Return to the wild
On 5th June 2021 the United Nations launched its Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. It is a rallying call for the revival of ecosystems to benefit people and nature. Caroline Bingham took a walk on the Doddington Estate to see behind the scenes of the ‘Wilder Doddington’ project where nature recovery is the priority.
My walk with Isobel Wright, manager of the Wilder Doddington project, provided a fascinating insight into the thinking behind the project and what it might offer to all of us in the future. This is definitely not a short-term project; our conversation revolved around a century long process, but with changes being already visible and benefits for wildlife and climate change starting much sooner.
It was perfect walking weather and starting from the farm shop Isobel and I headed out across the parkland looking at the landscape. Sustainability and conservation of wildlife has been personally important at Doddington for at least three generations. Antony and Victoria Jarvis, the parents of current custodian Claire Birch, protected and enhanced natural features and habitats at a time when it was deemed more economical and efficient to remove scrub, fill ponds and plough up lowland heath. When Claire and her husband James, took on the estate it was and still is encircled and sheltered by ancient and newer woodlands, some of which are understood to be listed in the Domesday Book and can be seen on old farm maps from 1749.
Over the centuries the business of farming on the estate has seen many changes, usually driven by market forces. In the ’70s the family stopped dairy farming and in time passed the day-to-day management of the arable crops to a contractor. A Lincoln Red suckler cow herd was introduced and areas put aside for Christmas tree production, with all the beef and the trees being sold or used directly from the estate. The woodland provides fuel for the biomass boiler that heats the very successful farm shop, café, wedding venue and retail outlets. Now the most significant new change to the farming business will be the cessation of arable cropping whilst the herd of Lincoln Red cattle will slowly increase and will play a lead role in the Wilder Doddington regeneration.
Wilder Doddington is going to be created by allowing ‘natural processes’ to recover nature. Isobel was keen to point out that this does not mean simply closing the gates and abandoning the land. Cattle will slowly be introduced at very low stocking rates into the old arable fields and woodland; in time they will winter outdoors with their free ranging movements and grazing behaviour creating new niches and opportunities for wildlife. Further into the future, ponies and pigs will be introduced to the system for their complementary benefits. There is a plan to re-wet part of the estate known to be historically prone to flooding – there are fields with evocative and tell-tale old names including Sloppy Ings and Marsh. The end point, some decades away, will be a Wilder Doddington that will be a haven for wildlife, contribute to protecting Lincoln from flooding by holding water back, storing more carbon in wet soils and woodland whilst producing high quality pasture fed beef and timber for renewable energy. For the first few years Natural England, who are incredibly supportive, will support the land transformation through the Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
As we walked Isobel pointed out native species of meadow flowers which were already reappearing with careful management by Mr Jarvis. Another area had recently been topped to encourage new growth of natural species. The low intensity grazing and browsing of the cattle will help create a patchwork of grass, patches of scrub and spinneys of woodland; this more diverse patchwork creating micro habitats for more species than at present. Monitoring these changes and noting what works best is crucial for learning how to protect wildlife in the future. Isobel’s role at Doddington will be to not only steer the project but also to manage the extensive monitoring, research and reporting that will track progress over the long term. The University of Lincoln is working with Wilder Doddington to generate research outputs from the project. Students are already being encouraged to get involved. It is hoped that Doddington and Lincoln can work together to create a centre of excellence to meet the demand for future agro-ecological academics, professionals and practitioners who will drive the adoption of nature-based recovery elsewhere.
The estate lies between the Trent and the Witham and the heavy clay land has been previously extensively drained. We walked on to the site of old clay pits dug to make bricks for the building of the Hall. Brightly coloured dragonflies were dancing around us as we approached. Further along we visited the ‘Scrapes’ field. Here many shallow ponds had been created by Antony Jarvis specifically to attract wildlife. As Isobel and I approached, a large male heron who had been stalking the shallows rose into the sky ahead of us. Wet areas like this will be increased in the future and will make their own important contribution by adding to the flood plain for the Witham or Trent rivers. More Lincoln Red cattle and their calves were in this pasture happily soaking up the sunshine and grazing the still lush grass.
Lincoln Red Cattle
The herd of some 50 pedigree cows will slowly grow in number as more meadow is established. The land offers the perfect space and environment for meeting organic standards of welfare and natural grazing. The herd has already been weaned away from the routine use of wormers and they will be acclimatised to living outdoors all year round.
Calving will be timed to take place in the spring months to give the best welfare to the mothers and offspring. Isobel and I went to meet with herdsman Hari Limbu in the farm yard, where he was supplementary feeding 14-day-old twin calves whose first time mother was struggling to produce enough milk for two. Maintaining high welfare standards is crucial. Visitors will be able to get up close to some of the animals as part of their walks, helping to understand the journey of field to fork of the grass fed, organic beef and the important role they play in the biodiversity of the estate ecosystem. To this end Isobel then took me on a dung diving interlude. Fortunately she did not offer me a glove but I was happy to help in the search for a fresh cow pat. Plenty of older pats showed the pattern of holes where dung beetles had been active. It didn’t take long to find Isobel a pat to plunge her hand into, where beetles were busy breaking down the dung which provides rich nourishment to the grass and clover.
The movement away from intense agriculture to low impact farming will ultimately lead to a reduction in greenhouse gases emitted; lots more carbon locked away in the soils and vegetation of the estate; better and more resilient soils, better water quality in the ponds and streams which cross the land; help reduce flooding, as well as produce sustainable, organic, pasture fed beef, which is served in Doddington’s own café and at events, as well as sold through the farm shop.
Hedgerows and corridors
As we walked along the tracks, we talked about how the hedgerows were being allowed to grow larger with cattle browsing their margins, encouraging variation in the density of growth. Robust hedgerows with a wide variety of species of bushes and trees provide not only a wind break in winter for the cattle, they also provide shelter and food for diverse types of wild animals and birds. A flock of goldfinches were swooping around us as we strolled.
These hedgerows will play their part as corridors for wildlife to move to woodlands and other green spaces which will expand with new habitats created, producing a huge increase in wildlife and biodiversity. These natural corridors can create links from farm to farm helping wildlife to move and breed.
Something for everyone
Isobel told me that in 2018 Lincolnshire recorded a shocking statistic of having amongst the lowest access to ‘outdoors’ and there were low rates of physical activity. Many readers will already be familiar with the parkruns, cycle outs, walking routes and outdoor activities hosted on the estate but in the next months and years there will be new routes linking with existing ones to break down barriers of accessibility. It is hoped there will also be partnerships with NHS Commissioning Groups and voluntary organisations working in social and green prescribing to improve mental and physical health.
Claire Birch is keen that Doddington can act as a catalyst for new opportunities in the wider Witham valley. Already some links are clear – the northern edge of the estate abuts Skellingthorpe Old Wood, Whisby Nature Park is only a field or two to the south and there are other nearby important sites including Hartsholme and Swanholme SSSI. Linking these sites with green corridors offers great prospects for reversing habitat loss, improving connectivity for wildlife feeding, breeding and diversity as well as for human use for leisure and tourism activities.
Over the coming months visitors to Doddington will see and can be part of the subtle but lasting changes Wilder Doddington will bring to the estate and wider area. There are some forthcoming dates for accompanied walks behind the scenes with Isobel Wright in September and you can visit the website to discover these and more opportunities for events, volunteering and enjoying greater access to the estate as a green space.
To find out more about Wilder Doddington, visit: www.doddingtonhall.com/wilder/