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Breathing new life into old soils t Once it has had a chance to dry out over the spring and summer months, spoil from the cleared ditches is spread and levelled across field headlands after harvest. u Ditches cleared last winter are now flowing freely.

Ditch and drain maintenance projects have become increasingly important on arable farms in recent years as growers look to enhance their key asset – the soil. Dominic Kilburn reports on a long-term plan underway on an estate in Suffolk. Simon Eddell (right) is a farm manager on a mission. He wants to breathe new life into soils across the Rougham Estate in mid Suffolk – land which has been cultivated and cropped for generations but which now needs some TLC. At the heart of his programme for soil re-generation is a mapped or ‘zoned’ area where an eight-year ditch and drainage maintenance programme is in full swing. However, alongside this, he has also introduced cover crops into the rotation and increased quantities of farmyard manure spread across targeted acres – all part of a grand plan to build organic matter and bring tangible benefits to soil management and crop production.

Traditional estate The Rougham Estate, owned by the Agnew family since 1904, consists of over 1,200ha of beautiful Suffolk countryside with ancient meadows,

green lanes, oak-lined hedgerows, parklands, woods and arable fields. The arable area of the estate amounts to approximately 800ha and is split in two by the East-West running A14 dual carriageway. To the north of the road features predominantly light, free-draining soils and, to the south, heavier medium clays. Cropping rotations include winter rye (grown for Ryvita), late-lifted sugar beet and spring barley on the lighter land. Winter wheat, winter barley and sugar beet is grown on the medium soils and the more traditional rotation of winter wheat, winter barley and oilseed rape on the heaviest land. In addition to the arable cropping there is also 300ha of woodland and 100ha of grass; the latter rented to a tenant who grazes sheep and cattle. Simon acknowledges that while it is indeed a beautiful estate, and the miles of tree-lined hedgerows offer a stunning backdrop to the arable landscape, an average field size of just 7.5ha does present some farm management challenges. “It means that a large proportion of our fields are headlands and,

In addition to the arable cropping there is also 100ha of grassland on the Estate, which is grazed by cattle.

surrounded by hedges and large oaks, these areas can sometimes sit cold and wet without much sunlight for long periods. So it’s these heavy land areas that have become a priority for the ditching programme. “The second issue is the lighter land to the north which features low organic matter levels and poor water retention, and that’s where we are mostly targeting certain parts of fields with increased applications of muck with the addition of cover crops in the rotation,” he explains. “It will take a few years to really see the benefit of increased organic matter levels but I have already seen spring crops holding on better during the dry spell we had here earlier this year,” he adds.

Ditching plan Wet soils to the south highlighted that ditch and drainage maintenance on the Estate had been largely ignored for many years previously and so Simon drew up the eight-year plan quite soon after his arrival, with the maintenance work beginning five years ago. “We believe about 60 per cent of the Estate has been drained over the years, some of it as long ago as 100 years, but the majority in the ‘70s and ‘80s and some as recently as a decade ago. “It’s a mix of full herringbone systems down to drainage pipes laid across the odd field corner and although we haven’t got maps for them all, local drainage firm Miles Drainage, which carried out some of the original work on the Estate, managed to locate additional maps which has helped.” To carry out the maintenance work, Simon has employed an expert excavator operator, Nick Ellis, from nearby civil engineering business R&D Construction, and this all takes place over the winter months. Spoil is dug out of ditches, as much as 2ft deep in places, and deposited in a windrow alongside the crop, taking care not to cover any grass margins of which there are plenty as part of the Estate’s ESAs. “It’s important that we don’t cover any of the grass margins with spoil as it takes a lot of effort to establish them,” comments Simon.

The spoil dries out over the spring and summer months making it easier for Nick to remove any branches and debris, before spreading and levelling it across the headland after harvest. According to Simon, Nick also uses a shear-grab on the excavator for coppicing and general tidying up as so many of the ditches and hedgerows are over-grown. This in itself has resulted in better rabbit control now that their habitat has been cleared, he adds.

Discovered drains “It’s been a remarkable transformation,” continues Simon. “With Nick’s expertise and attention to detail, we have found drains that we had no idea were there, and all have had new eyes fitted to them at the point they flow into the ditch and then marked with a white stake so continued over...

Drain outflows are given new ‘eyes’ and marked with a white stake.

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