James Ham is reaping the benefits of farming hand in hand with nature on his 132-acre mixed enterprise over the year.
He farms with his wife, Martina, and their son and daughter, on the edge of Moyvore, in the heart of Co. Westmeath.
Aiming to reduce his use of chemical inputs, he has never used any insecticides on the farm, and over the last ten years, the level of fungicide used on the crop has been reduced to the point that he applied none last year.
He has also scaled back chemical fertiliser inputs and replaced them with farmyard manure.
The family runs a 20-strong Aubrac suckler herd and grows 4ha of spring barley to be “self-sufficient in feed”. Half the farm is now under afforestation and woodland, which he feels “complements the entire system”.
Tree species include hawthorn, blackthorn, spindle, crab apple, oak, elm, holly, sycamore, alder, beech, birch, Norway Spruce, Douglas Fir, Larch and Scots Pine, amongst others.
The continuous cover forestry system contains a wide range of hardwood and softwood trees.
James maximised the amount of open spaces within the forestry plantations to help create wildflower reservoirs for insects, and the wet areas and drains are “ideal” for dragonflies.
“I do not see the forestry woodland element as anything different. It is still part of the farm; it is not a farm and forestry, but it is a farm with forestry as one of the elements on it.”
“The critical thing for us in forestry is that we are managing it on continuous cover forestry principles, so it will never be clear felled,” he explained.
“We develop it so that it will continue to grow, develop and produce timber, but also create a range of habitats for all the wildlife now on the farm.”
“The afforested half of the farm, despite being relatively young, has greatly improved the amount of wildlife on the farm. Pine martin is now present, and the Jays are obviously doing their job, as we see little oak and hazel seedlings all over the site.”
Moreover, there are over 4,000 metres of hedgerows on the farm, equivalent to approx. 1.5ha of linear woodland, which is left mostly left untrimmed.
Regular hedge maintenance is by traditional hedge laying, and these thick and mature hedges provide not only a crucial habitat for birds (over 56 species) and insects but also shelter for their livestock.
“When we talk about hedge systems on a farm, sometimes we forget these are man-made structures that are there for a couple of hundred years and were planted primarily as field divisions, before post and wire.”
“When we look at hedges here, they most definitely are in excess of 200-years-old. We can happily say that they are in reasonably good condition, and that should be attributed to what the people before me have done in terms of hedging.”
“As a farm, we will never survive unless we have a product which we can sell to generate an income to keep the family farm. We do not need to be expending a lot of energy and expense to recreate something that is artificial.”
“It is there already; if we learn to appreciate it and learn what is in it, nature will do rest. You have to remember that if the farm is healthy for nature, it is healthy for us.”
Farming for Nature
Ham is one of five ambassadors chosen for the 2022 Farming for Nature public vote awards. Organisers have invited the public to vote for their favourite farming story by visiting its website.
The five ambassadors will be featured at the annual Burren Winterage Weekend this month, when the winner of the public vote award will also be announced.
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