Innovative Farming on Countryfile

On Countryfile last weekend viewers were treated to a glimpse of Shropshire sheep running through a traditional English orchard in Herefordshire. But behind the picturesque sight of the sheep and trees in the autumn mist was the story of how one farmer is using field labs to drive innovation on his farm.

Mike Johnson of Broome Farm in Herefordshire has linked up with his nephew, Toby Lovell, to find out how grazing sheep in his apple orchards can improve his soil, reduce mowing costs, attract pollinators and keep pests under control for a better crop. All the while producing extra income from the same land.

Anecdotal evidence into grazing sheep

Although grazing sheep in an orchard may raise some eyebrows, Shropshire sheep are generally recognised as the safest breed for this purpose. The field lab set out to establish whether this anecdotal information could provide a useful dual purpose for the land in the orchard, with the option of double cropping, as well as the potential for increased nutrient enrichment, natural pest control and reduced spoiling.

Mike said; “I want to see what sheep can do to keep lower branches pruned without causing major damage to the trees. I think this will maintain good air flow through the trees and help with apple scab control, our biggest problem at Broome Farm.

“We’ve already noticed some positive behaviours – the sheep clear up leaves over the autumn, reducing the source of scab infection in the apples. Also, we struggle to prune the suckers growing at the base of trees (and it’s expensive!) and the sheep tend to nibble these shoots down.”

Potential benefits

The field lab threw up some unexpected hurdles, but also found benefits other than double cropping to grazing Shropshire sheep in this way.

Orchard maintenance

  • On close inspection of the orchard there was no visible damage to the trees, the occasional broken lower branch was most likely attributed to machinery used for grass topping and apple harvest. Damage to bark could allow access of fungal/bacterial disease so was closely monitored, however there was very limited evidence of low bark grazing on these broken branches and where it was visible was attributed to rabbit damage as the marks predated sheep entry to the orchard.

Soil fertility

  • Using sheep to reduce competition from grass instead of spraying or mowing reduced the work required in the orchard, improved the soil health and meant that soil compaction was reduced, as heavy machinery was not needed.
  • The group discussed the positive impact good soil health could have on the health of the trees and apple yield. The importance of mycorrhiza to plant health and growth is well documented and they should be present particularly in apple orchards where soil is not disturbed for significant periods.
  • Earthworms are another useful soil dweller. It was noted that leaf litter was removed whilst the sheep were in the orchard, perhaps due to higher numbers of earthworms, processing leaf litter down into the soil and subsequently alleviating risk of scab infection.

Future experimentation

To assess the ongoing impact, the sheep will be grazed for longer periods in 2016. Soil tests have also been suggested to indicate the presence and abundance of mycorrhiza in the soil and assess the effect this has on the apple yield.

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