Sowing the Seeds of Hope
Writer Anne Boileau relates the wholly uplifting tale of a rewilding project in north Essex
Alex Stevenson lived in Coggeshall until recently. But now she has revealed herself as an Essex Isabella Tree. A landscape architect and award-winning garden designer, she helped draw up the Coggeshall Neighbourhood Plan and recently organised an eco-fair in the recreation ground. That’s where I learnt about her courageous project: she and her husband, who is from Australia, have bought a 35-acre farm in Wakes Colne and plan to rewild 20 acres of it along the lines of the Knepp estate in Sussex but on a small scale.
Like so many of us, she has become increasingly worried about the state of the planet. For too long we’ve been reading about, hearing about, and indeed witnessing, the loss of wildlife, the global threat of climate change, the increasing frequency of extreme weather events. We wring our hands at the lack of action taken by the world’s leaders. At least now with COP26 the problem is being acknowledged. Alex is a small part of that great sea change.
Jordan’s Farm in Wakes Colne lies on the high ground between the Stour and the Colne. I signed up for a visit; the day was bright but crisp and cold as 14 of us turned up, with boots and scarves.
First of all, we admired the two pygmy goats and the flock of Silkie bantams. Then we walked past some farm buildings into a pasture with an established pond. Alex hopes to borrow some ponies for this field; we walked through a gate into a 25-acre field called the Outback – this is pasture, bordered by a 10-year-old hedge that they plan to cut and lay.
A row of young trees marks the east side; Alex has released them from their plastic tree guards. The grass itself is tufted and rank, but through the tufts a lot of hopeful little saplings are pushing up: oaks, maples, hawthorns and other native species. Alex says she doesn’t really need to plant trees but simply allow them to volunteer; self-sown trees always seem to do best. She wants to have a mixture of woodland and open pasture.
Landscape has a memory and Alex will rekindle those memories, of a time when small fields had names, crops were rotated, horses worked the land and livestock grazed and fertilised the ground.
She pointed out two patches of richer vegetation with nettles, which would seem to indicate ghost ponds; she wants to resurrect them. Ponds are valuable for wildlife and will be quickly colonised by all sorts of pond life. One of the constraints in this part of Essex is the lack of water. Ponds are therefore vital for retaining water at times of drought and mitigating flood in times of heavy rain.
A glider from Wormingford airfield flew overhead. The pilot will have looked down to see the all the many fragments of wood and patches of cultivated farmland hospitable for wildlife, set like jewels in a wide sea of sterile arable land.
Chalkney Wood, Hill House Wood, Fordham Woodland Trust, the three Millennium Greens and Marks Hall arboretum are all within an easy butterfly’s reach, but they need to be connected for wildlife without wings. Jordan’s Farm could become a piece in that web, providing a haven for insects, bats, small mammals and birds when linked by hedges and ditches; and the soil, if left undisturbed, can recover its own microbial diversity, with worms, fungi, bacteria and grubs. Such healthy soil, in turn, will attract birds such as lapwings which used to wheel over our farmland in great flocks, crying Pee Wit!.
Already two barn owls have made it their home, so there must be some mice around. Alex showed us a patch of mown grass where she’s sown some yellow rattle – a parasite plant that weakens the roots of grasses, making it better for other less vigorous herb species to grow.
Finally, we were treated to a delicious tea with cakes in the conservatory.
I don’t know whether government stewardship grants might be available, but Jordan’s Farm is looking for guardians to watch it evolve and learn more. As Alex says, if we don’t make changes today then our children will pay tomorrow.
Alex and her family are taking a leap of faith, sowing the seeds of hope; one step towards recovering some of the once-rich diversity of our Essex farmland.
- Learn more about Jordan’s Farm here