The best of Dorset in words and pictures

One hundred acres

Guy Edwardes celebrates a farm of the type which gives the West Dorset landscape its character, and finds a wealth of wildlife there

The cattle graze at Marshwood Vale Farm
The cattle will be allowed back onto the meadows to graze as soon as the land becomes dry enough in late spring. To begin with, supplemental hay will be put out for them each morning under an old ash tree close to the farmhouse.

During my eight years as a professional photographer I have spent countless hours taking photographs on my uncle’s 100-acre farm in West Dorset. The countryside in this corner of the county is characterised by its patchwork of small irregular fields divided by hedgerows and pockets of broadleaved woodland. The farm is situated on the edge of the Marshwood Vale and is typical of many small hill farms in the area. The landscape retains much of its character because the steepness of the terrain makes many areas unsuitable for cultivation.

The cattle will be allowed to gradually graze the meadow at Marshwood Vale Farm
As the grass grows thicker down by the river the cattle will be allowed to gradually graze the meadow. An electric fence is moved a few yards forward twice a day. This photo was taken with a wide-angle lens from beneath the fence, just as the herd were anticipating a fresh mouthful of grass!

As on many smaller farms in our county, the land continues to be managed in a way that has helped to preserve a surprising variety of habitats for wildlife. The steep, rough grassland areas are used to farm a herd of around sixty beef cattle and a flock of some one hundred and fifty sheep. Spring is a busy time of year on the farm, with lambing swelling the numbers of livestock considerably.

Purple orchids at Marshwood Vale Farm
The steep banks on either side of the track which runs down to the farm are home to a wide variety of wildflowers, which thrive in this sheltered position. Some of the most spectacular blooms are those of early purple orchids.

Although some hedgerows have been removed to make the land easier to manage with modern machinery, many still remain, providing a network of leafy corridors in which wildlife can travel safely between other farms and pockets of woodland. Most of the hedges are managed by occasional laying to promote fresh growth, but others are allowed to fill out. They all provide an important food source for a variety of wildlife in the form of nuts, berries and nectar. There are several steep, south-facing hedge banks on the farm. These provide a home for some of the most interesting and delicate wildflowers, such as early purple orchids, violets, harebells and wild daffodils.

Peregrine falcons at Marshwood Vale Farm
Peregrine falcons were once a very rare sight in Dorset but their numbers have recovered well over the last couple of decades. Although most pairs breed on coastal cliffs, there have been occasions where they have nested inland. It is not unusual to catch a brief glimpse of one hunting pigeons around the farm..

Although barn owls once bred regularly in the farm buildings, they are now very rarely seen. Peregrine falcons, however, are now more frequent. They breed in several locations in West Dorset and often hunt feral pigeons around the farm. Another bird of prey on the farm during the summer months is the hobby, a falcon which preys not only on insects and dragonflies but also on the swallows and house martins which nest on and inside the farm buildings.

Great spotted woodpeckers at Marshwood Vale Farm
My bird hide is situated on the edge of a wooded, south-facing slope, allowing several hours of photography in the warm morning light. Great spotted woodpeckers are common visitors to the peanut feeders. This juvenile bird became very vocal whenever its parents approached.

A river runs through the bottom on the valley along the southern edge of the farm. In the past the river was often polluted by farm effluent draining into it further upstream. However, the river is now running clean and the amount of wildlife present is gradually increasing. Kingfishers are regularly seen and there have been signs of otter, although I have yet to catch a glimpse of one myself. The banks of the river are festooned with non-native Himalayan balsam during the summer months. This is an invasive plant, but very attractive. Several species of dragonfly occur, the most striking of which has to be the beautiful demoiselle. The damp meadows alongside the river are used to graze cattle. The soft fertile earth is also popular with moles and evidence of their subterranean activities is always present.

hedgehogs at Marshwood Vale Farm
Although they are generally thought of as ground-dwelling mammals, hedgehogs are surprising adept at climbing trees in their search for food. Its sharp claws enabled this individual to clamber up the rough bark of an oak bow with very little trouble..

There are several pockets of broadleaved woodland on the farm. The largest of these covers a steep hillside and comprises mainly mature oak and ash. It is quite likely that this area has never been cleared, although there is evidence of past management in the form of coppicing. Beneath the steep, wooded slopes is an area of damp woodland where the dominant species are alder and elder. This area becomes carpeted in ramsons in late April and early May, the mass of white blooms punctuated by yellow kingcups. I have a hide and feeding station set up on the edge of the wood to photograph woodland birds during winter and early spring. Buzzard, raven, great spotted woodpecker, willow tit, yellowhammer, nuthatch and jay are all common visitors.

The buds of the large sycamore trees at Marshwood Vale Farm
As spring progresses, broadleaved trees begin to come into leaf. The buds of the large sycamore trees around the farm buildings are particularly attractive just as they break open to reveal pristine maple-like leaves.

The cattle are kept inside through the wet winter months to prevent damage to the meadows. In order to provide food for the livestock during this time, some fields are set aside to produce hay and silage in the summer. The first silage crop can be cut as early as May and it is often possible to cut the same field twice in a year. Fields left for making hay will be cut later in the year, usually in June or July. This provides some wildflowers with the chance to flower and set seed before the crop is taken. Although haymaking is beneficial for wildlife, it is not as productive for the farmer as silage-making, which is also far less weather-dependent. With the recent spate of wet summers, we are unfortunately likely to see less hay being made on the farm in the future.

butterflies at Marshwood Vale Farm
The farm is home to many species of butterfly during spring and summer, especially on the steep dry grassy slopes on the side of the hill. Marbled whites can be found throughout July and into August.

Small hill farms such as this have not been affected too greatly by modern agricultural techniques and intensive farming methods. Let’s hope that it and many like it will remain to preserve the character of the West Dorset countryside for decades to come.

Ramsons, bluebells and host of other wildflowers at Marshwood Vale Farm
The damp woodland on the farm becomes a riot of colour during late April and early May, when ramsons, bluebells and host of other wildflowers rush to bloom before the canopy thickens above them

Dorset Directory