The Observational Farmer

Mike Ashton finds out about how a 2,500-acre Shropshire estate farms within lowland peat while employing land management practices to promote natural regeneration.
Aqualate Estate - Wojtek Behnke - Mob grazing herbal ley.JPG
Wojtek Behnke

The 2,500-acre Aqualate Estate in Shropshire, managed by Wojtek Behnke, farms in a sensitive manner to enhance the land and promote natural regeneration across its sections of arable, pasture and grassland. The estate includes Aqualate Mere - a national nature reserve leased to Natural England – as well as in-hand and tenanted mixed farming, deer, residential and business lets. Much is designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, and more than 100 acres is lowland peat.

Wojtek is part of Defra’s Lowland Peat Group, which is exploring mitigation options for agriculturally-managed lowland peat, and the estate is also taking part in Environmental Land Management (ELM) Test and Trials. Describing himself as a natural asset manager, Wojtek is open-minded about the future.

Working with nature

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.

The way I farm is based on observation. I walk with the animals every day, watch what and how much they’re eating and assess whether it’s time to move them on

Wojtek Behnke

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 had seen, and weeds were reducing. The system was then implemented across the whole farm, and his cattle feast on a mix of grass, legumes and herbs.

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

Wojtek says that practices like min/no-till farming, mob grazing and herbal leys enable a healthier soil ecosystem, which should help to sequester more carbon.

“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 unlimited.”

Measurement

Aqualate lowland peat.JPG

Examination for organic and living matter, together with soil texture and monitoring the presence of worms and beetles, are all accepted indicators for measuring soil health and carbon.

Wojtek conducts a 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 sees positive signs such as an increase in dung beetles, but admits that he cannot put an exact figure on the improvement, or unequivocally credit it to changes in land management. The estate is also working with Harper Adams University research students to find out more about the local ecosystem to help inform future development. Students are undertaking insect, invertebrate and bird counts to create a baseline for biodiversity within the wider catchment.

Peatland: improving sequestration

Aqualate’s peatland is mainly leased to Natural England, with the rest managed by the estate. Wojtek explains that they are at the early stages of really understanding how peat sequesters carbon, and are working to increase its capacity to do so.

“If this were a more commercial farm, it would have been heavily grazed and probably would have 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 are encouraging plant growth, pulling carbon into the ground, but it only takes a bit of rain to get boggy and then the cattle churn the ground. If we overgraze and have a dry spell, UV light will kill it and it will be releasing the carbon.

Wojtek Behnke

Wojtek is 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 is currently managed.

He is 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 climate change mitigation.

ELMs catchment group

The estate is taking part in ELMs Test & Trials to see if a farmer-led group could collaborate and implement its own land management plans and holding scale plans in the 12,500-acre Aqualate catchment up to the Mere.

Collaboration is key in achieving positive landscape change, and all group members are passionate about improving the environment and willing to work together – for example by combining smaller-scale planting into larger wildlife corridors. Collaboration is even more effective today thanks to social media, which means information can be shared in real time, with images and video to help communicate more effectively.

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

Wojtek Behnke

“Even with an uncertain future, I believe that we will find a way to succeed. We are 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.”

The estate’s approach to climate change mitigation is holistic, and also includes the recent installation of an efficient ground source heating system for the historic Aqualate Hall, considerably reducing the estate’s fossil fuel use and emissions.

Key contact:

Mike Ashton
Mike Ashton Midlands Regional Communications Manager