How the estate was formed
William Mills purchased the estate in 1792 from the Compton family. At that time, the estate comprised some 1,600 acres of fields scattered about the Manor. Quite a bit of it was heathy and resembled the New Forest, which it bordered.
The Enclosure map of 1810 (left) shows a myriad tiny fields with individual owners and tenants. This pattern promoted a natural bio-diversity, in the sense that no two fields were tended in quite the same way.
Now that the estate has been largely consolidated under one ownership, it is our responsibility to mimic that variety in order to make room for Nature. We have many different areas we look after, often subdivision of main fields with their own management regime. At the last count, these areas amounted to around 450, ranging from dry sandy heaths, through forestry of all sorts and farm fields, to constantly-wet bogs and water-meadows.
Making room for Nature
At the eastern boundary, we march with the New Forest itself, and form a continuation of the glacial clay cap at an altitude of about 50m. Two significant streams drain the Forest bogs and pour their naturally acid, clear golden-brown waters into the Avon – itself a chalk river.
Following the Forest streams down into the alluvial river plain, the land becomes cultivated. It breaks out into arable, dairy and forest with some heathland. These are remnants of the heath out of which the farm was carved long ago. It is important to recognise and respect the very wide variety of habitats.
The soil is mostly light sandy Grade 2 or 3, with a low cation exchange capacity – meaning that it cannot hold goodness easily. The soil has to be very carefully nurtured as a result.
Soil conservation and “salad bars” for cows
Both farming enterprises at Bisterne work hard to keep the goodness in the soil. The dairy constantly monitors minerals in the soil and in the cows’ metabolism. We adjust the minerals to compensate for deficiencies, and act in two ways: first, we put these missing minerals in the cows’ feed. When the cows dung on the soil, they help correct the deficiency.
Secondly, we sow herbal grass mixtures – in effect a mixture of up to 17 different seeds in one pass of the direct seed drill. These herbal leys have roots that go down to different depths and bring up different minerals. The cows know which ones to seek to cure themselves of deficiencies from this giant “salad bar”, which is also drought resistant, a useful feature on dry sandy soils in summer.
Saving the earth by not ploughing – let the worms do the work
As long ago as 1943, American writer Edward H. Faulkner published a work called the Plowman’s Folly in which he confronted the logic behind ploughing, citing studies that had been carried out some 30 years previously. In effect, he challenged the way in which the deep ploughing of soil was deemed necessary to control weeds and let air into the soil.
He felt that ploughing destroyed the soil’s natural structure, the soil food-web, and just served to expose the seed bank the farmer had so carefully ploughed the year before.
Some ten years ago, at Bisterne, we joined the growing ranks of no-till operators – meaning that we drill directly into the stubble of previous crops without ploughing. We control weeds with sprays, but these are usually fairly simple weed-killers. Yes, it involved an entirely new approach, yes, we made mistakes, yes there were times when the decision to go no-till seemed dangerously misplaced – and yes, the neighbours ever so politely thought we were mad to try it on light sandy soil…but we are seeing the soil’s organic content rise, we are seeing the soil drain better and become less compacted. We’ve saved diesel; we get onto the fields after harvest in a more timely fashion and our yields are holding up. So far, no regrets!
We have invited about 25 beehives onto the estate and welcome them as barometers of the health of the land. The hives are tended by their knowledgeable owners.
As large fields of one crop are not so useful to bees, we try to set out nectar margins wherever we can. The bees repay us amply with their pollinating powers and honey harvest.
Here is a marvellous picture of bees at work, kindly sent by one of the beekeepers who place hives on our land.