As the four seasons have turned and I’m reflecting on the year, I realise that I’ve learned a lot about sheep behaviour and soil quality over the course of 2018.
I’ve seen the differences in terms of how different breeds behave. We have three: Romney, Kerry Hill and Castlemilk Morrit. They’re quite hard to manage because they all like to do things differently.
When I’m trying to move them the Romneys will go forward, the Kerry Hill stay as far away from me as possible while also heading to the left and the Castlemilk Morrit will make a beeline for the gap between two people and go in the opposite direction of the way you want them to go. Everything ends up taking three times as long.
It took me three days to take them all to visit the ram and I ended up having to catch one Castlemilk Morrit ewe in the dark. I discovered that her night vision is a lot better than mine.
A growing herd of pigs
The pigs are doing well, although it’s getting harder to feed them with all the rain and mud. The herd is growing and I’m running out of space to house them for the winter. I’ve put piles of straw in their shelter arcs, so those still out in the fields have a warm, dry place to sleep. One of my sows, Julia, is due to give birth so I’ve prepared her a cosy place with a heat lamp and plenty of dry straw to build her nest.
The importance of grazing for soil quality
This year has also been a steep learning curve when it comes to grass. I’ve discovered that grazing a field with sheep really makes a massive positive difference. I’ve been moving the sheep around a bit, using other farms sometimes, and have noticed that the land where horses are kept has poor quality soil. There is no plant diversity and lots of compaction. It then tends to be left to ‘recover’ but all that happens is it goes to weeds. These fields really need to be re-sowed with clover, chicory and vetch but this is expensive.
We did an unintended field trial at Sacred Earth when we put the same seed mix in two fields but only ended up grazing the sheep on one. The difference now is incredible. The grazed field looks amazing, even in wet conditions. It has good ground cover, lots of structure and a wide variety of plants. If you dug a spade into it you would find plenty of worms. The other field turned into a battleground between plants, where one beat the other, then fell over, created anaerobe conditions and cracked in the heat of summer. I’ve tried to re-seed it by hand this autumn in the hope that it will recover a bit in the spring. It’s an important lesson in the right way for farmers to manage and improve our soils. A well-managed soil will sequester more CO2 and offer better wildlife and microbiology.