Here at RSPB St Aidan's we are very lucky to have a fabulous relationship with our tenant grazier who helps us manage important habitats for wildlife. Our current grazier is Jo Cartwright who is the proud owner of the amazing one hundred and sixty acre Swillington Organic farm adjacent to St Aidan's.
As our grazier we use Jo’s cattle and sheep to keep the grass height of the ridge and furrow area of the reserve at a suitable height for both breeding and feeding birds. In return, Jo gets an area of pasture that feeds her livestock. We have three breeds of Jo’s cows that graze in the centre of our site. These include Angus, Hereford and British White cows.
Angus and Hereford Crosses, which can be seen from Bowers Bimble
Last week Dannie Meyer (Aire Valley & Derne Valley Community and Volunteer Development Officer), Gavin Orr (St Aidan's Community Engagement Officer) and I were invited to have a guided tour of the organic farm by Jo herself. This included the fishing ponds, farm shop and diverse range of habitats. The farm is a haven for both wild and reared animals with a mix of woodland, marsh, pasture and ponds as habitat.
Dannie, Jo and I enjoying the bluebells and sunshine
As a team we spent two hours wandering round the farm. It was a spectacularly sunny day and all of the hard work of the farm staff really showed in the range of habitat and wildlife we encountered. The blanket of bluebells looked especially dramatic in the sunshine.
This estate is home to a range of bird species as well as the livestock that Jo rears. The livestock includes various breeds of cows, sheep and poultry which are reared with animal welfare in mind and using environmentally friendly methods. Of these animals’ the poultry, cows and sheep are reared organically.
Jo also has a flock of hebridean sheep which graze St Aidan's. Hebridean sheep are a rare breed with a hardy but characteristic nature. Whilst at the farm we saw some of the latest additions to her flock; some were even new to the world that morning. Her flock of Hebrideans make their home at St Aidan's outside of the breeding season so can normally be seen between October and March. However this now idyllic estate wasn’t always a farm. The estate used to be the site of the magnificent Swillington House which was inhabitated by the wealthy Lowther family. It was owned by the family for 300 years until the majority of the estate was sold in 1920.
In its prime the estate was 2,000 acres and would have had twenty indoor servants and fourteen gardeners. Sadly the house was damaged by subsidence from surrounding coal mines and is no longer standing. Although some reminders of the lands past still remain. The Georgian walled garden that provided produce for the family is now being restored and reused as a garden scheme for the local community. Swillington Garden Growers who use the garden, are an award winning community supported agriculture scheme that allows members to collect fresh, seasonal and organic vegetables, salads and fruit on a weekly basis.
It was such an eye opener to see a working organic farm and amount of space that is being maintained not only for wildlife but the local community. Overall it really brought home to me how important businesses like Jo’s are especially in maintaining local wildlife for the future and making people appreciate what they have around them. Although the magnificent home of the Lowthers may be gone, the estate is still a much loved home for wildlife and hopefully can help support areas like St Aidan's for generations to come.
I will definitely be back for another visit, thanks Jo!