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Jeremy's Blog 29th July 2022: Independent Innovation

This article by Jeremy Moody first appeared in the CAAV e-Briefing of 28th July 2022

The CAAV’s Soils Event, deferred by the pandemic, was held last week at Norbury Park Estate on the Staffordshire/Shropshire border, enjoying the hospitality of the owner, Professor Jo Bradwell. Soil scientist, Elizabeth Stockdale of NIAB, distinguished “soil character”– is a soil sandy, peat, loam, brash, …? – from “soil health” – is that soil in good heart? As a changeable quality, dynamically inter-related with farming management decisions, there were few absolute answers – “it depends” – but improving soil health is important. Becky Willson of the Farm Carbon Toolkit reviewed soil carbon, for its measurement stressing the wisdom of accepting imperfection, the need for consistency and clarity as to purpose empowering the farmer tackling this.

Jo Bradwell had opened the day outlining his science-inspired approach to sequestering carbon on the estate he had bought 12 years ago. Depleted arable land was now in multi-species pasture with 44,000 metres of fencing creating paddocks for managing grazing by neighbouring farmers. Green, even after the hot dry weather, the range of species gave diversity of rooting, drawing more and giving more to the soil which now held more carbon.

A similar forestry strategy of strength in diversity uses 30 tree species in very mixed close plantings proving to accelerate growth, and so carbon absorption, and give resilience to challenges such as disease. That is reinforced by “halo-pollarding”, instead of early thinning, using trees to shade the stems of ultimate winners, preventing side growths. The outcome is tree growth well ahead of conventional yield tables without loss of quality, so bringing maturity and sale dramatically forward with economic and carbon benefits in harness.

New experiments explored the role in nitrifying trees (such as alder) in benefiting other trees and drawing on an old reservoir for trickle irrigation of transplants – treating trees more like horticulture than cereals – both to achieve the desired faster growth with more carbon held faster and earlier sales offsetting costs.

Important for forestry as this may be, the larger moral, especially in these demanding times, is the key role of independent innovation with private owners able to follow their own logic (at their own risk) outside the orthodoxies of traditional management.

In its different context, Knepp also illustrates this, testing where nature will go of its own accord rather than working to a pre-ordained conservation prescription.

Such diversity of thinking offers benefits and insights but in both Norbury and Knepp rests on the strengths of independent minded, innovative owners with their own resources and accepting risk in their venture. They make for a more interesting world, opening avenues and widening debate.

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