CLA Midlands Member Profile: Wojtek Behnke, the Observational Farmer

A Harper Adams Graduate, Wojtek Behnke returned to Shropshire five years ago to manage the family’s 2,500-acre Aqualate estate, after a spell in commercial agriculture and property.

The estate includes Aqualate Mere - a National Nature Reserve leased to Natural England, in-hand and tenanted mixed farming, deer, residential and business lets. Much is designated SSSI and is home to abundant wildlife. Significantly, over 100 acres are lowland peat.

Aqualate Estate - Wojtek Behnke - Mob grazing herbal ley
Wojtek Behnke - Aqualate Estate's 'Natural Asset Manager'

"Everything we do in land management has an environmental impact, so I want to make decisions based on what’s right for the land rather than what I want from it, otherwise we’re always fighting against nature.”

Wojtek Behnke, Aqualate Estate

WORKING WITH NATURE

Wojtek usually describes himself as a natural asset manager, accurately reflecting his passion for the environment. He is well aware that simply because land has always been farmed a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the best solution and he's open-minded as to the way forward.

He says: “I’m keen to work with nature and move away from too much human intervention. Everything we do in land management has an environmental impact, so I want to make decisions based on what’s right for the land rather than what I want from it, otherwise we’re always fighting against nature.

Wojtek freely admits that he’s only starting out, and recognises that not everything will work: “The way I farm is based on observation. It’s not in a text book. I go out, walk with the animals every day, watch what and how much they’re eating, and assess whether it’s time to move them on. It’s the way farmers used to farm”.

He started mob grazing with 50 sheep in a small block and moved them every day. Despite using no fertiliser, grass growth was the best the estate ever seen and weeds were reducing. The estate agreed to implement the system across the whole farm, and his cattle enjoy a seemingly idyllic life in the herbal leys, feasting on a mix of grass, legumes and herbs.

He aims to improve pasture and grassland management, and develop more natural regrowth and regeneration. With arable land under no or minimum till operations, the soil is disturbed as little as possible.

While there is a debate about how much carbon aerobic soils can actually hold, Wojtek says that practices like min/no-till farming, mob grazing and herbal leys enable a healthier soil ecosystem, which should assist in sequestering more carbon and preventing its release into the atmosphere.

“I believe that science will show that healthy ecosystems draw down carbon in multiple ways, though we are all still working out how measure it accurately. I manage our anaerobic soils to sequester as much carbon as possible, as current thinking says that the ability of peat to hold onto carbon is actually unlimited. "

MEASUREMENT
As Wojtek has already alluded, measuring soil health and soil carbon is not an exact science.

However, examination for organic and living matter, together with soil texture and monitoring the presence of worms and beetles are all accepted indicators.

Convinced he witnesses improvement, he conducts his own microscopic assessment of the soil to examine the organisms in the soil food web, aiming for more and diverse life, higher carbon content and more organic matter.

With his system leaving areas growing un-grazed for four months, he knows that his land’s ability to sequester carbon is improving. Having reduced chemical input, he observes positive signs such as an increase in dung beetles, but admits that he cannot – yet - put an exact figure on the improvement or unequivocally credit it to his changes in land management.

Wojtek Behnke
Wojtek conducts his own microscopic assessment of the soil to examine the organisms in the soil food web, aiming for more and diverse life, higher carbon content and more organic matter.

COLLABORATION: HARPER ADAMS
The estate is also working with Harper Adams University research students to find out as much as possible can about the local ecosystem, so they can create as healthy and natural a system as possible. To this end, the students are undertaking insect, invertebrate and bird counts, to create a baseline for the biodiversity within the wider catchment.

He believes that the future will bring about a revolution in farm machinery, moving towards smaller mechanised machines powered by renewable energy that will reduce direct emissions from large farm machinery and be better for soil health – and therefore the planet. Working with these students, Wojtek is at the heart of developments.

PEATLAND: IMPROVING SEQUESTRATION
Aqualate’s peatland is mainly leased to Natural England, with the rest managed by the estate. He stresses that they are still at the early stages of really understanding how peat sequesters carbon, and is working to increase its capacity to do so. In future, this could attract income from the state or private sector.

“If this were a more commercial farm, it would have been heavily grazed and probably damaged the peat,” says Wojtek, “I’m interested to see how we could mob graze it if we can – possibly only when it’s very dry, keeping stock low at other times.”

“It’s all about balance. By grazing we encouraging plant growth, pulling carbon into the ground, but it only takes a bit of rain to get boggy, then cattle churn the ground. If we overgraze and have dry spell, UV light will kill it and it will be releasing the carbon.”

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Lowland peat at Aqualate

COLLABORATION: LOWLAND PEAT GROUP
He is closely involved with Defra’s Lowland Peat Group, which seeks to identify and quantify the potential greenhouse gas emissions and benefits of a range of possible mitigation options for agriculturally managed lowland peat. He’s also keen to create a Midlands group to share experiences and benchmark how much peat exists, its depth and type and how it’s currently managed. He is currently looking for owners of peatland to join the group to compare notes and share best practice. If these members could combine their peat holdings, there is the potential for trading a larger block of carbon sequestration on emerging markets, thus increasing the climate change mitigation.

COLLABORATION: ELMS CATCHMENT GROUP
The Estate is also taking part in ELMS Test & Trials, to see if a farmer led group could come together to do their own land management plans and holding-scale plans in the 12,500 acre Aqualate catchment up to the Mere. Collaboration is key to achieve positive landscape change, but Wojtek needs to get on board farmers who have successful business models and are reluctant to change. Fortunately, all the group’s members are passionate about improving the environment and are willing to work together, for example by combining smaller scale planting into larger wildlife corridors.

Collaboration is even more effective today thanks to the growth in social media, which means information can be shared in real time, with images and video to help communicate more effectively. Wojtek uses Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp to great effect.

Collaboration is key
Wojtek is keen to create a Midlands lowland peat group to share experiences

THE FUTURE?
“Without doubt, rents and subsidy help prop up the business, but they’re both decreasing here as support reduces and we take more land back in hand, so it’s important we get it right going forward.

“Even with an uncertain future, I believe that we will find a way to succeed. Luckily or by design, we’re not trapped in a tight business model and have flexibility by not being wedded to one income stream. We work with nature and natural cycles, and are very fortunate that we’re still in control of our own business.”

With all the focus on sequestration and soil health, it should be mentioned that the estate’s approach to climate change mitigation is holistic, and includes the recent installation of an efficient ground source heating system for the historic Aqualate Hall, considerably reducing the estate fossil fuel use and emissions.

TOP TIPS
You must have an inclination to change, whether for environmental or economic motives.

  • Experiment - try something, even if it’s just half a field – and observe the results for yourself – just because we don't have all the answers doesn't mean we should do nothing.
  • Have a plan, but be prepared to change, based on your observations

Further information: If you are interested in the Midlands Lowlands Peat or Aqualate Catchment Groups you can contact Wojtek via the CLA Midlands Office on 01785 337010, or follow @WojtekBehnke on Twitter

Key contact:

Helen Dale web full.jpg
Helen Dale Rural Adviser