Henry Edmunds of Cholderton Estate in Wiltshire
"We have achieved a balance between the demands of modern highly competitive agriculture and the preservation of the countryside."
Henry is a knowledgeable and passionate naturalist. His interest in biodiversity and the habitats for wildlife has guided his management of the 1,000 hectare Cholderton Estate for the past 35 years. In 2012 he was crowned the UK’s most wildlife-friendly farmer, winning the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award. He was also one of the three finalists for ‘Farmer of the Year’, BBC Food and Farming Awards.
Can you give a short history of how you got to where you are now, including why you 'went organic'?
I have long held organic principles. When I took over management of the farm from my father I had already seen the benefits of his traditional, mixed farming approach that suited our light chalk soils. The benefits of a grass break to wildlife were plain to see. As I was growing up I saw hedgerows being ripped out, meadows ploughed up and the loss of wildlife everywhere. All in the name of progress. I have been poisoned by agrochemicals twice in my life, once by sheep dip which affected my breathing and mental co-ordination and second when using another sheep chemical that caused me and the people working with me to become mute for three days. Today, the estate is fully organic, and it hosts visits from wildlife organisations, agricultural bodies, students and enthusiasts who want to see how modern farming operates in tune with the natural environment. We have achieved a balance between the demands of modern highly competitive agriculture and the preservation of the countryside.
What is the key to your success?
Being as self sufficient as possible. The estate is self sufficient in manures and feed, other than a bit of lucerne. Organic farming will not work if you have to buy in feed. Much of our protein comes from vetches. We combine and roll it, and get a yield of 30% protein. Vetches are good for poor land, being nitrogen-fixers and they are good for weed control too, as they outcompete weeds. We usually get yields of 1.5 tonnes per acre. We grow our own variety of sainfoin, called Hampshire Common. Sainfoin is hardly grown now but I’d love to see more of it about. It has lots of benefits being deep rooted, so its drought tolerant, ideal for growing on chalky and sandy soils, is a natural anti-wormer and helps to prevent bloat. Sainfoin is good for wildlife too, especially bees.
How important is energy efficiency for you?
Very. The estate is implementing a carbon reduction programme and is on the verge of neutrality. It’s not just about reducing the use of fuels, but being more self-sufficient. Recently, I build a new cattle building for winter housing. I didn’t buy new materials, but fabricated it out of secondhand steels, some almost one hundred years old. Recycling materials makes a huge cost savings too as well as having environmental benefits, but I am frustrated by new EU regulations which will prevent me doing this in future.
What is your favourite meal?
My own lamb. We keep flock of about 150 Hampshire Downs. It’s the oldest flock in the world as we have kept them here since the 1890s. They are an essential management tool for wildlife. I graze them tightly on a field where lapwings nest. I leave an adjoining field fallow so the lapwings can nest, and they can feed on the insects that are attracted to the sheep dung.
What’s the best thing about organic farms?
They teem with wildlife.
How do you plan to progress in the future?
The estate has a vital role in the community. Ever since the estate was formed in the 1880s, it has been an important local employer and this must continue. The wildlife too is just as vital, so we will continue to manage the land for the benefit of wildlife. Our management has seen lapwing numbers increasing. We have recorded more than 450 moth species, 10% of which are classed as UK rarities, while our woodlands have managed to attract back the Duke of Burgundy fritillary and the Brown Hairstreak, both nationally rare butterflies.
Are there any changes you would like to see in organic standards?
I would like to see the use of ivermectins banned. Currently it is possible to use ivermectins to treat organic livestock, but they have a big impact on the environment, for example a cow treated with an ivermectin will have residues of the chemical in their dung. Beetles are important as they breakdown the cow pat and recycle the nutrients back into the soil. When the chemical is present, the beetle larvae die and the process of recycling is halted, the pats do not break down as quickly and there is greater dieback of grass.
How does your dairy herd benefit from organic management?
We have 300 head of dairy cows, kept in two herds. They graze outside on our special herbage mixes. We sow a diverse mix of grasses and clovers that provide a high level of nutrients which enables us to keep them out for longer. Our cows have long lives too, most having 10 or more lactations, compared with the commercial average of just three.
How can the organic market be improved?
Putting out a stronger message that links organic farming with the environment. It’s clear that organic farming benefits the environment more than conventional and I am sure that consumers would respond to the message of organic farming helping wildlife. At the moment, people do not understand what organic farms do to help the environment.
What’s your vision for the future?
A landscape with more mixed farms teeming with wildlife.
To find out more about Cholderton Estate visit www.cholderton-estate.co.uk.