When Paul and Kirstie Stenning bought Dunsdon Farm seven years ago, they had no idea what an important conservation area they had moved into, the couple with their seven-year-old daughter Eliza, needed more land for their horses and were looking for an opportunity to run a rural business of some kind.
What they have ended up doing is playing a major role in an important grassland restoration project and alongside this running a sustainable holiday business.
“We have 54 acres and it was too much for us to do nothing with, so we looked around to see what was possible,” says Paul. “We were always interested in conservation, and so we contacted FWAG and they came along and did a survey for us and then linked us up with Devon Wildlife Trust.
“We soon realised that we were sitting between the two sites that make up the Dunsdon Nature Reserve, a site of rare culm grassland and that there was a potential to get involved in a project that is helping farmers to restore this grassland.”
The Wildlife Trust was already managing the nearby reserve and was very keen to work with Paul to revert 10 acres on the farm to culm grassland, which, in turn, would encourage rare insects and birds and improve their chances of survival.
Becky Aston, advisory officer, Working Wetlands Project, explains: “Culm grassland is a very rare habitat, as about 90 percent of it has been improved or lost to scrub, since about 1910. This is the key place for culm grassland, which is really species rich and good for quite a lot of rare animals, such as the dormouse, the Marsh Fritillary butterfly and Barn Owls.
“The rocks are called culm measures and so the grassland is called culm grass and you get an interesting mix off rare flowers tussock grass with big wet pools in between, which is what is so good for the wildlife.”
Restoration of 10 acres of farmland began about two years ago and the first part of the project was to look at maps of the area from 1880 and turn the one large field back into four smaller ones, planting all important hedgerows.
Becky explains: “We did quite a controversial kind of soil stripping because it was nutrient-rich and wild flowers don’t like high nutrients, so we took off the top layer of soil to about 5cm above the clay line and then the seeds were broadcast.
“Within the first year we had a field of Ox-eye daisies, but these gradually dropped off and the other wildflower plants have started to come through.”
The next part to get right was the grazing as the grassland needs either native cattle or ponies. Paul brought in Highland cattle, chosen because they are a lighter native breed and don’t need to be brought in over winter. He is hoping to slowly expand the herd over the next couple of years, but keeping within a sustainable number for the land available.
Paul says he has seen a big rise in the amount of wildlife in his fields, including over the past two years, Barn owls nesting in one of his old barns.
“We put a camera in the nest box and for the past two years we have had two fledglings, which have been great. We had a survey by The Bran Owl Trust who said this area was perfect for the birds.”
Much of this is to do with the way the culm grassland is grazed more lightly than other fields, resulting in longer grass, which is ideal for voles, the owl’s favourite meal.
Grants are available to help farmers manage and protect culm grassland.
But Paul wanted to ensure their farming business could continue to grow while protecting the rare grassland, and so needed a complementary business that was sustainable and which fitted easily into their land. They initially converted an old barn into a beautiful holiday cottage, but then Paul had the idea of building camping pods.
“It’s a low-impact business and we thought the pods seemed a sensible thing to do so we cleared the area of scrub, took some measurements and thought, what buildings can we use? A barn became the washrooms, and we put in five Quarry Pods in a semi-circle around a central area.
“The pods have sheep’s wool insulation in the roof and electric heating, so in theory, they can be used all year round. The ethos of this is to encourage people to come out into the countryside and enjoy what we’ve got here”
Paul will continue to work with Becky Aston and the Devon Wildlife Trust to maintain the rare grassland and ensure the survival of endangered wildlife.
“This year was one of the best years so far for the wildflowers, “says Becky. “I went out on a sunny day and the noise of the insects was incredible. You compare that to standing in a normal grass field and you really notice the difference.”