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Putting legacy at the heart of sustainable diversification: A case study from Courteenhall Estate

Date Published: 06/12/2023

In the last ten years, Courteenhall Estate has grown its enterprises from predominantly arable to include broiler production, renewable energy, stewardship crops, low-input beef production and community initiatives. For this blog, Dr. Johnny Wake, the winner of the 2023 RASE Bledisloe Gold Medal for Landowners, shares how he has approached the diversification of the estate since taking over responsibility for its management.

Striving for sustainability

At the time Johnny took over the management of Courteenhall Estate, the farm was almost completely arable and growing just wheat and rape, with a grazing license for sheep on the permanent pasture. “It didn’t look very financially sustainable then, and in all honesty, I was most focused on the financial aspects of sustainability at that stage, because I needed the business to be profitable,” says Johnny.  

More recently, Johnny and the estate team have defined what sustainability means at Courteenhall. “Everyone in our industry talks about sustainability, but you have to know what you mean by it. For us, sustainability is divided into financial, environmental and community aspects,” he says.

However, Johnny does not view sustainability as an end in itself. “You have to know why it matters. My family has farmed here for 351 years, so we’ve got a legacy to uphold.

“I want anyone who has anything to do with Courteenhall to imagine taking a grandchild around pointing to the things they’ve been part of creating and having pride in that. That’s why we’re focus on being sustainable, that’s the purpose behind everything we do. And if you want to leave a legacy you can’t just be environmentally sustainable, you’ve got to be an integral part of your community,” he adds.

The changes made on the estate in recent years have increased the financial resilience of the farm business, reduced inputs, increased biodiversity and created opportunities for the local community. They have been the results of a gradual process of realising what options would work for the farm, rather than having a set vision from the start. They include changes to the following areas:  

Arable

Johnny explains that the arable rotation was one of the first things to change. It was becoming less and less profitable and blackgrass was increasingly becoming a problem. They were early adopters of spring cropping and delayed drilling to help combat these challenges.

Poultry

It was an early aim to get into poultry. “The broiler industry was booming at the time. It was subsidy free which I found very attractive and there was this opportunity for a circular system of wheat going to the birds as feed and muck coming out to be used on the arable fields,” says Johnny.

Although poultry made a lot of sense on paper, it took time and perseverance to get it up and running, due to nature of the integrated market, as well as the process of planning permission and building of the sheds.

Now, the team at Courteenhall are getting involved in various trials with the poultry. These include a year-long trial with Avara, which has recently finished, to test three sets of Internet of Things (IOT) systems. They are also involved in trialling an ammonia scrubber coupled with an ultra-efficient heat recovery system which also does cooling. Looking ahead, Johnny is keen to trial putting insect larvae in with the poultry. This will improve welfare by giving the birds something to search for, also benefitting their leg health as it’ll get them moving around more. Finally, it will be good for the litter quality, as the birds scratching around will continually renew the litter. 

Beef

The parkland and permanent pasture were previously grazed under license by sheep, and had been grazed quite heavily. Working with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust,  a plan was formed to introduce traditional Hereford cattle managed in a very low input system.

“By happy coincidence my great grandfather and great-great grandfather used to keep traditional Herefords and show them, so we managed to get some of the original bloodline that they’d been using to form our herd,” says Johnny.

They have now built the herd up to about 40-head so far. The cattle are completely outwintered and have no supplementary feed.

“We make sure they’re healthy and they’ve got water, and we let them get on with it,” says Johnny. “A lot of people told us it was stupid, but we had faith in the RBST advisor who recommended staying true to it, and last winter they did brilliantly.

“We’ve had no poaching. It’s interesting because there’s a lot of evidence of the benefits behind mob grazing - and I’m not denigrating mob grazing at all - but ours move around all over the place, it’s like they’re mob grazing themselves.”

Longer term, Johnny intends to start introducing the cattle into the arable rotation, to improve the nutrient cycling and help build organic matter in the arable soils.

Stewardship

“Stewardship is our fourth type of farming,” says Johnny. “When I took over, we were in Entry Level Stewardship, we then went into mid-tier then higher tier. We’re now in year two of an agreement with Natural England, which is a really exciting project.”

The Natural England project includes historic parkland restoration with wildflower meadows. Half of the arable rotation has now been put into leguminous fallow for two years, using the AB15 Countryside Stewardship option. This will help counter blackgrass and will have a lot of other benefits to the soil and will help increase biodiversity.

Other stewardship options used on the farmland include hedge planting and tree planting, plus standard options like wildflower areas and wild bird seed mixtures.  

Johnny explains that he finds it helpful to consider the stewardship mixes as one of the types of farming being done on the estate. “With stewardship mixes, you don’t get paid if you don’t grow it effectively, so you have to hit a standard. Also, to get the benefits to soil and blackgrass control you’ve got to grow it well. It is another type of farming for us, it does carry risk because it could fail, and we take pride in it.”

Renewable energy

The amount of renewables on the estate has increased from two moderate PV systems and two small solar thermal systems when Johnny took over. There are now 16 ground source heat pump systems, some of which are used to heat the poultry sheds, five air source heat pumps, a biomass system and two wind turbines on the estate’s land.   

There is also now planning permission for an anaerobic digestion plant to be located beside the poultry sheds. This will use the poultry muck as feedstock, and the digestate will be used on arable land.

Community

As previously mentioned, the community aspects of sustainability have been a big focus for the team at Courteenhall Estate in recent years. Johnny explains that he is particularly concerned about the gap between urban and rural, so focusing on creating opportunities for schools to visit has been his route to help bridge the gap.

He shares that it took a lot of persistence to get a couple of local primary schools to visit, but once they came and realised how they could use it, both schools kept coming back. “One of the schools are now regularly quoted about what they’re doing here in their Ofsted inspection reports,” says Johnny.

The partnership with the second local primary school has led to the development of a charity called New Leaf Learning, which was piloted with the school before being opened to all primary schools in Northamptonshire.  

“We take five kids at a time, selected by a primary school from Northamptonshire, and we have them here for one day a week for five weeks, for an intensive course with one of their teachers and the special educational needs coordinators who run the course,” says Johnny.

The activities on the course include yoga and outdoor activities like den building, wood whittling and slacklining.

“It’s genuinely amazing to see kids come at the start and see how they are at the end. We also use all the questionnaires that are respected within the education system to show the difference between the start and end of the course. There are also follow on studies that show a continued impact after the kids have completed the programme, which are done with the teachers, parents and kids.”

The team at Courteenhall Estate also work with Country Trust to get urban schools in, and with LEAF to host secondary school students. “It’s great having secondary schools in, as it provides the opportunity to delve into developing the students’ understanding of how food gets from farm to fork,” says Johnny.

Other community focused activities include hosting Home-Start meetings, getting involved with Open Farm Sunday, and hosting the Northamptonshire schools cross country run competition.

Future developments at Courteenhall

The enterprises at Courteenhall are continuing to expand. There is now planning permission for 39 acres of hydroponics. The site will grow food in a way that is both environmentally friendly and innovative, while using clean energy. The produce will be grown by Shockingly Fresh, using a low input system which include polytunnels with reflective floors rather than LEDs, rainwater harvesting and the only heating will be for frost protection.

In summary, the changes made on Courteenhall Estate in the last ten years show how diversification can increase farm business resilience, while providing benefits for both people and the wider environment. The judges of the 2023 RASE Bledisloe Gold Medal for Landowners concluded that Courteenhall Estate demonstrates an exceptional model of best practice and one which can inspire estates and farm businesses across the whole of England and beyond.   

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