Middleton North, a small estate situated near the village of Hartburn in Northumberland, has been in Charlotte Bennett’s family since 1923, and comprises a mixture of arable, pasture, woodland and a stretch of the river Wansbeck. Husband and wife Charlie and Charlotte Bennett spent their childhoods in the Yorkshire and Northumberland countryside, which seeded their love of wildlife and farming. Through researching the history of Middleton North, Charlie unearthed detailed maps from 1805 created by Greenwich Hospital, which owned it for a significant period since 1716. These maps provided detail on the woods and hedges in place at that time and, most interestingly, revealed the original field names. Additional research on Northumbrian illustrator and natural history author Thomas Bewick’s works at the time provided Charlie with information to help build his vision to restore the farm as it once was.
Restoring the land
Charlie’s vision has been to turn all of the farm’s 70% arable land back into herbal rich pastures, which not only enrich the soil but also act as a food source for farm stock and provide habitats for mammals, birds and insects. He first started by reviewing and adapting the grazing regime.
Livestock numbers have been halved, and they are put out onto ancient rig and furrow fields in April and taken off in September. The herbal-rich leys are being stock-proofed with light grazing, beginning this year. The remainder has been sown with wildflower and bird seed mixes.
Charlie explains: “Tenants were offered double the land they previously rented for half the price, as long as they didn’t increase the number of livestock. This lower-impact grazing has benefitted the animals and environment while achieving the best prices for the livestock at the market.”
Restoring the natural habit also involved planting 15,000 trees in 2021 with the help of volunteers in partnership with the Woodland Trust and Northumbrian Rivers Trust. Charlie also placed 21 woodland pasture cages across his fields and has planted them with canopy trees surrounded by scrub plants like crab apple, hawthorn, rowan, and dog rose, creating a natural link to hedges while providing livestock cover.
Having already planted around 9km of hedges, the aim is to plant trees on around 40 acres of the farm. Tree planting also takes in the River Wansbeck to bring back shaded and more varied habitats along the banks. Charlie works closely with the Northumberland Rivers Trust, the Environment Agency, Natural England and others to save the endangered native whiteclawed crayfish.
Various ditches on the farm connect to streams in the area, and 13 ponds were dug to improve this water network. Funding was provided by Coca Cola and facilitated by the Northumberland Rivers Trust as a way to compensate for its water extraction activity. Reflecting on working with Coca Cola, Charlie says: “It was an absolute delight to work with them as they showed a genuine interest in creating ponds, as well as the rationale behind it. A cynic might say this is a greenwashing exercise, but I have found them to be genuine in improving the landscape and the natural watercourses on it.”
During our walk through the fields, we heard curlew calls, with grey partridges and stonechats flying up as we made our way along the uncut hedges. The skylarks on the farm had four broods last year, and a recent winter bird survey recorded 300 yellowhammers, possibly the population for 10 miles around – paradise for farmland birds in the vicinity.
On rewilding, Charlie says: “It is a dangerous concept as it is very divisive, and quite often interpreted as excluding any existing managed natural environment or farming activity. I much prefer ‘common sense farming’, as this allows you to have natural and environmental assets working in tandem with farming profitability.
“Common sense tells me that we can enhance and create a mosaic of habitats across the farm at the same time as having a sustainable and viable stock operation. You need to understand what the landscape and history are telling you and act accordingly.” Revenue streams on the farm include several capital project works, environmental payments, rent from cottages and properties, sale of silage and on-farm events. When it comes to carbon capture as a revenue generator, Charlie says: “I think this concept is in its early stages of development, but there will be opportunities, especially if it is annualised as farm income. The important thing is to gather data as early as possible, regardless of what you end up doing with the carbon.”
The bureaucracy to get funding for capital works from government agencies has been frustrating. Charlie says: “It would have been better if they provided upfront payments, as in Ireland.
“In terms of advice, sometimes it is much better to listen to differing views, which might inform your own decision making. Or just listen to your gut.”
Reflecting on being a CLA member, Charlie adds: “The CLA’s advisers do a very good job, and I have sounded them out on advice on various occasions on issues ranging from land management to planning. From my perspective, it is exceptional value for money. “Of course, I also rate the networking opportunities provided by the various events, and not forgetting the CLA’s powerful voice to government.”
Charlie has facilitated a number of engaging events on the farm. These have included a wildflower, bird and insect walk, a moth survey night, an owl box day and a foraging day. Being equally committed to educating and sharing their experiences with others, Charlie and Charlotte are planning to restore an old farm building to create an education centre, with a fully functioning classroom and associated facilities.
Charlie is also involved in trials involving Defra and Natural England, contributes a quarterly article for The Northumbrian and is involved with Citizen Good, an organisation that helps global corporations connected to the land pursue sustainability measures.