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DEFRA in 100 objects

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is picking 100 objects which can tell the story of the department, its people and what it does. I work part time for the Rural Payments Agency which is part of DEFRA so submitted a boundary stone from North Meadow. Today I went to London and did the following short presentation about it to the Permanent Secretary Tamara Finklestien and the other member of ExCo, the senior management team of Defra and its related bodies.

As I couldn't take the stone (it weighs over 50kg, is a scheduled ancient monument and it's currently a foot under water) I took a bag of hay from North Meadow and passed this around for each to smell. Who says you can't bring the essence of North Meadow to central London on a wet January day!

A boundary stone from North Meadow Cricklade

My name is Andy Rumming, and I work for the Rural Development Team in the RPA, principally on animal productivity and health projects. I also run a regenerative farming and butchery business on the edge of the Cotswolds focusing on 100% pasture based beef.

What has a group of old boundary stones in a field got to do with Defra? Well, the boundary stones in question mark out areas of one of the most important lowland meadows in the country, the 110 acre North Meadow National Nature Reserve at Cricklade in Wiltshire. It’s nearly all owned by Natural England – so these are objects that Defra are own and are direct custodians of.

The current boundary stones where set out in 1824 after the enclosures. There are 20 of these left, mostly limestone with the odd sandstone replacement. Some have initials carved on which related to the owners of the plots. All are now scheduled ancient monuments and listed.

What makes these boundary stones special is that they denote “haylots” that were and still are sold to local farmers in the summer, just before it becomes common grazing land. The meadow is a Lamas meadow, so common land between Lammas Day (Aug 12th) and Candlemas (variable but in February) with the common grazing administered by the Court Leat, an ancient form of Town Council. The remainder of the time the meadow is shut up for the hay crop. It normally flood every year as is bounded by the river Thames and Churn, storing a vast amount of flood water and providing a habitat for winter wildfowl and waders. These seasonal floods deliver nutrient rich sediment, and also influence a set of very important plant communities which mean that well over 200 species of plant are found in the meadow. Absolutely key to maintaining this spectacular biodiversity is a well timed hay cut. It’s essential to remove the nutrients from the meadow (in the form of the hay) otherwise the nutrients will increase over time and biodiversity reduce.

The plant the meadow is most famous for is the Snakes Head Fritillary. North Meadow hold 80% of the countries plants and in a good year 800,000 bloom. In full flower (normally mid April) It is one of the great natural wonders of England (and should be on your bucket list to visit).

I should admit that I have a personal link here, in that as well as working for the RPA 3 days a week, I and my family farm beef cattle and are one of the 2 haymakers left on North Meadow. So in partnership with the reserve warden Aidan Fallon from NE, we plan the haymaking lots (as marked by the boundary stones), we buy the standing hay, cut, turn and bale it, and then feed it to our suckler cows in the winter.

There is nothing more pleasurable than in the depths of winter splitting open a bale to find a full meadow herbarium, including fritillary seed pods, fragrant lady’s bedstraw and my personal favourite Great Burnett. The cows also fine it highly palatable and love it.

I sell the progeny of the suckler cows as beef direct to customers, making really clear about how the agricultural system supports the objectives of the NNR, and that a diverse 100% pasture based diet makes for better beef.

So I see the boundary stones as a still thoroughly useful part of the meadow that links the past to the future. The Court Leat, the lamas system, a water meadow and haymaking sounds old fashioned. However if you choose to use 21stcentury vocabulary it could easily be described as a community /public partnership administering eco system services and public goods as well as delivering low carbon food with a superior nutritional profile – if that isn’t the future of land management what is?

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