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May on the farm

As Spring turns to summer, Challacombe bursts into life. The summer migrants have started breeding and the air is full of wheeling swallows and the sounds of other birds. With the grass and flowers leaping up, all the animals are very content.

Swallow numbers are slightly down this year, and so far, we’ve only had one pair of house martins start nesting, compared to 9 pairs only a few years ago. Apparently, this is down to them hitting bad weather coming up across the Mediterranean on top of the challenges they have of habitat loss along their long migration route. We can only hope that those that have arrived here, have a successful breeding season and are able to start replenishing the population, as from what we’ve heard numbers of swallows and house martins are down everywhere. The cuckoos seem to be doing better. There has been at least 4 in the valley, and it’s been lovely to see and hear them. Also back are the redstarts, spotted flycatchers, and we’ve already had a brood of dippers fledge.

After the spectacular swathes of bluebells on the hillsides, the flowers of the meadows and bogs are coming into bloom. Whilst the orchids are probably the most glamorous, though one of my favourites are the white frilly flowers of the bog bean. The sunshine has also brought out the insects; oil beetles, marsh fritillaries and lots of damsel and dragonflies. A strange sight has been flocks of 100+ gulls in our old pastures, feeding (we think) on leatherjackets – the grubs of crane flies aka Daddy Long Legs.

On the farming front, lambing has now finished. The lambs and ewes spent the first few weeks grazing in our hay fields, but have now been moved to our rough-grazing / inbye fields as these now have plenty of grass, and the hay fields are shut up until late August or early September when they are harvested.

A highlight of the month was a few days we spent in the Lakes and Yorkshire Dales National Parks on a study tour organised by the Dartmoor Hill Farm project. Along with a dozen or so other Dartmoor farmers we met with lots of innovative farmers, some regenerative and others more conventional and find out how they working together.

For us, the most inspiring was Gorbarrow Hall Farm, on the edge of Ullswater. When Claire & Sam took on the farm, as is typical for the area they had 600+ sheep, but after finding these to be both unprofitable and environmnetally damaging, made a radical change in how they farm. Moving totally out of sheep they now have a herd of British shorthorn cattle (and a few pigs in their woods) that are 100% grass fed and are hardy enough to outwinter. During the summer they are rotationally / mob grazed in their pasture fields. With each paddock being left ungrazed for 45 or 90 days before the stock returns, this gives time for grasses and flowers to seed and creates a diversity of sward height across the farm. They also have a large area of rough grazing running up the side of the fell, which is left untouched during the summer and so naturally builds up a store of fodder for the cattle to eat during the winter, supplemented if needed by a small amount of hay they make during the summer. Although they’ve only been doing this for a few years it was noticeable how springy and absorbent their soils were, their stock were in great condition and very calm and relaxed, and there were lots of insects and other life around.

Claire & Sam of Wolbarrow Hall Farm

Our archaeology and different ratio of pasture to rough grazing means that we don’t think mob grazing could work at Challacombe, but we share a similar approach of managing as much as possible on what the farm can naturally produce from sunshine and rain, having the appropriate number of animals, minimising what is imported onto the farm - basically focusing on farming in an environmentally and financially sustainable way, and producing quality rather than quantity.

What's happening in June

Looking ahead, the main farming task in June is to shear the sheep which our friend Chris will do towards the end of the month.

On Saturday 18th June, we’re honoured to be hosting a series of walks and talks for the Moor Meadows Summer gathering – see here for the events programme and tickets. The next day (Sunday 19th June), we’ll be once again be opening up our species rich hay meadows. with guided walks at 11, & 2 around the meadows and rhos pasture. There’ll be the usual opportunity to meet our gorgeous Shetland x Icelandic lambs, and other activities too along with tea and cake! Everyone welcome. See (and share) details at

If you’d prefer to experience the beauty and wildlife of the farm on a quieter day or at your own pace, for the following fortnight we’ll have a ¾ mile, self-guided trail through the hay meadows and past the rhos pasture - both of which will be full of flowers and insects. No booking required - just turn up when you want and follow the posts/orange tape. Feel free to bring a picnic too.

For something completely different, each Thursday evening through the summer, nearby farmers Jed & Kenny Watson are hosting working sheepdog demonstrations on their farms at Postbridge. They’ve decades of experience in training sheepdogs and it’s a marvel to see them working – the connection between them and their dogs is amazing. See for more details.

Jed Watson (c) Dartmoor magazine

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