Moving on a few hundred years, the Cotswolds became a vastly wealthy farming economy based on the ‘Golden Fleece’. Huge flocks of sheep (originally brought over by the Romans) grazed the landscape and provided the local mills with high quality wool that was transformed into the finest cloths and exported across Europe. The meat, then mutton was only a by-product. The red serge of the soldiers of the Empire, and even now the green baize of the snooker tables all came from the Cotswold mills.
Farming in England hit rock bottom during the Agricultural Depression, 1875 to the Second World War, and lasted some 60 years. This was caused by the ability to import cheap grain and frozen meats from the colonies. During this time much of the land was left untended and here at Oxleaze Farm the only ‘harvest’ was the long-netting of coneys, the local name for rabbits. They are still a pest today with several hundred being caught annually using ferrets.
As a family, we started farming here in 1949 when my father, Jock Mann, bought 400 acres and farmed traditionally with oats and hay grown for ‘fuel’ for the horses that even then were working on the farm, as well as growing wheat and rearing pigs, sheep and cattle. In those days the water was spring-fed and pumped to the farm with a ‘ram’ pump which has to be the most eco-pump ever invented. This has now been superseded by a more reliable source of pure water via a bore hole. I can remember feeding cattle in the winter months with horse and cart loaded with turnips or mangolds. We had what was termed a ‘house’ cow for milk and butter for the farmhouse and cottages – it was great fun learning to milk her and getting frothing fresh milk to drink with rich full fat creamy milk for our corn flakes – delicious.
Jock Mann died following a fall from his horse while out hunting in 1978. Chipps my wife, and I then took on the farming. This was the era of the ‘green revolution’, in hindsight a ridiculously ill-chosen term for our management of the land and well before the meaning of ‘green’ as we know it today. However we knew no better and both the Government and consumers demanded cheap food which is what we, as farmers, were proud to produce. We enthusiastically sprinkled on the nitrogen, phosphates and potash, liberally sprinkled with the condiments of chemicals to enable even our stoney Cotswold brash soils to produce valuable quantities of wheat, barley and oilseed rape. At this time livestock became too costly to manage with rising wages, so monocultures of crops became common practice across the lowlands of England. It was in the mid-90s that we at Oxleaze began to comprehend the damage that we had been doing to the biodiversity of the environment. The government introduced measures to help fund some conservation measures to address this but the EU strategy had produced the mountains of wheat, the frozen stores of butter, the lakes of wine and the heaps of dried milk powder; an horrific embarrassment to all. The immediate bureaucrat’s answer to this was the introduction of set-a-side, an equally manic policy but in the reverse direction, paying farmers to do absolutely nothing with their land! Politicians!
Progressively we increased our involvement with conservation measures, working with the likes of the Wildlife Trusts and Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) as well as Natural England, to begin to rebuild our connection with nature. Now, as fully organic members of the Countryside Stewardship Higher Tier programme and also Phase 1 Pilots for the new, post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Schemes we are seeing a fantastic revival of so much; from Barn Owls and fallow deer to massive numbers of voles, field mice, worms, and all the little bugs that are the foundation for the biodiversity that makes England’s countryside so spectacular. Our farm has finally come alive again.
We are now farming as a family partnership with our three young all actively involved, Katie overseeing The Barn venue, Will coping with the vagaries of the cattle, arable and conservation, and Jo taking a somewhat less hands-on role but with her own lighting business based in an office on The Farm, www.light-housedesigns.com
Nearing retirement and preparing to hand on the baton to the next generation, we have seen a full circle of agriculture. With bird and butterfly species increasing year on year and an entire underclass of bugs and beetles on the march, we definitely know which kind of stewardship we like the best.