On the western slopes of Salcombe Regis valley, down from the wonderfully named Frogstone, are fields belonging to South Combe Farm. 

These are rare and beautiful spaces. The unimproved grassland is home to many butterflies, flowers and birds. 

Nicola Westlake overlooking her farm on this side of Salcombe Regis Valley - Credit: Charles Sinclair
Nicola Westlake overlooking her farm on this side of Salcombe Regis Valley – Credit: Charles Sinclair

Nicola Westlake, who farms this land with her husband and brother-in-law, is justifiably proud of the contribution their farm brings to the wildlife of the Sid Valley. 

What is more impressive is their desire to increase the biodiversity even more. Read on to find out the wide range of initiatives she has in the pipe line.

The farm, which is certified organic, is owned by the National Trust and has 90 breeding cows and some sheep. The animals are wholly grass fed and the meat fetches a good premium at market. 

Nicola is keen to monitor what impact this will have on future bird numbers. 

Starting on February 4 until February 20 is the Big Farmland Bird Count. 
This follows on very neatly from the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, so if there are any of you who would like to extend your birdwatching hobby further Nicola would love to hear from you on bullocknj@hotmail.com

The National Trust has indicated there have been turtle doves and barn owls on the farm. 

This survey information will be invaluable to the farmers as well as the Biodiversity Group to understand how farming practice can be developed to help our wildlife.

Dog walkers will be interested to know that one of the fields near the scout field is being developed for exercising dogs. This field will be planted not only to make it more attractive for dogs, but for wildlife as well; an interesting and innovative scheme.

Nicola talked of another initiative that they are planning for two of their temporary grass fields. They wish to resow these with a herbal ley. I had to ask what that meant. 

A herbal ley is a mix of grass, herbs and legumes, often with several species of each category. Each group of plants mature in different seasons, allowing the cattle to graze at different times of the year. 

The root structure is different for each type of plant, some shallower and some deeper which can really help in dry years and will help improve soil fertility and prevent run off in wet weather. 

The legumes will fix nitrogen into the soil for the benefit of the other plants and the herbs will be attractive to pollinating insects. It seems such a good system, and another improvement for our biodiversity.

Returning to the species rich fields of unimproved grassland, Nicola was keen to point out the work that was needed to keep them in good order. 
Ensuring that the gorse did not become too dominant was one of the major tasks. The field below the Frogstone had much of its gorse cut back over the past 10 years, though a few patches are left to give shelter and nest sites for birds. 

A second field of unimproved grassland (unimproved grassland is the gold standard designation for grass habitats) needs attention and Nicola is hoping to involve volunteers in the improvements in this field and throughout the farm. 

The opportunity to get to know this fantastic farm intimately makes the volunteering opportunities very appealing and if interested, please email Nicola as above.

I am very excited about the developments at South Combe Farm, and I believe we will all benefit from the sympathetic and ambitious plans Nicola and her family are promoting.

Charles Sinclair

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