A farming vision for the future

Nene Park is much bigger than people realise.  As well as well-recognised parts of the Park, such as Ferry Meadows and Thorpe Meadows, Nene Park stretches down the River Nene, westwards to Wansford.  As it does, the landscape becomes much more rural in character, with flood meadows, grazing cattle and some fantastic wildlife.  This area is known as the Rural Estate.

For years, much of the land owned by the Trust in this area, some 500 acres, has been tenanted and farmed in a traditional way, which achieved modest amounts of benefit for wildlife and local people.  Looking to the future, the 'public money for public goods' replacement for the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), will reward farmers for actions that benefit the environment, such as tree planting, flood management and habitat restoration, rather than for the amount of land under ownership.

Back in early 2020 Nene Park Trust embarked on a journey to find a new pioneering farmer to work with them, to deliver more nature-friendly farming and in addition, to support the charity’s wider objectives around education, community engagement and environmentally-friendly farming. This would ultimately result in produce from the Rural Estate being sold in the Lakeside Farm Shop, restaurants and cafes in the Park.  The Trust would work with the new farmer, through a share farming initiative, sharing the costs and the income the business generates, in a truly partnership-minded way.

The partnership was advertised nationally and resulted in five applicants submitting their business plans for how they would like the farm business to run. Through a process of interview, farm visits and Zoom meetings, we were delighted to award the contract to brothers Craig and Ryan Baxter, who began farming the land in October 2020.

craig and ryan baxter farming partnersMeet the farmers

Craig Baxter is a graduate of the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester, whilst Ryan Baxter is an accountant now working in Peterborough. Over the past seven years, they have built a first generation beef and sheep enterprise working with local landowners and other charitable organisations; including the Wildlife Trust, to manage restored grassland and some slightly wilder areas of the local landscape.

Their livestock comprise Lleyn and Hebridean sheep, along with native breed cattle including Hereford’s and Aberdeen Angus’.

The brothers grew up in and around Oundle, and have both returned to pursue their shared passion for farming and rural enterprise. The brothers graze around 750 acres of land, substantially all of which falls under the management practices set out in Countryside Stewardship schemes, which are designed to look after and improve the environment. Craig is at the helm on the day-to-day needs, whilst Ryan is involved in the background in support.

The farming system they adopt brings the basic age-old principles of a grass-based system where sheep lamb outdoors, together with modern technology and data. This means that electronic records exist for each and every animal, detailing everything from date of birth, through to their health plan, the medicines they have received, the illnesses they have experienced and much more! Harnessing the power of this data generates knowledge that allows the selection of high health breeding lines, which in turn reduces the need for medicines, antibiotics and treatment, by selecting from lines which have not been prone to illness or disease.

The Baxters currently farm in the local area, grazing land in Oundle, Kings Cliffe, Yarwell and Old Sulehay, and the partnership with Nene Park Trust sees them come further east onto the Rural Estate, albeit not too far from where they first started.

The partnership so far

It won’t have escaped visitors to the Rural Estate that the fields are now alive with 250 Lleyn sheep!

This is the first chapter of the exciting partnership, that is all about delivering truly sustainable livestock farming, in harmony with nature. This means protecting, preserving and improving the Rural Estate using breeds of livestock native to Great Britain, on pastures that are already rich with wildflowers, insects and wildlife.

This is an extensive farming system using natural forage, where sheep are healthy, happy and lamb outdoors, naturally. Sheep farmed in this extensive manner do a great job of improving soil fertility and structure, managing pasture which incorporates multiple grass and wildflower species for the benefit of insects and bees, and any lost wool will no doubt be picked up by birds as nesting material.

The Lleyn sheep that can be seen on the Normangate will be expecting lambs this April. This period is extremely important for the pregnant sheep, if you visit the Rural Estate please use the footpaths responsibly, always keep dogs on leads and away from the sheep to help to ensure that all of the lambs scanned are born safe and well.

Later this year, a small Hebridean flock will be coming onto the Rural Estate – these are charming little horned sheep that are fantastic for habitat restoration and management. The farmers already use these in their work with the Wildlife Trust on restored quarry land and disused railway lines to do exactly that, and intend for these to be a permanent feature at Nene Park.

Whilst shepherding on the Rural Estate, it has been great for the brothers see so many people getting out into the countryside, using the extensive network of footpaths to enjoy the outside space. Do give them a wave if you see either of them out and about – and they will continue to provide updates throughout the farming year as it unfolds.

sheep on the rural estate

Blogs

Craig and Ryan will be keeping us up to date with the latest farming developments in regular blog entries. Visit our blog page to catch the latest update.

Find out more about the Rural Estate.