Conservation – the second part of Robert Erith’s talk
A highlight of our AGM was the talk entitled Conservation by Robert Erith. We presented the first part of his talk, in which he offered observations as a North Essex countryman, here. In this this second part he talks about the Dedham Vale Society, of which he is president, and the work he and his wife have carried out on their Stour Valley farm…
by Robert Erith
The Dedham Vale Society was founded in 1938 by my uncle, the classical architect Raymond Erith RA, and a group of friends, originally to save the coaching arch of the Sun Hotel from being demolished. It is still there.
They were not a group of old fogies. Erith was 33. The first president, Sir Alfred Munnings, was only 59. Since then, the society has fought a constant series of battles against inappropriate development, with considerable success.
The most important of these was in the 1960s when Essex and Suffolk county councils wanted to build what was effectively a new town over the Stour Valley between East Bergholt and Stratford St Mary, including Dedham.
This was country that the great artist John Constable, who was born and bred at East Bergholt, had immortalised in his many drawings and paintings, including such world-famous canvasses as The Haywain and The Leaping Horse.
The society led the campaign to stop this, culminating in a passionate article by Raymond Erith in The Spectator in which he said: “If Constable Country isn’t worth conserving, nothing is worth conserving”.
As a result, the government of the day called in the decisions of the two county councils and in due course the Vale was made an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The boundaries, however, were drawn too tightly and, despite two later extensions, we are still campaigning to get Natural England to extend the AONB to just south of Sudbury, an area also painted by Thomas Gainsborough as well as Constable and other leading artists such as John Nash.
I have been a member for over 60 years and on the committee for 30. I was asked to be president in 2003. The society has managed successfully to oppose endless attempts to develop, some well-meaning but often damaging, projects, including a power station, a major flight path, a massive garden and leisure centre, windfarms and many more.
It is not afraid to take on powerful interests, including local authorities and, as legal fees can be high, the Dedham Vale Society has a healthy balance sheet.
It is affiliated to CPRE Essex and, should it be wound up, any surplus funds will be sent there. It has about 900 members and is open to all who agree with its conservation objectives.
Sara and I have lived at Shrubs Farm, Lamarsh, since 1966. When we bought it, we had just an acre of garden and the house was more or less a shell with one cold tap and an outside loo. Fifty-six years later, it has a hot tap and an inside loo!
We bought the farm in stages up to 1989 and now have about 270 acres.
Our predecessors, following government advice, ripped out almost all the hedges and filled in the ponds and so we bought a featureless prairie.
When we bought the house, the farm was composed of small fields and many other features. We resolved to restore most of these and made a 10-year plan. We had help from Braintree District Council and in 1992 joined the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and have been in this and successor schemes ever since.
We extended the garden and laid out a park with clumps of trees, mostly non-native such as liquid amber and other maples. We began to get interested in oaks and put in 20 different varieties in 2000 to mark the millennium and a further 20 in 2002 to mark the Golden Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II. We now have about 65 oak species and varieties.
We planted several little copses on the edges of fields to straighten out the arable areas and in 1992, and again two years later, planted three woods about one hectare each in size and each containing about a thousand trees. Altogether over the 10 years 1992-2002 we planted about 5,000 trees, all native hardwoods.
All our arable fields have two-metre or six-metre margins, some with a wildflower mixture.
We have five ponds, three of which dry out in summer but two always retaining water even through this summer’s drought.
There is a small amount of old woodland and two ancient meadows, one of which has not been ploughed since the Black Death of 1349. This has a hedge of small-leaved limes, probably left over from the wild wood and certainly of great antiquity. The two meadows had a count of 100 plant species when measured in 2010.
All this conservation work has attracted many visitors and we are delighted to show them around. One arable field, sown with a simple ryegrass mixture in 1992, is now a blaze of colour in the spring and provides us with bee orchids, including two very rare varieties. Another is now full of cowslips, followed by oxeye daisies. There are three large drifts of bluebells.
None of these lovely flowers appeared overnight. It takes many years for wild plants to appear and what a joy when they do.
Our contractor, Chris Chamley, grazes his sheep for part of the year on some of our meadows. He also does the arable work, which is a rotation of winter wheat for milling and spring barley for malting and borage, the seeds from which are crushed for oil used in baby food and for pharmaceutical purposes. It also helps restore the fertility of the land before the wheat that follows.
For many years we have been part of the National Garden Scheme and have invited parties of schoolchildren to look at farming activities under what is known as Educational Access. These visits are hard work but give us much pleasure when we see our guests learning about farming and the countryside and enjoying themselves.
With Brexit and other policy changes, farming is at a crossroad, but I hope the conservation structures we have put in place will endure whatever new regimes are put in place. It is a struggle to make a profit on a small farm and I have no doubt changes will be made by the next generation.
I have been very honoured to have been a vice-president of CPRE Essex for the past 25 years, but it is now time to retire and hand on the baton to younger and more energetic hands.
Thank you for having me and I hope and pray that you will continue to be successful in the wonderful conservation work you do.
You will, I trust, continue with redoubled fervour to meet the challenging times that lie ahead.