In 1994, Somerset and Carolyne Charrington took on the challenge of moving from a mixed arable farm in Surrey to manage Treshnish Farm, a 750ha hill farm on the north-west coast of the Isle of Mull. The farm had been heavily overgrazed with sheep, but putting the environment at the heart of their farm business plan, they adopted a more extensive grazing regime and have seen the wildlife flourish as a result.
Treshnish Farm is managed as a traditional upland livestock farm supporting a diverse range of habitats including Atlantic hazel woodlands, wetland, species-rich grassland, upland moorland, peat bogs and coastal heath, with approximately 80ha of in-bye land – the farm is grazed as a whole farm unit.
Hill sheep numbers have been reduced from 700 blackface ewes to 300, a flock of 60 Cheviot and 20 Zwartble cross ewes are run on the in-bye land and Somerset and Carolyne have re-introduced a small herd (15 cows) of Aberdeen Angus cattle who play an important part in the grazing regime, particularly in areas which have been ungrazed most of the summer months.
Store animals are usually put through Oban Livestock Market, and they sell a small amount of beef and lamb locally, which supports the valued island slaughterhouse. “Customers enjoy knowing where their meat comes from and how it is raised, and to us, it is good to hear that they think the meat is delicious’.
Island farming has its challenges – additional costs in haulage for any bought in feedstuffs or straw and the high ferry costs for getting animals to market continually squeeze the margins, and make the environmental support payments they receive increasingly important, but:
“It is a privilege for us to live here and to be custodians of the farm. Careful grazing management is key to maintaining the rich mosaic of habitats here, and underlines to us, the importance of keeping sheep and cattle on the hills of Scotland. We have a popular coastal path that brings locals and visitors onto the farm daily, and its great to share their enjoyment of the wildlife we encounter.”
The farm was certified as organic from 1999, but problems arising from bracken encroachment affecting the biodiversity, along with increased organic feed costs, meant Somerset and Carolyne gave up organic certification in 2009. They still refrain from using artificial fertiliser on the farm now, but instead use Farm Yard Manure and a four year silage rotation to help maintain soil fertility.
The farm has been supported by agri-environment funding since 1995, and is currently in Rural Priorities including options for species-rich meadows, open grazed grassland and wetland creation and management.
This support has enabled Somerset and Carolyne to manage their land in a balanced and sustainable way, ensuring their farming system works carefully with the natural and historic environment. One of the Rural Priorities target species in Argyll is the marsh fritillary butterfly. To encourage this butterfly in a field with a high density of devil’s bit scabious, they use a long summer grazing break, followed by the cattle and then sheep, to create a varied sward height of 5 – 20cm.
“The environmental support payments we receive are a vital part of the farm income, and we would probably have to change how we farmed if they were stopped.”
In just 19 years the farm has become a haven for wildlife. Corncrake has been attracted to the farm through provision of early and late cover and late cutting of damp silage fields. Grasshopper warbler, reed bunting and sedge warbler have benefited from wetland creation. Native woodlands host goldfinch, lesser redpoll and siskin with bullfinches recently breeding in areas of natural regeneration.
A mosaic of gorse and diverse grasslands provides breeding habitats for increasing yellowhammer and whinchat populations. Thistle and burdock left in margins attract flocks of goldfinch and twite.
Extensive grazing provides diverse swards with increases in curlew, red grouse and snipe populations. Short-eared owls and quail are also present.
The meadows and wetlands are alive with plants, butterflies and moths too. 18 species of butterfly, 256 species of macro moth and 95 species of micro moths have been recorded on the farm, including rarer species such as the transparent burnet moth.
Enhancement through wetland creation, fencing off native woodland, extensive grazing of species-rich grassland and moorland with associated bog communities and coastal sedge communities has enabled the flora to return.
Monitoring has recorded 15 species of orchid (including frog, early-purple, fragrant, greater butterfly, small-white orchids, narrow leaved helleborine and broad-leaved helleborine). A number of rarer plants such as field gentian and wood bitter-vetch thrive in the late cut silage. Other plants include bog asphodel and oyster plant. One of their fields is a donor meadow for Argyll in the Coronation Meadow project.
Mountain hares favour the coastal margins, species rich grasslands and ungrazed areas. Voles benefit from rough grazing on in-bye and woodland regeneration. Healthy population of otters along the coastline make use of one of the ponds.
Somerset and Carolyne run an eco-friendly self catering business on the farm (proud holders of the Green Tourism Business Scheme Gold Award), which provides an income to help them evolve their overall aim to maximise biodiversity on the farm and to further enhance the sustainability of their farming operations, aiming to reduce their carbon footprint and promote their farm as an environmentally- friendly farm and holiday destination.
“Although flocks of twite and acres of wild flowers don’t pay the bills, they are a reward of a different kind which we never tire of, which we enjoy sharing with both our cottage guests and locals.”
“Uncertainty about the future of farming at the moment certainly restricts forward planning, so it will help to know what the next CAP will involve. We would hope that, in Less Favoured Areas like this, environmental management support will continue, so that higher nature farming units can go on managing their farming businesses to the benefit of wildlife and biodiversity”.
For more information about the farm and how Somerset and Carolyne work with organisations such as Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and RSPB please visit: www.treshnish.co.uk or read their guest blog.
Photo credits: Photos (Carolyne Mazur at Treshnish), twite photo (Anand Prasad)