“IN MANY AGRICULTURAL HEARTLANDS, THE SOIL HAS BEEN DEGRADED TO SUCH AN EXTENT IT’S BEING BLOWN AWAY BY THE WIND”
Words: Clare Finney
Imagine a large, modern day field of wheat in, say, East Anglia. At first glance it’s beautiful: woven, golden ears rippling and rich with the promise of bread, cakes and pasta. Look deeper, however, and you might find such beauty is barely soil-deep. British farming is dominated by monoculture: the cultivation of a single type of crop or animal in the name of yield and efficiency – but at great cost to the environment. Soil degradation, water pollution and the loss of wildlife and biodiversity are just some of the consequences of sustained monoculture – and it is these consequences which Richard Vines sought to tackle when he set up Wild Beef.
“I decided I would try and do something a bit original with my land” – in part, he confesses, because he needed to provide for his family. He was unemployed at the time but had the fitness (Richard is ex-army) and business acumen to make something of his 40 acres in Dartmoor. He didn’t set out to be a standard bearer for ethical faming, but he did love nature, and held his herd of native Devon cattle in high esteem.
He’d seen industrial farms: “Large units, sometimes 1,000 heads of animals, who never go outdoors. They have cubicles and loafing areas, and their food is high energy and high protein, so they live a very artificial lifestyle, totally alien to their natures.” The fact the direct opposite – grazing his herd on Dartmoor, maintaining thickets and gorse for shelter, making manure and silage – also addresses the issues of monoculture is in part a happy coincidence of his care for his cattle, and the beautiful moorland in which he lives. “It is mixed land use,” he says, “which is the best there is, because you can grow your own feed and straw for bedding, and produce farmyard manure that can actually be put back on the land.”
In many agricultural heartlands, the soil has been degraded to such an extent it’s being blown away by prevailing winds. “The land has been tilled and tilled until the particles are tiny,” says Richard. What’s more, monoculture reduces biodiversity. “It is like growing beans on blotting paper in a school lab,” he adds. Having depleted the natural support and pest control provided by a diverse ecosystem, monoculture farmers have to try and replicate it in the form of synthetic herbicides, insecticides, and fertilisers. Chemicals used to keep the weeds at bay “don’t support nature”; on the contrary, they are often actively harmful, destroying the microbes and weakening the soil structure. “There isn’t the same microbial activity. Then you lose even more from the top soil when it blows away.”
Yet much of this can be remedied via the application of natural, homegrown farmyard manure. “It acts like a daub and wattle on the wall: it puts structure back into the soil, and it is good for microbial activity.” By way of contrast, chemical substances are fairly indiscriminate in their slaughter, so a variety of wildlife, beneficial insects and native plants from neighbouring ecosystems will be affected as well.
The argument for mixed land use, therefore, is a strong one. “It changes the productivity of the land and maintains its quality.” Of course, Richard adds, monoculture is “highly productive, and produces cheap, efficient, profitable food. Never has food accounted for so small a proportion of our income.” However, the price you pay does not account for the cost this method of farming can have on the soil long term. Vast swathes of monocultured land are now uncultivatable. What is more, the food that monoculture produces is arguably less nutrient-dense than that which has been responsibly, sustainably cultivated.
In spring and summer, Richard’s cattle feed on Dartmoor’s “perennial grasses. They come up every year, and they go down deep: 20 or 30 inches, bringing up water and nutrients. Because they do that, you get more goodness, protein and nutrients in each mouthful that they – and ultimately you – eat.”
For Richard, allowing cattle to graze out on the moors alongside sheep and ramblers allows them to “express their natures in as natural a way as possible”. They live in herds, they have freedom to move around. For the consumer, this means nutritious, deeply flavoursome and high-welfare meat. It also means meat that’s free from antibiotics. The most efficient approach is to keep the cattle in close proximity, with very little outdoor time, but close quarters are a breeding ground for bacteria so to avoid an epidemic, these intense, monoculture farmers must mix antibiotics into their feed.
For the countryside – the historic moors, the hedgerows, the waterways, and the wildlife within it – it means viability. By gradually pruning certain flora and breaking up the ground with their hooves, which enables reseeding, the cattle help to sustain the delicate balance of plants, insects and birds which are unique to Devon and Dartmoor. They fertilise the land, while the sheep eat the rough grasses and process the worms the cows cannot deal with, working in symbiosis with their fellow mammals. And all the while, the humans walking the moors, or eating Wild Beef from Borough Market, are reaping the rewards of an approach to faming that is delicious, but also sustainable in the long term.