The Watson-Armstrong family farm in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle. Will Watson-Armstrong tells us about their most photographed field - The Moor Field - and how it is benefiting wildlife.
One of the many benefits of running the family farm is the views I enjoy when I am at work. From most of our fields I can see Bamburgh Castle, the Farne Islands and all the way across to the Cheviots. I often sit in my modern tractor with the GPS doing the steering and wonder what the farmers of the Cheviot hills are up to. Upland farming has changed much less than intensive arable farming over the last few decades and tractors that steer themselves are not much use when you’re trying to catch a Blackie hogg that has spent the summer living feral on a Northumbrian hillside.
We have 39 fields on the farm and without doubt the field with the best view is the Moor field, located up the Wynding near Bamburgh Golf Course. This field is also our most famous. In the past few years, it has been front page on a couple of national newspapers, not because we are growing world record crops of wheat (we’ll leave that to Rodney at Beal), but because of the pretty flowers that we sow in the field. When coupled with the amazing backdrop of Bamburgh Castle and beach along with the strangely warm looking North Sea and the dominating Farnes which rise out of the sea like a gigantic submarine, these flowers do make for a very nice picture.
Of course the flowers are there to do more than just look pretty and attract photographers. They are there to provide food, pollen and all important shelter for many different creatures. Simply stand on the road by the field in late summer and you will see many bees and butterflies and lots of little brown birds enjoying the man-made feast. Look closer and you will see the spring-born fox cubs, now in their adolescence and not too interested in mums wise words, trying desperately to get around the bog in the middle of the field without getting there paws wet. Eventually they will look back to mum who is walking along the top of the drystone wall that is the field boundary, bushy tail held high and paws nice and dry. Look even closer and you will see the small mouse trying desperately to use the cover to get away from the kestrel hovering high above, so still in the air despite the fury of the biting northerly wind.
As farmers, Dad and I take great pleasure in offering such habitat to wildlife but we also need to make a living from our assets - our fields. To sow a 25 acre field with Phacelia and Pink Campion may look very nice but it doesn’t pay the bills. That is where the Environmental Stewardships come in to play. We are in Mid-tier Stewardship. This is a fixed term agreement that we enter into with Natural England. When entering the agreement we choose certain options from a list that we wish to carry out over the period of the agreement, usually five years. All of these options have benefits to wildlife, the local environment or historically important features that are on the farm. We simply do as we’ve been asked, such as sowing the Moor with flowers and cover - and we get paid to do so. For our business it is not only an important source of income but it also guides us as to what we can do to help the environment that we care so much about.
One benefit of the scheme is how it allows us to take less productive land out of cropping and use it for environmental good, whilst allowing us to use our more productive land for food production. I feel that this is a very sustainable balance when thinking about our countries need for food and also protection for our countryside.
The Moor is a terrible arable field! The soil is too sandy and so droughts easily, the North Sea salt air burn crops off with vengeance and the Wynding road is a complete nightmare to get tractors and combines down during the busy summer months. Harvest days and beach days require the same weather but large machines and beach goers do not fit in Bamburgh all at the same time. If it wasn’t for the environmental schemes available to us, the Moor would either carry on disappointing the ambitious wheat grower in me or be left to become overrun with useless weeds.
We have recently ploughed most of the field and re-sown it, half with Phacelia for nectar and pollen and half with a kale and barley mix for food and shelter. We didn’t plough the whole field as the Pink Campion from last year was starting to flower and it seemed a shame to bury it. The Campion is flowering now and the Phacelia only just starting to grow, so we have staggered and lengthened the beneficial period of the flowers in the field. We chose to plough the field this year as it was becoming over run with thistles. We don’t mind a few thistles as the glorious gold finches love to feed from them but we do not want 25 acres of thistles - it wouldn’t look very good in a photo then!
On the subject of photography, I encourage all local camera enthusiasts to come along to the field and shoot away to their hearts content but please do remember the ground nesting birds, such as the spring bringing Skylark, are nesting all over the field. Please do stick to the gateway at the top (nearest the golf course) or the road side.
I have a map of the farm that is dated 1801. On this map, the Moor is divided into four common fields and as such were probably grazed and worked by many locals from Bamburgh and nearby. I often wonder what they would think of modern farming practices and how Bamburgh has changed and grown. One thing is for sure though- I bet they enjoyed the view as much as I do today.
Bamburgh Castle Estate