Bures: Farm manager at the Bevills Estate on restoring an ancient beauty

I HAVE lived and worked the land in Bures for over 50 years and have seen many changes in how the land is farmed.

After leaving school, I worked at Bures Hall farm before finally coming to work on the Bevills Estate in 1973. I am now 67 years old and semi-retired, in that I only work part-time now, doing six full days and two hours on Sundays!

Bevills Estate, Bures St Mary, comprises 250 h/a of arable, grass and woodland. The land is mostly grade 3, gravel and clay with outbursts of some useful soil.

The estate is the home of the Probert family and has been so since 1884. When they came here it was bare sheep ground but Colonel William Probert was a great planter creating over 40 acres of woodland as was his grandson, Lt Col Richard Probert, who added six more woods and copses. His love of the land was such that he made many improvements to the environmental impact of the already picture-postcard farm and estate.

In my early days here, every possible piece of land was under the plough and many of the fields that were bought in the 1970s on the east and south side of the estate were bare of hedge and tree.

We grew wheat, barley, rape and beans and the grazing was confined to the banks of the Stour. We had our own slightly ancient combines and our own grainstore.

Since then, the arable side has moved to a contractor and our wheat goes straight from combine to Camgrain. We are into continuous winter wheat at the moment as no break crops suit this difficult land, too stony for peas, too wooded for rape, too light for beans. We seem to have a hold on blackgrass.

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Conservation has become progressively more important to the farm, and many of the marginal arable fields have been reverted to grassland. Now around 80h/a are grazed by sheep and cattle. The existing farm buildings have been let to small businesses and for storage as part of a diversification plan.

Colonel Probert’s son, Geofrey Probert, came to running the estate in 1992 and carries on with enthusiastic fervour the work his father started. When ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Areas) came in, Bevills was one of the first farms to sign up to the project.

Working alongside us in those early ESA days was our local ESA officer, the late Tim Sloane. Together we would drive and walk around the farm, throwing the wildest ideas about and bouncing suggestions of him. Without his sound advice and guidance many of the projects would never have got off the ground.

Since Geoffrey has taken the helm, new woods have been planted. His vision has led to a large lake being created on the chapel water meadows. This new lake and wetlands (which now look as though they have been there since prehistory!) provide wading birds and waterfowl with all they need. There are shallows for feeding and islands created for nesting safely away from predators like foxes. The lake boasts many geese, both canada and greylag as well as all types of duck, coots, moorhens, snipe and lapwings. Trout were introduced in the early years – the herons were very grateful and grew fat.

Seven miles of hedges incorporating a mixture of blackthorn, hawthorn, maple, holly, spindle berry, hazel and crab apple were planted these also included an odd oak. Old ponds have been rejuvenated and areas of wild vegetation around them encouraged.

The woodland is mainly broadleaf. Soft woods are not replaced. The timber, apart from special parcels, is logged and sold. A fair amount of sweet chestnut is grown which is used as rails, posts and stakes to form fences, a considerable saving on expenditure. There are added benefits to using chestnut, it needs no treatment, unlike softwood and lasts twice the time of any softwood. Field mice and voles will nest next to and in chestnut bark posts. They appear to dislike the smell of treated wood and will avoid it. The chestnut copses are a valuable resource and it is hoped that there will be sufficient to sell some fencing in the future. Christmas trees were grown and sold for several years during the 1980s and 90s but are no longer an attractive investment due to cheap imports and labour costs. With the assistance of Natural England, black poplars are now thriving on the river bank.

Recently, a derelict barn was restored and re-thatched and is used for farm meetings, local functions and lunches for the four family shoots that are held each year. The game from these shoots is prepared and sold locally.

Cricket bat willows were planted in the 1950s. This has expanded to take in all the river wet land and other odd places providing a very useful crop which is mature in around 15 years. It requires minimal attention needing only to have the shoots cut off twice yearly, a task performed by estate labour. The cropping as well as other maintenance work is carried out by the willow merchant, J C Wright. Some of the beds provide grazing others are left wild providing habitat for many insects and wild animals including frogs, toads, snakes and dragonflies. Most recently, and excitingly, white legged damselflies have returned to the area.

As the estate runs down the Suffolk side of the river, consideration is given, before any decision-making, as to the needs and wishes of the local village people. As well as rights of way being maintained, two new permissive footpaths have been given. Lately, some land was made available working with the local Transitions group, to the village for a community woodland and village orchard. The primary school children helped to plant the trees and it is hoped that as they, trees and children, grow the wood will provide both recreation and fruit for them. The estate gave land for allotments and the Bures scouts have a lovely campsite and landing jetty by the river which they rent from the estate for a peppercorn rent.

We are now also in the ELS (Entry Level Stewardship) scheme under which we have added beetle banks, wild bird cover, and nectar plots in field margins and corners The estate is home to two lots of bees (40 hives) which of course are essential for pollination. Following the 1987 gales the old orchard was left greatly damaged. The trees have been replaced with local Suffolk and Essex and apples, pears, plums, cherries, nuts, greengages and quince. There are near 50 varieties of pre-1900 apple trees in the orchard now, with such wonderful names like Peasgood Nonsuch, Pitmaston Pineapple and Ten Commandments.

A small old unused wood on the side of a footpath has been home to a few pigs which were sold last year locally. It is still difficult to explain to the younger walkers, some in baby buggies, who liked to see them, where the pigs have gone now they are no longer to be seen!

In the 39 years I have worked on this estate I have seen many changes, all of which have added beauty and richness to the landscape and the land and offered living opportunities to the wildlife and natural vegetation. Otters have returned to the river and to encourage them, a new holt was built on the bank by the Bures scouts under supervision of Stour Valley/Dedham Vale Project Officer, Neil Catchpole. Barn owls took up residence in some of the owl nesting boxes put up by Neil and hatched a brood last year. The covers and the hedges are proving valuable to the song birds which are rapidly increasing in numbers.

The pay-off from the innovative partnership working with Natural England and the local conservationists has been a tremendous bonus to the overall working efficiency of the farm, the increase in both common and rare wildlife, the natural beauty of the farm and increased the awareness and involvement of local people.