Meet the farmer: Rose Dale of Manor Farm, Chearsley

November 12, 2021

Manor Farm Long Horn cattle; looking towards the River Thame with Chearsley church in the background.

Where and what do you farm?

Manor Farm is a 300 acre, 90 Ha organic farm in Chearsley, Buckinghamshire. We rear pasture fed beef and lamb. I have a small herd of pedigree Longhorns which are entirely grass-fed and reared extensively and as naturally as possible. I also have 3 small flocks of pedigree sheep, Oxford Downs, Greyface Dartmoors and Gotlands. I hope to produce sheepskins and wool as well as pasture-fed meat.

My parents bought Manor Farm in 1969 and ran a successful ‘Pick Your Own’ operation for many years until changing trends in the way people buy and preserve food meant this stopped being a viable option. They ran a beef suckler herd until the BSE crisis of the late 1990’s struck, when along with many other beef farmers they had to retrench and find new ways of keeping the farm business going. They were always interested in conservation as well, and have planted trees, laid hedges and restored grassland diversity, which has given me a great start on my path towards a farm managed more extensively and regeneratively.

What is your relationship to the local rivers/ river Thame?

The River Thame borders one side of the farm with Chearsley Brook (a tributary of the Thame) running along another side. We have permanent pasture flood meadows with pollarded willows and have recently planted an area of wood pasture by the river. The pasture was used in my father’s time as well, when farmers were encouraged to fertilise even these areas although they would have been naturally fertile from nutrients deposited during annual flooding. I wonder if we are still experiencing the impact of this on the diversity of species in the grassland.

What motivates you to keep farming?

I am relatively new to farming but want to try and create a model for sustainable farming. I appreciate that I’m a custodian of this lovely piece of land for just a short time and think it’s important to nurture and protect it as well as try to improve it.

I’m motivated to enhance biodiversity on the farm in tandem with producing high quality, high nutrient food. I also feel strongly about animal welfare. I firmly believe that pasture-fed ruminant livestock have a crucial part to play in our farming system. They avoid the need for artificial fertilisers, and permanent grassland allows for an increase in soil health and consequent biodiversity, with all life coming from the soil. Studies have shown that pasture-fed meat is better for people with higher levels of nutrients like omega 3 and conjugated linoleic acid.

Despite the many difficulties and stresses associated with farming I want to go on to create a sustainable future for the farm. It is infuriating working with this ethos when suddenly the beauty of the Thame valley is marred by unnecessary and hideous fencing along the length of the railway line, disrupting the natural setting of the Thame Valley Walk, a popular footpath used during lockdown and supporting local people’s health and wellbeing. The fencing erected by Network Rail is high security galvanized palisade, visually jarring in the countryside, which must have a high carbon footprint and is surely at odds with the company’s recent pledge to tackle climate change and their Environmental Strategy.

What are you doing to make your farming practice more sustainable in the face of the increasing impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss?

I have converted to a fully organic system and I am registered with the Soil Association. My livestock is pasture-fed; I think this is more sustainable than feeding animals on food that is suitable for human-consumption (like soya or other grain), particularly when it has been produced with a loss of artificial chemicals and fertilisers or been transported great distances. I am in the process of becoming certified with the Pasture Livestock Association.

I’m very aware of the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, where we think the low numbers of moths and lapwings on the farm (to take just two examples) are the norm, but if I think back to my youth, or discuss it with my parents, it’s clear that we’ve lost a great deal of biodiversity in a short space of time. I want to record what we have on the farm now, in terms of habitats and species, to make sure we don’t loose any more biodiversity and can evidence what we’re building back to encourage others. We’re also working with RTCT to bring more natural wet habitats back to the farm as a way of increasing biodiversity.

What is your vision for the future of farming in the catchment, and how would you see your farm, or the way you farm, developing in the future?

I hope the farming will happen in harmony with nature. We must work with the natural environment using the soil to provide fertility, increasing soil health and organic matter so it can hold water and thereby reduce flooding downstream allowing plants to flourish even during dry periods. Biodiversity is a sign of a healthy, functioning ecosystem.
I am hoping to witness the soil health improve, the river become cleaner and nature to flourish on the farm, in tandem with sustainable food production. I want to see people more connected to producers, with sustainable and responsible supply chains and water companies working with farmers to ensure clean water systems on farms.

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