Mark Owen, Challacombe Farm,Dartmoor. Mark with his livestock and dog Scarlett on the moor above his farmhouse.

A very British farming revolution: Challacombe Farm

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Despite the vocal nature of Brexit over the last four years, on the sidelines, there has been a quiet revolution occurring in British farming.

Earlier this year the Government set out in the Agriculture Bill its radical proposals about how farmers will be supported. It is proposed to be one of the largest changes in farm support since the Second World War. Under the new system, farmers will be given subsidies not simply for farming land — the current EU system — but for delivering ‘public goods’, such as better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding. This could include sequestering carbon in trees or soil, enhancing habitat with pollinator-friendly flowers, and improving public access to the countryside.

This will replace the current subsidy system of Direct Payments which pay farmers for the total amount of land farmed, skewing payments towards the largest landowners rather than those farmers delivering specific public benefits.

To ease the transition, direct subsidies will be phased out over seven years, beginning in 2021, and the new payments for environmental services will be tested in pilot projects. “It certainly could have really positive benefits for the environment,” says Lynn Dicks, an animal ecologist at the University of Cambridge who studies wild pollinator conservation.

After the destruction and starvation of the Second World War, European tariffs helped protect farmers from foreign competition and subsidies boosted their yields. It was just about production; it didn’t matter what you did to the environment.

New lands were brought under the plough and hedgerows were ripped up, leading to erosion. Unutilised fertiliser and pesticides polluted air and water, and the loss of habitat harmed pollinators and other wildlife. The cost of the EU common agricultural policy (CAP), it has been argued, wasn’t just environmental: through the 1990s, the subsidies consumed 80% of the EU budget. Even today, the €59 billion CAP represents about 40% of EU public spending. Brexit will now let the United Kingdom go its own way when setting its farming policy.

Currently, most Dartmoor farmers are reliant on subsidy payments for a large proportion of their income and so will need to adapt to remain economically viable. But there are those that call our Moor their home who are not fearful of the changes that are to come to their livelihood. In fact, they are embracing this ‘once in a generation’ shift in policy.

“Challacombe Farm in many ways is a traditional Dartmoor farm that is nestled in a valley south of the Warren House Inn and we are taking on the challenge head-on and with a positive outlook” said Mark Owen, one of the current tenants.

“People have farmed here for at least 3,500 years, with each generation leaving marks on the landscape that can still be seen today. In the top corner of the farm is the Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound, used by early shepherds bringing their stock up from the lowland to graze each summer. Later farmers enclosed fields and created terracing on the steep valley sides to grow crops, and from the 12th on into the 20th Century, miners dug for tin.”

Since 1917 the farm has been owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and their current tenants are Naomi Oakley and Mark Owen. Naomi grew up at Challacombe, and after a spell away, returned to the farm in her 20s. Her mother (Min Cullum) farmed Challacombe, with her until her death four years ago.

As well as farming, Naomi works for Natural England and she is also a Secretary of State-appointed member of the Dartmoor National Park Authority and about to start a PhD on regenerative agriculture with a focus on working with landowners and farmers to restore peatland.

Naomi met Mark whilst they were studying at Seale Hayne College, part of the University of Plymouth, and have now been married for 24 years. Since college, Mark has spent most of his career managing the South West Coast Path National Trail, before stepping down to farm full-time two years ago. So, it’s safe to say that Challacombe is in the hands of two people that are well matched to the challenges that the next few years will present.

The farm is also a haven for wildlife, attracted by the diverse range of habitats from valley mires to open expanses of heather moorland, and it is considered one of the best places on the moor for bird watching – you may have seen the farm’s swallows and buzzards featured on BBC’s Wild West television series.

Given that most of the farm is designated and protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, a Site of Special Scientific Interest or a County Wildlife Site, you’d be forgiven for thinking that farming it would be a problem, but instead Naomi and Mark see these designations as a mark of quality and opportunity.

“Our ethos is to farm in a way that protects the heritage, whilst trying to enhance it for wildlife and improve the beauty of the landscape. We feel very grateful to live in such a beautiful spot and feel we have a duty to share it with anyone who loves the moor and protect it for future generations to enjoy.”

Like most Dartmoor farms, they keep sheep and cattle, but these are not just to produce meat, instead their primary role is to help manage the farm’s wildlife habitats and archaeology by grazing.

“Cattle, sheep and ponies all graze in different ways, and by moving them around the farm at specific times of year, we maintain a mosaic of habitats required by different species of flowers, insects and birds.”

Their Welsh Black and North Devon cattle are hardy native breeds which graze with a ripping action that does an essential job of grazing the boggy rhos pasture found in the valley bottoms. In the summer they are full of orchids, marsh fritillary butterflies and other rare insects and flowers.

They also have very hardy Icelandic and Shetland sheep that are great at nibbling gorse and keeping the grass short on the archaeology, whilst ponies seasonally graze the areas of heather moorland to suppress scrub and molinia (Purple Moor Grass).

“Our aim to combine this high nature-value farming while ensuring our livestock are kept in optimal condition, living healthy and vital lives in as sustainable a manner as possible. We’re the first upland farm in the UK to be accredited as Animal Welfare Approved by the ‘A Greener World’ organisation.”

In response to the climate emergency they are also trying to minimise their carbon footprint. “We avoid the use of soya and cereals which is found in many animal feeds. Our animals are fed a grass-based diet their whole life, ie: nothing that could be fed direct to humans.

‘This means that the lambs are not ready to be eaten until they are at least 15 months old, rather than the usual six months or so for conventional stock.

‘This slower growth and natural diet means that they taste fantastic, and by avoiding the cost of buying in food, and selling them direct to the public through their website, and
Good Food Exeter, an online farmers’ market, means that we can still be very competitively priced.”

Mark and Naomi also like the idea of knowing that their animals’ only journey off the farm is to the nearby small abattoir at Ashburton and they are then eaten by people who care about where they come from and how they have lived. Alongside this, fossil fuel use is kept to a minimum, all farm waste is recycled, they have solar pvs and the farmhouse is heated with wood from coppicing their hedgerows and windfall trees.

A recent addition to the farm, is the creation of a new pond funded by the Upstream Thinking. This South West Water project run by Devon Wildlife Trust and the West Country Rivers Trust, is working with farmers to reduce soil, silt, pesticides and animal waste from getting into rivers.

This is not only better for wildlife, but makes commercial sense, as it will make it easier and cheaper for South West Water to treat the water they abstract to bring it up to drinking water quality.
“The new pond has been designed to intercept a small stream coming down Hamel Down bringing with it silt, which can clog up the gravel beds that salmon lay their eggs in. The outflow of the pond goes into our boggy rhos pasture, and so will help keep that nice and wet throughout the year.”

Buoyed by the amount of wildlife that the new pond has already attracted since it was dug, Mark and Naomi have just completed a follow-on project supported by Upstream Thinking. On the lowest part of the farm, new ponds and scrapes have been dug and the shallow ditches that were draining it have been blocked. Holding back the water in this way will make it more boggy – not so good for grazing, but much better for wintering wading birds and insects such as the rare bog hoverfly and marsh fritillary.

Within days of the work being done they were delighted to spot snipe, dragonflies and diving beetles prospecting in the pools. This area links to habitats on neighbouring farms, and it will also slowly build up peat, which will along with more tree planting contribute to the farm’s aspirations to become net carbon positive.

Given Mark’s background in managing the South West Coast Path it is no surprise that they actively encourage the public to enjoy the farm. The Public Footpath across the farm has been upgraded to a Permissive Bridlepath so mountain bikers and horse riders can also do the popular loop from the Warren House Inn.

“We feel very privileged to live in such a beautiful spot and think it’s too special not to share it with the public. Exploring the countryside is great for people’s health and wellbeing and underpins the local tourism economy. We know from chatting to passing walkers how much they value and enjoy seeing the farm’s wildlife, animals and feeling welcome.

‘It was particularly noticeable this year when after lockdown when lots of people were desperate to get out, but were told to avoid crowds, and so were uncertain about where they could go. We have plenty of space for social distancing and so we opened up a new walk through our flower-rich hay meadows and a field for parking. Promoted through our Facebook page ( we had a steady flow of people and the feedback we got was really rewarding.”

This careful management with low stocking levels is currently financially supported by the Higher Stewardship Scheme and the replacement grant scheme based on ‘provision of public goods’ is still in development. To help shape the development of the new scheme, coordinated by the Dartmoor Hill Farm project, Mark and Naomi have been meeting with like-minded nearby farmers with the aim of being able to collaborate together enhancing wildlife habitats, flood management, carbon sequestration and other benefits on a landscape scale. Their hope is that this will be accepted as one of the pilots to test out how the new scheme could work.

Few professions take a longer view than agriculture. Farmers plan, invest and produce for the long-term. While many of us live in a world of hourly Twitter storms and daily news cycles where a week is now a very long time, farming requires the patience and foresight to think in harvests and lifecycles, to see beyond the immediate and scan the far horizon.

In many ways then, Naomi and Mark are already ahead of the curve.

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