Wyke is a name that came to England in the 11th C. wave of migration that was set off by the Norman Conquest of 1066. The name derives from the Old English word wic, which describes someone who lives at an outlying settlement.
The current owners bought the property in 2000; then, an intensive dairy farm boasting 300 cows, supplying milk to a local cheese-maker, Coombe Farms.
The farm straddles the border of West Dorset and Somerset and comprises grass and woodland, rolling hills and soil made up largely of clay and greensand.
Quite early on, it was understood that the business of intensive milk production would meet with some significant headwinds. Not only were we forcing cows to produce higher yields, but we were also forcing nature to do our bidding. To make commercial sense we either had to get bigger or get out. We chose the latter.
Milking parlours were dismantled, machinery sold and slurry pits converted to ponds and the cows sold at auction. The farmhouse became our home and the farm our biology laboratory.
What does that mean?
Well, it is our rose-coloured view that farming and conservation should be bed fellows. It is surely not beyond the wit of man to marry the needs of the farmer and farming with the balance that is subscribed by nature. If there is any truth to this, then only by changing the way this farm had been managed and setting out clearly what we meant by conservation, would we ever discover the truth.
We embarked on restoring wildflower meadows, replanting hedgerows, creating woodland corridors, digging waterbodies and (re)introducing native cattle and sheep to the mix. These came in the form of native breeds, (Ruby Red Devon cows, Dorset sheep, rare-breed pigs) which were procured locally and then watching, counting and documenting what else would turn up of their own volition.
What was clear is that soil is the precursor to everything we do. Without healthy soil, you are going nowhere. So the first thing we did was to take measurements of all the nutrients, micro-nutrients, organic content and so on. Well, it should have been no surprise to us that on an intensive dairy farm, where you endeavour to get three silage cuts a year, you have to put on lots of fertiliser; the famous three: N, P and K. With that you were minded to sow 3- or 5- year leys (grass) with Italian Rye and commercial white clover, the two predominant species. Rye because it is a great protein source for ruminants and clover, because it fixes nitrogen. With this was the usual mix of arable weeds: dock, creeping thistle and nettle, which came up for free. A grand total of 5 species.
On the farm next door there was a SSSI registered wildflower meadow. The question we asked ourselves was how do we go from here to there? The answer came in the form of Dr. Grahame Dixie, Dr. Jo Francis and a cohort of willing helpers, who prescribed 8 different methods to establish wildflower meadows, all based on the fact that native wildflowers, on the whole, like unfertile ground, hate ryegrass and require plenty of time to find their feet. So the first task was to un-fertilise the meadows; this we did by cutting, carting, burning, lifting, deep ploughing – all a total waste of time. The best and only way we found was to take off about 8-12 inches of topsoil and then kill everything that grew for three consecutive years. The topsoil was arranged in bunds and planted into an extension of ancient woodland, the plant matter was sprayed, cut and then burned. In the fourth year our kindly neighbour allowed us to brush-harvest his wildflower meadow late in August. The seeds were then broadcast and rolled into the tilth created and “Hey Presto!” One wildflower meadow. For the first few years cows and sheep were disbarred from grazing the wildflower meadows, however today we welcome them. Not only do they self-medicate but they also poach the soil and distribute seeds in different ways.
Water is a magnet for wildlife. If you dig a pond, lake or scrape, in short order, you will have insects, reptiles, birds and mammals living in or on your waterbody. One of the only good things I can say about clay is that it holds water. Dig a hole and you have a pond. As a conservationist, you learn that nature is resilient. Leave it alone and it will come back. So, by creating an interestingly diverse flora (soil followed by flowers), the fauna (animals) will come.
As the years have rolled by, we have been fortunate to be able to add some woodland and other fields, hedgerows and waterbodies (said kindly neighbour folded his overalls and sold us the farm with the SSSI wildflower meadow in 2017). The ideas and the mistakes have been many but the thesis holds: nature and farming go hand in hand.
The documentary evidence of nature at play is demonstrated on this site. Over 128 species of wildflowers inhabit the meadows, many bird species have been spotted or ringed, over 500 species of moth trapped and logged, 68 spider species have been ‘hoovered’, 8 of the approximately 12 native bats have been recorded, a couple of newt species and lichens, mosses and worts aplenty.
It is our hope that this site lives, which it will only do with your input. If you spot, log or photograph something at Wyke Farm, we welcome your contribution.