Turn on the news or scroll through social media, and it’s likely you will see a new statistic on biodiversity loss, climate change or food security. Hedgehog numbers, declining bee populations and the loss of wildflower meadows make headlines regularly. But what if we focused on what’s happening under our feet as a solution?
One of the recommendations made in this year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was, “[the] restoration of natural ecosystems and soil carbon sequestration could produce co-benefits such as improved biodiversity, soil quality, and local food security.”
Given 70% of the UK’s land mass is zoned as agricultural land, the future of biodiversity, soil quality and local food security is intrinsically linked to how that land is managed.
Those IPCC-listed benefits: restoration of natural ecosystems and carbon sequestration (the long-term storage of carbon in plants, soils, and other natural formations) have a lot to do with improving soil health – for both re-establishing plant and wildlife biodiversity, and soil carbon storage.
While these statistics paint a picture of a mammoth task ahead, there is a collective working hard to slow, and in some cases reverse the impact of conventional intensive farming on wildlife and soil health. For Farm Wilder, it starts from the ground up.
Farm Wilder are a non-profit organisation, who partner with livestock farmers to support the adoption of regenerative farming techniques. “Our mission is to produce meat that is truly sustainable and to restore wildlife and improve soil health across the British countryside,” says Tim Martin, former BBC Natural History Unit executive producer, and co-founder of Farm Wilder.
Martin, alongside co-founder and former investigative environmental journalist Luke Dale-Harris are working to promote partnered livestock farms as a model for others to follow.
One of those farmers leading the charge is Luke Hasell. His Chew Valley farm in Somerset is certified both organic and Pasture for Life, and he has also restored several species-rich hay meadows over the last few years. “We are degrading our soil on a mass scale through our conventional way of farming,” says the farmer.
“Soil is an incredible resource, and we’re not looking after it enough as a human race. It’s like another galaxy beneath our feet. The microbial activity in a handful of soil is insane. And that’s why we need to regenerate that soil, and allow it to thrive for the next 50 years.”
The ramifications of land-homogenisation from ‘conventional farming’ practices is exactly what Farm Wilder want to reverse: “The system that lies behind the vast majority of British food, has resulted in most of our countryside being covered by monocultures of rye grass and cereals, which are very damaging to wildlife, soil health and the climate,” says Martin.
One way the non-profit does this is to encourage farmers to transition livestock from grain, or part-grain fed, to 100% pasture fed. “[Our] approach is to create a healthy balance between livestock and the natural environment, with the nutritional needs of livestock met predominantly from a much wider range of plant species, including grasses, legumes, herbs and tree fodder,” explains Martin.
In short, pasture land is left to grow a diversity of plants, which becomes habitat and a food source for insects and wildlife – as well as feed for grazing livestock. This approach supports a wealth of environmental benefits, including water retention and flood prevention – both essential as flooding becomes more frequent across the UK.
In addition, Farm Wilder farms must have exceptional wildlife present. This means the land is home to native insects and wildlife, unique to that area. In recent years, areas in Devon have seen Cuckoo numbers decline by 70% and hedgehogs by 95%. By working with farms with dwindling, exceptional wildlife, Farm Wilder hopes to revive local biodiversity and improve numbers of these endangered species.
Martin’s passion for reinstating wildlife numbers is palpable. “These wonderful meadows are bursting with life, and home to rare animals and plants, but without regular grazing much of their unique wildlife would disappear under willow scrub.” This includes the rare marsh fritillary butterfly pictured below, found in damp meadows in Dartmoor and North Devon.
And while livestock roam these pastures, there’s something even more exciting happening beneath their hooves. “Below ground, the deeper rooting plant species provide the soil with organic carbon and nutrients that support abundant microbiological life and help combat climate change,” says Martin.
What we love about Farm Wilder is their passion for helping farmers on their journey, and refocusing their certification priorities to go the extra mile for wildlife. Within three years, Farm Wilder requires their farmers to be certified as either Pasture for Life, A Greener World Regenerative or Organic.
Martin explains, “Our farmers need one of these certifications on which we build additional measures… It’s important that we help farmers on this journey, rather than just cherry picking farmers who are already doing all the right things.”
Farm Wilder provides partners with a Farm Conservation Plan which is monitored during an annual visit. On one recent visit, Dale-Harris was amazed by a couple of Dartmoor farm’s progress – sowing in herbal leys and looking after existing habitats. Over at Luke Hasell’s farm, newly restored hay meadows are thriving. “One in particular blew me away with the diversity of species that now thrive there, including yellow rattle and oxeye daisies which were flowering, and it was absolutely buzzing with butterflies, bees, damsel flies and other insects,” says Martin.
So, what does this mean for the Farm Wilder meat you buy on Farmdrop? Pasture-fed Belted Galloways, Aberdeen Angus and North Devons cattle graze freely on a huge variety of native plants. “These cows eat a huge range of herbs, grasses and legumes in those flower rich meadows, which can be home to more than 50 species of plant,” says the co-founder.
It results in meat rich in nutrients, and full of flavour from meadow herbs and grasses.
Farm Wilder are partnering with farmers and nature on their mission. Their work feels hopeful and exciting – for the future of agriculture and biodiversity. Which certainly makes your next Farm Wilder steak, roast or barbeque even more delicious.
Lead and soil images: Nigel Akehurst