Nature-Friendly Farming

Ullswater Evening (Zoom) Talk by Danny Teasdale

Danny Teasdale founded Ullswater Catchment Management CIC in the aftermath of Storm Desmond. His aim is to improve flood resilience throughout the catchment area in a way that creates habitats for wildlife, improves soil quality and is a win win for farmers and the environment.

At his talk, via Zoom, on 1stOctober, Danny described a range of projects, explaining the actions he has taken, the reasoning behind them, and the benefits for natural flood management and nature recovery.

He began in the Grisedale Valley where, together with a group of volunteers, he has planted, 1500 trees. Once established these trees will hold back the water when the river is in spate so reduce the flow rate downstream. The farmer concerned was happy to have the trees because the land involved was always wet and boggy and he had lost a number of sheep there. It was, as Danny emphasised, “the right thing in the right place”.

Tree planting in Grisedale Valley

In Patterdale Storm Desmond created a number of landslips that impacted houses below them so, to stabilise the higher slopes, an upland tree planting project took place on Place Fell. Danny worked with the residents to plant a variety of native hardwoods, including rowan.

Tree planting on Place Fell

Upstream of Glenridding Storm Desmond deposited large amounts of gravel that changed the course of some sections of the river.  Working with the Environment Agency, and the farmer concerned, a flood relief channel was dug. It is only 400-500m long but, at times of high rainfall, it takes pressure off the main channel and slows the flow to the village below. 

Flood relief channel in Glenridding beck

Danny recognises that farming and conservation are often thought to be at loggerheads but, sitting in the middle he can see the issues from both sides and look for solutions where everyone benefits. He believes it is crucial to foster better understanding of both perspectives and to demonstrate that working together can be a win for both.

Improving soil quality is a good example of a win win situation. Farmers have more grass and more usable fields. The community gains because better quality soils hold more water and release it at a slower rate. For every 1% extra organic matter, soil can hold 20,000 more gallons per acre. In addition, good soil leads to more carbon sequestration. So Danny hopes to encourage soil improvement widely throughout the catchment area. 

Regenerative agriculture or mob grazing is another of Danny’s favoured techniques. It replicates how grasslands and natural grazing patterns have evolved in tandem. It basically allows the grass to have rest periods. Stock is grazed at increased density but only for a short period, 4-6 days, before being moved on. During its rest period, the grass roots grow longer so they can pull nutrients from deeper in the soil. This removes the need for artificial fertiliser. Ideally the stock eat a third, leave a third alone and trample a third into the soil. The trampled third acts in the same way as adding compost.  Danny described being amazed by the clouds of insects that rise up from the grass when the stock are eventually moved back into an area that has had time to rest. And, of course, with the insects come birds that feed on them. 

Regenerative Farming

An important aspect of Danny’s work are the farmers steering group meetings that he runs, together with his wife Maddy. These are opportunities for discussion and the sharing of ideas, as well as hearing from invited speakers. Natural England has asked Danny and Maddy to formalise this facilitation group. 

Danny’s work has been supported by the community and beyond, not only through volunteers but also through crowd-funding. He recognised James Rebank’s support, helping to spread the word through his sizeable social media network. The website allows those who give to see what their money has funded. It provides a pot that can be used to raise matching funds.

Danny is also happy to work with anyone who is heading in a similar direction. For example, with the charity Another Way, he organised the planting, on poor farmland, of 1700 trees, 1300 of which are oak. Together with hazel and shrubs, the trees were planted in a way that should see them grow into a natural oak woodland with all the biodiversity that will bring. 

Another of Danny’s favourite projects – perhaps his number one – is the re-wiggling of a beck in Matterdale. The beck was moved 200 years ago but it wasn’t working for nature or for farming or flood mitigation because it was 5 feet higher than natural floodplain. As a result, after heavy rain, stagnant water would simply lie on the land for up to 3 weeks. With support from the Environment Agency, the beck’s course was cut back to its lowest point, and made more sinuous and meandering.

Re-wiggling a beck in Matterdale

This slowed the flow which, in turn, allowed it to hold smaller gravel suitable for trout and salmon to spawn in. After heavy rain, water spills out onto the flood plain and is stored there, hence slowing the flow downstream. Within a few days, through natural drainage, it is back in grazing condition.

Slide to compare the flood plain just after heavy rain and three days later

Danny believes the Countryside stewardship scheme ‘Making Space for Water’ should be encouraged widely. At a cost of £640 per hectare per year for 20 years, it provides much greater value for money than the installation of expensive flood defence infrastructure downstream. The upland water storage can complement downstream hard engineering works, but is a hard scheme for farmers to enter into as it is a higher tier option only. 

Danny is also a great fan of re-creating wetland ponds and scrapes, so many of which have been lost through drainage or filled in naturally. “Wildlife is crying out for them”, he says. “Once you make them, insects and wading birds come back really fast. The ponds and scrapes team with frogs and these feeds otters. You get herons, curlews, lapwings”. And, generally, wet places on the farm are not productive so there is no loss to the farmer.

Danny also highlighted the importance of joining up the pockets of excellent but fragmented habitat that exist throughout the catchment area. Since WW2 well over 50% of hedges have been lost and with them an important means of connecting habitat pockets. If we re-connect habitats through field-edge hedges we create a motorway running through for insects and other animals. Hedges also reduce floodwater runoff, provide shelter for stock, build soil organic matter and contribute to carbon sequestration. Again, a multiple win solution.

In conclusion Danny emphasized that there is no such thing as cheap food. Food that is cheap to buy from the supermarket has costs for animal welfare, the environment and global warming.  He urged us all to buy local, buy British and eat produce that is in season.

Nature-friendly farming could, he said, be the solution to many of our current issues – we just need to support it.

All photos are by Danny Teasdale