Farming with nature

Farming with Nature #7 – Eycott Hill

Imagine a mixing desk built for land managers. Running left to right are a series of sliders, allowing the levels of the inputs to be increased or decreased. Each of the sliders is labelled, but instead of vocals, guitar or drums, the labels read livestock, arable crops, trees, wildlife, water, carbon, employment, access and beauty. Every land manager is working to move the sliders up or down according to their priorities, leaving every piece of land, be it farm, forest or nature reserve with its own unique combination of settings.  

Cottongrass blowing in the breeze at Eycott Hill Nature Reserve

When Cumbria Wildlife Trust purchased Eycott Hill Nature Reserve in 2015, it was pretty obvious that they’d want to shift the sliders about. Tucked up against a minor road which marks part of the Lake District National Park’s north-eastern boundary, Eycott Hill is a very special place. I’m lucky enough to live next-door to it. During the time I worked for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, I found out that Eycott Hill’s previous owner was looking to sell. This nugget of local knowledge, combined with generous donations and grants, eventually led to the Trust being able to purchase it, creating a brand new 533-acre nature reserve. I’ve loved watching how the place has developed over the years under their caring stewardship. During the first lockdown, I’d visit the reserve with my family almost daily – it made a spectacular outdoor classroom for biology lessons, art and PE.

As you’d expect, Cumbria Wildlife Trust are aiming to push up the wildlife slider as far as they can get it, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve pushed the livestock one all the way down. From the outset, the Trust were keen to demonstrate a ‘low-input, low-output’ model of farming, showing that light touch grazing can not only yield great results for wildlife, but also generate saleable farm produce.

Getting a grazing regime to work for nature can be a tricky balance to strike, particularly in somewhere like Eycott which has an incredible diversity of different habitats sitting alongside each other. Much of the reserve is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, for both its geology and wildlife. In between long ridges formed by 460-million-year-old volcanic lava flows, a series of amazing bogs have formed, and these are one of the site’s most important habitats. Each one of these bogs is a little different to its neighbour, but all support a huge range of wonderful wetland wildlife and are heaving with wildflowers and insects. The drier ridges are clothed in heathy grassland. These two habitats require very different management but aren’t separated by fences. The bogs ideally don’t want any grazing at all, but the drier areas do, otherwise they’d likely end up being choked by coarse, vigorous grasses. So, the trick is to choose the right sort of grazing animal, and in the right numbers.

Belted Galloway cattle grazing at Eycott Hill

Cumbria Wildlife Trust have chosen to use hardy belted Galloway cattle for the job. Owned by local farmer, James Irving, the ‘belties’ are a perfect fit for Eycott. Hailing from just over the Scottish Border, belted Galloways are well-adapted to Cumbria’s cold, damp climate, and perfectly content living outside all year round. Being much less choosy than smaller-mouthed sheep, cattle tend to rip at the vegetation they eat, pulling at it with their long, dextrous tongue. This, along with their heavy hoof-marks creates a much more varied sward, helping a wide range of wildflowers to thrive. The Eycott belties tend not to bother going into the bogs much. They’re smart enough to know that there’s a risk of them getting stuck, not much worth eating, and lots of irritating insects. By keeping the cattle numbers fairly low, there’s always enough to eat in the drier areas anyway.

The cattle grazing is resulting in some welcome surprises. Marsh fritillary butterflies, a species which became extinct in Cumbria in 2004, was recently found to have colonised Eycott Hill. Reintroduced to a handful of sites across the county, marsh fritillaries rely on damp pastures with plenty of devil’s bit scabious, the plant that their spikey black caterpillars feed on. The cattle have created the conditions that have allowed scabious to thrive, and the butterflies have moved in. Other plants are benefitting too. Bird’s eye primrose, a lovely little pink flower which likes to grow in wet flushes, was also discovered for the first time on the reserve earlier this year.

One of Eycott Hill’s most incredible transformations is also in part thanks to the cattle. Visit Eycott in June or July, you’ll be struck by a spectacular sight as you enter the reserve from the small car park. 25 acres of glorious meadow flowers sway in the breeze. The seed heads of yellow rattle shake tiny castanets with every step, as knapweed, hawkbits and oxeye daisy jostle for the light. Flocks of goldfinches and linnets feast on the abundant seeds, while bees, moths and butterflies guzzle nectar. But just six years ago, these were just ordinary green fields. By spreading seed-rich wildflower hay from another meadow and bringing the fields back into a traditional hay meadow management cycle, with a single late summer cut, these meadows are now humming with life. The cattle graze in the meadows in the Autumn and early Spring. During the winter months, they feast on the baled hay, a welcome taste of summer keeping them well fed through the lean times. I can vouch for the tastiness of the beef that results from this traditional system, flavour which is enhanced by the knowledge of how much the cattle have helped the nature on my doorstep.

Eycott Hill’s wonderfully restored hay meadows

As beneficial as the cattle are being, there are also places which don’t need grazing. The word Eycott is derived from ‘Aiket’, the Viking word for oak woodland. Patches of bracken, which was originally a species of woodland glades, hint at this wooded past, indicating where trees probably grew. Many of these areas have had trees planted back into them and been fenced to keep the cattle out.

Cumbria Wildlife Trust have been able to access funding from a range of different sources to help them purchase and care for Eycott Hill. This has provided access improvements, employment opportunities, better fences, new hedges, trees and a whole range of other physical enhancements. Eycott Hill today is a venue for events and activities, a place for people to learn about conservation grazing and wildlife, or simply to explore and unwind. The reserve is becoming a real community asset, a richer, more accessible and more fascinating place.

Eycott Hill may not be a typical farm in the way that most people would recognise, but I’d argue that blurring the boundaries between farming and conservation is exactly what we need. There are more and more land managers across Cumbria pushing up their nature sliders. Just like Eycott Hill, they are showing that real magic can happen when farming and conservation work hand in hand.