another side to the equation. Even though we know exactly how damaging the drainage and removal of peat is, it’s still possible to walk into virtually any garden centre and buy a bag of peat-based compost.

Wool into gold

Considering how much of their professional energy Simon and Jane were spending trying to keep peat in the ground through their restoration work, it must have been incredibly frustrating to see how much peat was continuing to be harvested and sold. In search of an alternative, and after years of experimenting with some unexpected ingredients, the award-winning Dalefoot Composts was born.

Dalefoot Farm

Like most of the Lake District’s hill farms, Dalefoot has kept sheep for as long as anyone can remember. For most of that time they were valued as a source not just of meat, but of fibre too. It would be hard to overestimate the economic and cultural value of wool to British society. For centuries, the wool trade was of vital importance to our national prosperity. Wars were fought over it and wealthy landowners counted their riches in sheep numbers, rather than money. Without wool and the role it played in the industrial revolution, places like Leeds and Manchester would not be what they are today – they are cities built from wool.

Today, wool isn’t so highly valued. The creation of cheaper, easier to process alternative fibres means that the wool trade is a pale shade of what it once was. For most farmers, wool is a loss-maker – it typically costs more to shear the sheep than the farmer earns from selling their fleeces. For Simon and Jane, wool has found a new purpose. It contributes incredible water holding capacity to their compost.

Bracken, their second main compost ingredient, is even more abundant in Lakeland than sheep fleeces and is considered by many to be a scourge on the fells. In a wild, pre-human Cumbria, bracken was only found in woodland clearings, being intolerant to the shade cast by trees. As our ancient ancestors began to clear the primeval wildwoods that clothed many of the fells, the bracken was given a chance to spread.

Generations of Lakeland farmers helped keep bracken in check, cutting it for bedding or thatching. The trampling of cattle and ponies and the rootling of pigs, all of which were much more common until recently, would have also kept it under control. The shift to a farming system dominated by sheep, and where virtually nobody cuts bracken, has allowed it to run riot. As anyone who walks in the Lake District knows, bracken in many places now forms dense smothering monocultures. With little value to livestock or to wildlife, a refuge for ticks and murder to walk through, bracken to most people is a menace.

Not so to Simon and Jane. Using cutters and balers specially adapted for the purpose, they harvest tonnes of bracken from the fells every year. Mixing it with the wool and other natural additives they’ve struck on a recipe that works, and an ever-growing number of gardeners swear by it.

Dalefoot Farm today is a busy place. Over 20 staff are employed and down in the yard behind the farmhouse tractors and loaders shuttle in and out of large sheds, turning the steaming compost piles or heaping it into machines for mixing and bagging.

I’m optimistic that a ban on the use of peat in horticulture is just around the corner, but even without it, Simon told me that sales of peat-free compost are skyrocketing. With the recent addition of a second farm, Simon and Jane have expansion plans that will make them ready to meet the increasing demand.

A tradition of innovation

Some might see Simon and Jane’s approach to farming as a departure from Lake District traditions. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. The farmers of the Lake District have a long history of innovating. By working with the landscape and utilising its produce, they have always served the needs of society. Until recently, those needs were rather simple – to eat, to be sheltered and clothed. Breeds of livestock were developed that could thrive in the harsh climate, and farming systems which integrated valley bottom and fell succeeded in producing what the people needed.

Society today is far more demanding. In addition to food and fibre we need landscapes which improve the quality of the air and water with peatbogs which lock up carbon and provide homes for wildlife. We also want our landscapes to be beautiful and accessible whilst supporting livelihoods and our local community.

Simon and Jane and the people they employ, are producing all of this. It may be different to what has come before, but it continues the tradition of working with the landscape to provide something of real value.

For more information about Dalefoot and their compost, visit