Walk on the Greenside

Delighted to receive an invitation to a talk and walk at Greenside Farm last Saturday morning. Owners Charles Bennett and his wife Charlotte are seeking to restore harmony with nature by protecting valuable habitats and creating new ones while at the same time making ends meet financially in producing the food our nation needs.

Greenside – AKA Middleton Farm North – is just two years into a transformation that will see it become a herbal grass rich nature friendly farming operation. Up until 2020, when its last harvest was gathered in, 70% of this 400 acre farm in the Wansbeck valley was given over to arable production. Now they’re experimenting with bird friendly fields, digging a string of new ponds, replanting hedgerows and have created 40 acres of new woodlands.

Significantly the Bennetts’ no longer keep any farm animals of their own but instead let out all their pastureland to neighbours, concentrating time and resources instead on developing infrastructure and securing funding streams, private and governmental, to match their labour and investment. Charlie freely admits they could not have done so much so quickly without the voluntary input of the Alnwick Wildlife Group whose hours of free manpower has been crucial in in preparation and planting.

Charlie Bennett is a charismatic, articulate and humorous figure in his early 50’s whose family has been involved in farming since the 16th century. He’s also a regular columnist on rural affairs for The Northumbrian Magazine. The Bennetts’ were initially won over to join this new wave of regenerative farmers by the example of leading ‘re-balancer’ Isabella Tree and her family whose pioneering work on their 3,500 acre Knepp estate in Sussex is chronicled in her best selling book Wilding.

Research took Charlie to the Lit & Phil in Newcastle where he was excited to discover a detailed 1805 map of the farm (then known as Hartburn Grange) when it was owned by trustees of the Greenwich Hospital in London and whose profits generated income for naval pensioners. This in turn opened his eyes to the extraordinary achievements of one of Northumberland’s most famous sons, the wood engraver and naturalist, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) whose work is probably far more familiar to people than the life of the man who created so many miniature masterpieces over 200 years ago. Charlie is using a spread sheet as well as good old fashioned field observation to record the presence of flora and fauna known to Bewick in his day and track the hoped for re-emergence, alongside the presence of new species introduced since late Georgian times.

The kitchen in the Bewick birthplace farmstead at Cherryburn

I volunteer at Cherryburn, the Tyne valley farm that was Bewick’s birthplace, now a museum run by the National Trust. The Bewick Society, who organised today’s visit, was formed in 1989 to promote interest in the life and work of the great man and the world in which he practised his craft. Find out more about the society and its activities here: http://www.bewicksociety.org

Charlie and his two Labradors lead the way along the old railway embankment

Following an informal introductory talk and questions in the farm’s open sided modern barn over tea and biscuits we set off for our amble round the farmlands. The happy buzz of conversation between us as individuals ranged widely as we sauntered or paused to take it all in. We crossed former traditionally ploughed ‘rigg and furrow’ (ridge & furrow) fields with skylarks singing high above. Learn that the Bennett’s grass lets run longer than normal but are subject to lower stocking densities, attempting to strike the right conservation/grazing balance needed for sustainability and renewal, eliminating the inputs of synthetic fertilisers.

Hawthorn hedges have been planted, old ones enriched, and the stone flanked earth banks (Kests) they grow on gradually being restored. Other hedges, where practicable, are being allowed to spread much wider and higher than conventional yearly cut hedges. They’re managed on a three year rotation, allowing them to be both effective as stock control and fulfil their maximum conservation potential. New fencing also preserves the odd yellow flowered whin (gorse) groves between pastures, a familiar sight in this part of the world.

Bewick’s wood engraving of a yellowhammer from The Book of British Birds

Experimental seeding of one field to encourage foraging by wild birds has had mixed results. The variety of cover sown was more attractive to pigeons and rats than visiting birds. Conversely another seeding trial has attracted record breaking numbers of yellowhammers, a threatened bird species, once common on arable land.

Whin Grove & Dead Ash

One field we strolled through was bordered by a line of dead and dying Ash trees, in various stages of decay, due to die back. Charlie is leaving them standing on the basis they’ve a chance to produce disease resistant seeds and their passing still enriches the natural food chain. Other large grass leys have mini-copses of trees planted protected by stockproof rectangles of wood planks. Once established these ‘arboreal fountains’ should provide 360 degree cover and shelter for stock, whatever the season.

We navigated a burn with its steep wooded banks, yellow bright with celandine and cowslip. A sheltered damp meadow here produces a wealth of flowers in summer. Wherever possible mesh tree guards used instead of the old style non-biodegradable plastic ones, an exercise supported by the Woodland Trust.

We joined up and followed the single trackbed of the disused Wansbeck branch line, past a single platform, all that remains of Middleton North station, now thick with invasive trees. In amongst the brambles a mass of white starred stitchwort and yet-to-flower borage is lining the permanent way.

Further on an owl nesting box sits snugly under the arch of a stone bridge, that would have once facilitated the movement of stock between fields. We eventually return to cross it, enjoying views over the Wansbeck valley beyond.

Explored a new bird hide, next an ivy covered ruin of a brick built wayside hut, overlooking newly dug pond in a medieval quarry known to have provided the stone to build nearby villages. School parties sometimes visit the farm and this is one of the places they particularly like.

Passed a small orchard that produces an apple variety that has no registered provenance, which is fascinating to an apple grower like me. Excellent dessert quality fruit Charlie assures us, but not good keepers.

The River Wansbeck is a narrow winding lowland stream (its course marked by classic oxbow lakes) but environmentally important for having native white clawed crayfish living in its waters. (The invasive red clawed species threatens their existence in the UK, and the government have given the native breed protected status with all that implies regarding everyday aspects of management). Otters, another once endangered species, have returned in recent times and seen off the remaining alien mink along the valley. Two success stories. Yet nature is unsentimentally interactive and Charlie has witnessed otters enjoying a gourmet snack of white crayfish skillfully hunted then chewed at leisure on the riverbank!

Skirt the new woodlands, edged with a fine line of cherries in glorious blossom, before crossing a verdant lane to learn more about the series of ponds scrapped out of blue clay bordering the farm’s biggest field, a south sloping former moor or ‘waste’ that was ‘improved’ in the 18th century. Those old field drains have now being blocked where found, helping re-wet the lower ground and reducing flooding danger on the adjacent road. Amazingly, this project was made possible by Coca-Cola Corporation who operate a bottling plant for Abbey Well spring water at nearby Morpeth. Corporate responsibility policy obliges them to help restore or otherwise enhance water resources in the area they extract from.

Thomas Bewick ‘Tale-piece’ to illustrate a page in his Book of British Birds. (Actual size approx 6 times smaller)

Back at the barn some folk needed to leave for other commitments. We stayed on, appetites sharpened by the walk and good company, to enjoy our picnic lunch enjoying further lively conversation, sparked by reactions to what we’d witnessed this morning. It’s a challenging balancing act that Charlie and his family have embarked upon. One that they’ve embraced with energy and initiative and one in which we all – as producers, consumers and concerned citizens – have positive parts to play. Can’t wait to return in future to see where they’ve got to….

More information at http://www.middleton-north.co.uk

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