Meet Andy Gray, RSPB Fair to Nature beef farmer.
From environmental degradation to a fully regenerative system: how to build a sustainable business
Over the last five years, I have transitioned my farm in Devon from a predominantly intensive arable farm to a regenerative system designed to rebuild soil health, enhance biodiversity, and produce nutritious, 100% grass fed beef and venison.
The change was desperately needed. Decades of conventional arable farming had depleted the soils of organic carbon and biology – the things that make soils function both for farmers and nature. When rain came in winter, I would watch precious topsoil wash off the farm and into the streams. When the weather dried up, the land would bake and we would be in drought within weeks.
As the soil worsened biodiversity followed suit. Invertebrate populations dwindled as did the birds that fed on them. Starlings and fieldfares rarely visited our fields in winter any longer, and once common birds like yellowhammers and whitethroats, which had previously bred in our hedges and fed on insects in the arable margins, disappeared.
What was the driver behind Fair to Nature certification?
There is a shared recognition of the beneficial effect farming can have on wildlife populations if manged right. By working with Fair to Nature we want to empower consumers to act for nature and buy food that creates space for nature. I think consumers want to play an active role in transitioning food production to something that actively regenerates rather than damages ecosystems.
How does Fair to Nature fit with your farming system?
Fair to Nature has the rare distinction of recognising the role of farmers in creating and managing habitats, as well as an understanding of how to allow ecosystem health around and within productive farming systems.
This means areas of unproductive but ecologically valuable land are championed, as well as diverse cropping systems, which is exactly the approach I am pursuing at Elston.
I want scruffier edges – hedges spreading out at the base into tussocky margins that support species from whitethroats to grass snakes; native grasses and herbs underpinning healthy invertebrate populations; woodland creation for carbon and wildlife.
Fair to Nature understands this holistic approach and helps communicate it to consumers.
What’s your favourite farm wildlife habitat?
I particularly like my hedges! When I took on their management they were heavily trimmed in the summer and were just grassy Devon banks. I immediately switched to trimming just every two or three years, always in winter when birds aren’t nesting. This allowed them to grow bigger and produce vastly more berries, pollen and nectar. Twenty years on and they are thick and tall, with bases that grow out a good metre to three metres, allowing ground nesting birds good hiding space from linear predators such as foxes.
Are there any particular species you are looking to attract on your farm?
Redstarts, I think, are a great indicator of good insect numbers. The insects on this farm were particularly depleted by intensive management and are now coming back. I think by building my insect numbers through soil management, livestock and pollen rich swards with flowers I can get more redstarts here.
TOGETHER WE CAN CREATE A BRIGHTER TOMORROW
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