Nature: Reducing the use of chemicals on Westmeath Farm

James Ham reaps the rewards of farming hand-in-hand with nature on his 132-acre mixed venture throughout the year.

He farms with his wife, Martina, and their son and daughter, on the edge of Moyvore in the heart of County Westmeath.

Aiming to reduce his use of chemical inputs, he has never used insecticides on the farm, and over the past ten years the level of fungicide used on the crop has been reduced to the point that there is no applied none last year.

He also reduced the use of chemical fertilizers and replaced them with farmyard manure.

The family operates a suckling Aubrac herd of 20 people and cultivates 4ha of spring barley to be “self-sufficient in fodder”. Half of the farm is now wooded and forested, which he says “completes the whole system.”

Forestry

Tree species include hawthorn, blackthorn, euonymus, crabapple, oak, elm, holly, sycamore, alder, beech, birch, Norway spruce, fir Douglas fir, larch and Scots pine, among others.

The continuous cover forest system contains a wide range of hardwood and softwood trees.

James maximized the amount of open space in forest plantations to help create reservoirs of wildflowers for insects, and wetlands and drains are “ideal” for dragonflies.

“I don’t see the woodland wood element as something different. It is still part of the farm; it is not a farm and a forest, but it is a farm of which the forest is one of the elements.

“The bottom line for us in forestry is that we manage it according to the principles of continuous cover forestry, so it will never be cut down,” he explained.

“We are developing it to continue to grow, develop and produce wood, but also to create a range of habitats for all the wildlife on the farm.”

“The wooded half of the farm, despite being relatively young, has greatly improved the amount of wildlife on the farm. The pine swallow is now present, and the Jays are obviously doing their job, as small oak and hazelnut seedlings are seen all over the site.

Hurdles

Additionally, there are over 4,000 meters of hedgerows on the farm, which equates to approx. 1.5 ha of linear woodland, which is left largely untrimmed.

Regular maintenance of the hedgerows is done through the laying of traditional hedgerows, and these thick, mature hedgerows not only provide crucial habitat for birds (over 56 species) and insects, but also shelter for their livestock.

“When we talk about hedge systems on a farm, we sometimes forget that they are man-made structures that have been around for a few hundred years and were planted primarily as land divisions, before poles and wires. “

“When we look at the hedges here, they are most definitely over 200 years old. We can happily say they’re in pretty good shape, and that has to be credited to what folks before me have done in terms of coverage.

“As a farm, we will never survive if we don’t have a product that we can sell to generate income to sustain the family business. We don’t need to spend a lot of energy and expense to recreate something artificial.

“It’s already there; if we learn to appreciate it and learn what it contains, nature will rest. You must remember that if the farm is healthy for nature, it is healthy for us.

Agriculture for nature

Ham is one of five ambassadors chosen for Farming for Nature’s 2022 People’s Vote Awards. Organizers invited the public to vote for their favorite farming story by visiting their website.

The five ambassadors will be featured at the annual Burren Winterage weekend this month, when the winner of the public vote prize will also be announced.

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