Making Nature Pay

Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Making Nature Pay
Making Nature Pay

Farming & Rural Tourism Business

When we took over Dunsdon Farm (North Devon) in August 2005 we never thought that nine years later we would be running a modestly successful farm tourism business. Our intention in purchasing the farm was to provide more space for ourselves and our horses in such a beautiful rural setting.

Having moved on one of the hottest Augusts of recent times, we had a rude awakening, a six month old child, no family within 250 miles and severely dilapidated farm buildings – the house was quite nice though!!. I was also still managing a business 250 miles away.

We quickly discovered what a mammoth task we had taken on in terms of time and money.

Money being the biggest challenge, whilst we had a reasonable income from our existing business, we also knew that the farm would take many £100’000’s to bring back the beautiful old (and dilapidated) buildings and to get the land 54 acres in total in a suitable condition (fencing etc.).

More importantly what do you do with 54 acres and just two horses??

We started to get power and water to certain buildings and fields, and started erecting temporary fencing, but soon realised that we had far more land than we could effectively use, for two horses. We run through various options; sell off what we don’t need, rent out to others…….. but that meant losing control of what we had. We knew we had to make the land work though, in order that it did not just return to scrub.

Woodland Plantation Scheme – "Lots and Lots of Trees"

Hooray a visit and conversation with our good neighbour started the brain whizzing, he mentioned to us the planting of woodland – in particular we could plant an area of the farm with native woodland species under the English Woodland Grant Scheme.

After a number of months of discussions and much reading and signing of paperwork the project was started in February 2006 on 23 acres (covering four fields and 23,000 trees and shrubs). Great! now we had a positive use of major chunk of our land, providing an ecological benefit to wildlife, flora and fauna and a small annual income and more importantly, an area for us to enjoy!

Advice and Support – FWAG and Devon Wildlife Trust

The woodland plantation was our first foray into farm conservation, but sparked a greater interest and led to our looking into farm stewardship schemes that would help us manage and provide a small financial return for our efforts. We decided to approach the Farm Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) to discuss our thoughts and provide some advice and support.

An ecological survey of the farm was undertaken, (paid for in the main by Natural England) and a report and discussion started with Natural England and Devon Wildlife Trust who own and manage the adjoining Dunsdon National Nature Reserve.

We were lucky to be appointed an advisor/co-ordinator from DWT, Becky Aston, who’s role was to put together an application for Dunsdon Farm for Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) and in conjunction to undertake a special Culm grass, meadow re-creation on part of our farm, which would provide an important link (“stepping stone”) for the two separated parts of the Dunsdon NNR.

After a number of months and again a considerable amount of paperwork (that I am glad Becky handled) our HLS application was accepted. A major part of the application was a “Special Project” Culm grassland re-creation on a 10 acre field area and further restoration works on other parts of the farm.

We were now managing 85% of our land under HLS with all of the management implications this involved, but thank goodness we had great support from Becky and the team at Devon Wildlife Trust.

The Culm grassland re-creation was a large project that involved large machinery and many tons of earth moving, but six years down the line what a summer spectacular. The abundance of wild flowers, sedges, vetches and grasses, along with the butterflies, bees and other invertebrates have made this re-created area, somewhere very special on the farm.

The Old Shippon – Restoration to a Five Star Devon Holiday Cottage

With a big part of the habitat restoration and re-creation taken place, we turned our minds to the potential for others to enjoy what had been created, whilst providing and income for the farm, and with plans drawn up we set about the task of converting the old Shippon into a five star dog friendly holiday cottage. After a number of stops (money running dry) we eventually had the cottage ready for letting in February 2011 and started on our advertising journey of trying to attract guests.

Quarry Pods – Glamping or Comfortable Camping Call it What You Like"

Having completed the holiday cottage, we then set about clearing the farms old stone quarry, which had sat unused for many years and had just become scrub filled. This was the ideal site for some cool camping pods, in total five. What a transformation our own small campsite set down in the quarry, with a bathroom block, nearby – just across the parking area.

Time For A Rest

Now exhausted; physically, emotionally and financially – we decided to concentrate on putting the income potential of our small holiday business alongside our conservation efforts. Whilst realising that most holiday choices would not be first decided by our conservation work, we hoped and believed that it would have a “sway” – offering something unique over many other properties in the area.

Wildlife – The Added Value

Our first undertaking was to open our woodland plantation for guest to use. We cut meandering grass paths through the trees all around the plantation and down to the wildlife pond, where we created an opening with a bench and table. This has been a great success with our dog owning guests some spending many hours wandering the paths, knowing that there dogs are secure within the deer fenced perimeter. Next, we installed cameras into our Barn Owl nest boxes and spent a number of fraught weeks connecting them up to the holiday let, our Quarry Pods and down to our house – frustrating, but definitely worth it! We have now had three seasons of nesting owls; and the guests have loved them! – watching them on the monitor and being able to see and hear them outside, at Dusk.

Less prominent, but as important we have created a small wildflower patch between our stone barn and the Quarry Pods bathroom block, this has helped to separate to two accommodation areas and also provided a haven for bee’s and butterflies.

Was it Worth It ?

While I would not say that the majority of guests come because of the conservation work we have undertaken, I certainly believe that it is an added “draw” and that many when they have seen the Barn Owls, the restored meadows and woodland go away with a better understanding.

In addition I would say that for us personally, we would have done it all again, even if we were not running a holiday business! – the pleasure we get from seeing the Barn Owls live their lives out makes it all worth it.