Embercombe Land Management Plan
Most of our work at Embercombe includes a land based element. We are blessed with a diverse landscape that provides numerous opportunities to match an activity to any of the wide range of programmes that we offer. As we develop this fantastic resource more choices become available, a richer habitat is created for the wildlife and a greater selection of food and other useful raw materials are provided as well as an ever improving aesthetic.
Eleven years ago there was woodland, one large and two very small fields, a lake ,two hangers and a runway and Embercombe was unfenced and open to the deer. Now forty acres of land has been fenced enabling us to carry out coppicing cycles and the planting of new trees in the woods. More woodland areas have also been created, new hedgerows, field scale cropping, a forest garden and two orchards. Clearly then, since Embercombe took over the management of this land huge improvements have taken place and due to conscious intervention and non intervention more wildlife habitats have been created.
Often the terms natural or unnatural are used when describing the outdoor environment, so this requires clarification. The land outside the deer fence is severely overgrazed by the fallow deer and there is degradation of the broad leaf woodland where no natural regeneration is taking place. In what we may call a natural environment there would be sufficient predation of the wild grazing animals so the flora of the forest would not be under threat. The last wolves were killed by humans in the mid sixteenth century, we are now the only predator and we are not keeping pace with what appears to be an exponential increase in their population. Inside our deer fence on the other hand we have examples of grassland amongst the new tree plantations where a small number of wild plants dominate because they are not grazed. In our new tree plantations where strimming and scything have been used to control the undergrowth a wider range of wild plants exist. The above examples expose two extremes; overgrazing and zero grazing. In a natural environment where wild grazing animals are hunted by carnivores there could very well exist a natural balance where herbivores do not denude the woodlands and glades, trees naturally regenerate and annual and perennial plants can complete their life cycles without being continually nibbled off.
This assessment of what we mean by natural leads to an explanation of how we manage our meadows. Until September 2009 Embercombe had an arrangement with our neighbouring beef farmer. This management involved the harvesting of a crop of hay annually for feeding his cattle, applying a small amount of animal manure and his cattle grazing the meadows in the autumn. The grassland became a little malnourished as more was being taken from the land than returned. This was apparent through observing relatively slow spring growth and small yields of hay. This did not however effect the diversity of plant species as hay was always made in July or August so wild flowers had the opportunity to reseed. The example exists where there was no grazing or hay making around the stone circle where natural regeneration of mysteriously planted oak trees has been allowed to take place, an area that has now been fenced for its protection from grazing animals. In this area and in the areas that have been planted with new trees there has been created through being protected an environment in which trees will develop into new woodland. They are an example of what would happen if no grazing or cultivation took place.
Since Embercombe took control of the grassland it has been grazed by heavy horses that we no longer have and a neighbours’ sheep and horses.
The grassland has now been divided into five paddocks where grazing can be rotated. The oak grove meadow and cedar hill are managed as wild flower meadows where grazing or haymaking takes place in late summer. Last year three north Ronaldsey rams and eleven Shetland ewes were purchased for the purpose of managing the pasture and the provision of wool and meat with all the obvious educational benefits. The ewes have now sixteen lambs, the ewe lambs will be reared and added to the flock and the ram lambs will be reared until the age of eighteen months and then slaughtered for meat. Some of this will be used at Embercombe and the rest will be sold.
At Embercombe we are exploring many forms of land use; vegetables, fruit, polytunnels, orchards, forest garden, coppice, high forest, hedgerows, grazing meadows and areas of non intervention. Our forest garden simulates woodland condition whilst providing food from many varieties of perennial, biannual and annual plants. In the home field we have field scale crops ensuring sufficient produce for all visitors and residents. The new orchard is a traditional plantation with 55 trees including fifty varieties of apple which will provide a staple for generations to come with their many and varied uses. This area also houses the chickens. Over the last few years they have fulfilled a vital role in food production. All the non compostable kitchen food waste is fed to these omnivores who occupy a large area with ample greenery. Until now the point of lay birds have been bought from an organic supplier. We now have a cockerel and we will begin a breeding programme which will inevitably produce male offspring that will be reared for meat.
Meat, eggs, carbon, protein and buildings
The main headings at the centre of our “land based curriculum” are food and shelter. What we choose to eat and how we resource or produce it will be the subject of many “ courageous conversations” here at Embercombe and we hope far beyond. If there came a day where this was not the case it would certainly be a cause for concern.
Part of fulfilling our mission statement is to offer visitors an opportunity to connect with processes and phenomena that assist them in reconnecting with themselves. The garden is a fantastic and accessible resource that offers an uncontroversial connection with the earth that feeds us.
Few people have a close up experience of all that is involved in the production of meat,milk and eggs. At present we buy cows milk and butter and are therefore actively participating in the dairy and meat industry and yet we are unable to offer an experience that helps to connect our visitors with these processes. There are of course many discussions relating to a “need” for specific types of protein and the human, environmental and ethical implications in sourcing it. For example a comparison between the sourcing and consumption of a carton of cows milk compared to that of soya milk may lead to some surprising findings in relation to the impact that our choices have on the planet and its inhabitants.
Organic, well managed grazed grassland is very good for carbon sequestration and for the biodiversity of flora and fauna, whilst offering us the meat, milk, eggs, leather and other animal products that the majority of the population utilise
At Embercombe we are very keen to explore the wild of both our inner and the outer landscape and this outer landscape on our fifty acre site is very rich in wild plants that we can utilise for food, medicine, dyeing, tools, building and more. I am under no illusion however that on the whole this is a managed landscape and much as we underestimate what there is to learn from hunter gatherers both past and present our survival depends on managing the land. What we have already demonstrated here is that through conscious and sensitive relationship with the land, with responsible and respectful husbandry and with an understanding of both the long term needs of human beings and of other species we can, and have created a richer and more diverse environment.
Diversity on all levels is at the centre of Embercombe’s work. We work with individuals and organisations from all walks of life and we do not adhere to or advocate any one spiritual or philosophical path. Our investigation towards finding a sustainable way of managing and caring for our land and producing the food we need also demonstrates an openness to a range of approaches, whilst reflecting the range of views held and lifestyle choices made by the wider community. However the overarching policy for our land management is that of organic practice (we have soil association certification) as it is without doubt that the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is contrary to any sustainable system.
When I am sure that we have sufficient experienced people we will introduce small ponies that will help us convey materials around the site without the use of fossil fuels, which will provide yet another opportunity for children and adults to connect with animals in a positive way. Likewise the introduction of goats for grazing the marginal land and producing milk is being considered.
I will be working this forthcoming winter on a revised woodland management plan that will project ahead until some of the oak trees that have recently been planted will be ready for harvesting for building and fuel (150-200 years). There has been some work done and there is much more to do on a full permaculture design for the whole of the site both retrospective and well into the future.
My wish is that this overview will inspire discussion and feedback.