From Farmer to Farmer
How the Hosford Brothers Promote Pollinators
Interview with George and Dougal Hosford from the Traveller’s Rest Farm, Dorset (England)
Interviewed by Lucy Capstick (GWCT), written by Anna Vollmer, reviewed by G. & D Hosford
George and Dougal Hosford support the conservation of pollinators and other wildlife and manage their farm accordingly. The brothers’ Traveller’s Rest Farm is located near Blandford forum in Dorset, England and covers 800 hectares altogether, including grassland for their livestock as well as over 600 ha. arable fields and some woodland. The family have been tenants of the farm since the 1960s and the brothers took over farm management in 1985. They also hope to pass it on to the next generation.
Dougal is a chairperson of the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group SouthWest (FWAG SouthWest) and George leads the farmer cluster that they are a part of. Their farm is not organic, but they put a lot of effort into more regenerative farming practices and manage for pollinators generally. They focus on the maintenance of healthy soils, the reduction of chemical and fertiliser inputs where possible and the establishment of wildflower margins. They have not planted any BEESPOKE mixes but provided their farm as a study site for BEESPOKE research on field beans and hedgerows.
George (left) & Dougal (right) Hosford © George Hosford
Pollinator friendly measures – their wildflower margins
Promoting pollinators and pollination is part of the brothers’ farm management. George and Dougal manage 74 hectares of their land as wildflower margins and plots and have various areas of downland across the farm, which are good habitat for wildflowers. At first, they were unsure of how to establish wildflower areas. But Dougal was very interested and learned on the job, using the farm’s Vaderstad drill to establish the wildflowers. It worked out very well and they had good experience with establishment.
Encroachment of grasses – mowing & cutting
To avoid the grasses to becoming too dominant, the farmers mow the margins and remove the cuttings. They bale up the cuttings and make hay from it, which they feed to their cows. They prefer to make hay rather than silage since hay is cheaper and they can avoid using plastic.
Dougal emphasises the importance of autumn mowing and the removal of the cuttings, to restrict the excess grasses and weeds, and to promote the growth of the flowers the following year. He points out that, “[...] it’s all about reducing fertility. […] if you reduce the fertility, all those things can sort themselves out”.
Costs of management – making hay & sourcing seeds
The farmers are in countryside stewardship (a UK agri-environment scheme) in which they receive subsidies for their wildflower margins. By feeding the cuttings as hay to their cows the brothers are saving money while also offering their cows good and diverse food. For this reason, the maintenance and management of the margins work out very well for them. However, they also recognise that the costs of the management might be more of a problem for other farmers since they don’t profit from, for example, the cuttings since “many arable farms don’t have any livestock, though perhaps they could be composted and spread back on the land as fertiliser?”, Dougal says.
The brothers are proud to have harvested seeds from their own downland to sow in some newly planted margins. Dougal knows about the importance of their seeds: “It's native. They are genetically adapted flowers, they're going to provide long term habitats. Much better. You never know where bought seeds are coming from.“
Non-native seeds might be cheaper and more colourful and provide resources to common pollinator species. However, other critical species depend on a sufficient amount and diversity of local, native plants.
Also, the brothers understand that the costs of seed mixes and thus the establishment of wildflower margins can be off-putting. For this reason, the farmers prefer to use their own native seed mixes, since these seeds have “[..] already been adapting and reproducing themselves locally over the last 12 years”, George says. They see the use of their own seed mixes as “[…] an interesting experiment to do”, Dougal adds. They got a sample of their seeds identified, so they know what species they are sowing.
The brothers are convinced that reducing chemical inputs and insecticides is necessary to ensure sustainable farming and insect conservation. George is “praying for the day when all insecticides on anything flowering are banned, but unfortunately there will still be farmers who are because they think they've got a pest problem. Which is heart-breaking. It really troubles me. I remember years ago when we did used to. […] I was never comfortable doing it and we tried hard to avoid them. But yes, since 2018, we’ve applied no insecticides, we just made that decision. It’s actually a very easy agronomic decision because you're just not going there and whatever happens you take it on the chin […]. We're aiming with the flower strips to try and balance up our natural level of background [predator] species.”
He adds that there are probably a lot more farmers “who wouldn't take an awful lot of persuasion if we can find evidence that if you leave it alone, the insect problems do not get worse.”
Monitoring pollinators & pollination – evidence for the benefits
Monitoring the numbers and diversity of pollinators can provide valuable insight in the relationship between crop yield and pollination (potential pollination deficit). Thereby evidence can be provided to what extent the wildflower margins are “working” thus benefitting crop pollination. George and Dougal recognise the value of monitoring and are very interested to know which pollinators are visiting their margins and how much benefit they bring for their crops. However, they cannot identify insects themselves and find it difficult to pursue the monitoring. They have not yet found someone who is willing and able to do it. They say that many other farmers might think the same way and might also be interested in monitoring their pollinators but wouldn’t know where to start. If they can find someone skilled who would be interested in doing the monitoring, George would agree to that “[...] without a question.”
Without the monitoring and evidence that the wildflower margins are positively affecting the crop, they believe that it would be difficult for other farmers to be convinced. They started the establishment of their flower strips with just with the belief in doing “the right thing” and that “some kind of balance will return”, George says. They just wanted to try it out and see whether it would be compatible with their crop management - even two years before they received money from the stewardship.
Knapweed © Lucy Capstick
Convincing other farmers – certain evidence & policies
The brothers want other farmers to be encouraged to try and establish wildflower margins at their farms as well. But George points out that “uncertainty discourages people from trying”. The uncertain future of policies and subsidies (in the UK) as well the perceived lack of evidence for benefits make farmers reluctant to introduce new management practices. Therefore, farmers tend to stick to their well-known, conventional methods and production management hesitating to “sacrifice” part of their land for wildflower margins.
Dougal suggests that farmers need stable policies and subsidy regulations as well as the evidence that the margins indeed benefit pollinators and crops: “evidence of benefits is really what we need for all these things […]. And also then get the government to pay us to do the things which can actually make a difference. You know there's so much uncertainty still.”
Dougal is hopeful that bringing farmers together to exchange knowledge and ideas with each other is a good way to encourage them and to dissolve their uncertainties: “Getting farmers together and talking about these things is the best way. We had a FWAG Farm walk on Monday, you go and look at things, you get people standing by and you all talk about it. That's the best way to be convinced.”
Since the interview the UK government have very recently announced the introduction of a payment per ha to farmers for not using insecticides on their land. The Hosfords are very pleased to hear this news and are looking forward to entering the scheme and being rewarded.
© Lucy Capstick