Testing, Testing, Testing

Living Mulch Experiment:

After two years of undersowing spring cereals with a soil improving yellow trefoil and white clover mixture as part of the rotation, the ‘Living Mulch’ experiment at Honeydale was designed to determine if an undersown soil improver can be left in place and direct drilled with another cash crop, rather than ploughed in.

So this year, once the cereals had been combined, the undersowing was left in place over winter, keeping the soil covered. It was grazed with sheep in spring and then direct drilled with spring oats. We were expecting the oats to germinate quickly and establish, however due to the very dry spring the established yellow trefoil and white clover mixture had access to moisture and grew back strongly while the newly sown spring oats were slow to germinate and were smothered out. We therefore had to abandon this part of the experiment and plough in the yellow trefoil and white clover and drill the oats again. We then broadcast another crop of yellow trefoil and clover and embarked on the second part of the experiment. Once the spring wheat was cut in summer 2017, the yellow trefoil and white clover were given the light and space to establish and in Autumn, when the mix was less aggressive, we direct drilled winter cereal into it and we’re waiting to see how it fares over the next few months.

Trial Plots:

We have established 3 acres as a small trial plots area and have sown it with low growing grass mixture which will be marked out with plots and pathways in the spring.

Game Cover Tests:

We are using another area to test game cover mixtures for frost tolerance and winter hardiness, with different seed mixtures sown in strips across the field.

Finishing the Sainfoin:

We’ve finished the season by letting the sheep graze the sainfoin for three weeks, transferring the goodness from the plant back into the soil through their manure and stopping the crop going into the autumn too tall and proud. They’ve now been moved to permanent pasture.

Soil Microbiology

Five members of the Cotswold Seeds team have just completed a three day intensive course on soil microbiology, looking at everything, from the importance of soil microorganisms, carbon content, to compaction, soil sampling and the formation of humus. 

At Cotswold Seeds and Honeydale Farm we’ve always focused on the importance of soil and the use of seed mixtures, including herbal leys, green manures and cover crops to improve soil fertility, reduce the need for costly inputs and bring manifold benefits in terms of the health of livestock and profitability. So this is just taking it a few steps further.

We’ll be implementing what we’ve learned at Honeydale, so more later.

Busy September at Honeydale

As we head into Autumn, there’s been plenty going on at Honeydale Farm.

Mid-September, we drilled mustard into the control plots of spring barley as a cover crop. This is a Cover crop that’s been used across Honeydale for many years and we’re keeping the trial plots so that we can compare results with the eight year crop rotation we’ve implemented. The mustard germinated by 22nd September, will die off over the winter and the residual will be ploughed up in March.

The year seven crop of our eight year rotation is spring planted wild bird seed mixes which are already being put to good use, providing a supply of food during the hungry gap. We will be repeating the experiment we did last year, comparing the benefits of these sown bird plots with supplementary feeding.

We’ve also been trailing a mixture of game cover and wild bird crops, looking at combining long lasting cover over the winter with the addition of sources of food for farmland birds. The mixtures, some of which includes sunflowers, millet and mustard for food and sorghum and brassicas for cover, were sown in June and are looking good, so we may have new mixes to purchase through Cotswold Seeds before too long.

We’ve sowed and rolled a pathway seed mix around the area we are establishing as a novel crop trials area. The seed mix includes meadow grass, ryegrass, fescues, bentgrass and wild white clover and was drilled in three different directions in order to create a thick and dense covering that’s robust enough to cope with being trodden on. 

On the 24th September we combined the sainfoin. It was cut for hay in spring, allowed to regrow and set seed and after combining it’s now being cleaned in the Cotswold Seeds warehouse. It’s a special variety seedstock for multiplication.

A couple of days later, we welcomed 35 PhD students from Oxford University to Honeydale. This varied group of post graduates included specialists in water and insects and they were all interested in studying the diverse farm as an ecosystem. In the final days of September the water in the bottom scrape was successfully holding the water and providing a habit for many aquatic species. 

Our herbal ley was also sown at the end of June, with a cover crop of Buckwheat to act as a nurse to help it establish, and the sheep have enjoyed grazing it over the summer. In the first week of October we topped it to remove the stalky and fibrous stems in preparation winter.

Honeydale On Track

Work will begin this week on the new entrance to Honeydale Farm. The new track will replace the existing one to improve road safety since the new access, further up the A361 towards Chipping Norton, offers better visibility for vehicles arriving and leaving the farm. The traditional dry stone wall is also being rebuilt on either side of the new entrance and the track itself will be made of Cotswold stone. Planning permission for the new track was granted in 2015 but we’ve been busy implementing our eight year crop rotation in the fields and developing plans to replace the old farm buildings. It’s estimated that the new drive will take two weeks to complete. Honk your approval as you pass!!

National Trust Workshop

Although the development of Honeydale as a Centre for Farming and Food is in its preliminary stages and as yet we have no buildings and facilities to host events, we’ve made great progress with the farm itself, and we’re already welcoming visitors who are keen to see the work we are doing on the land. 

This week Ian led a workshop for the National Trust farm team and tenant farmers from all over the UK. Delegates came from as far afield as Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Wales in order to get a better understanding of using diverse leys, herbal leys and mob-grazing, particularly in relation to sheep.

The farm walk and talk explored the health of the farm from the soil up, beginning with an exploration of the importance of managing the soil for fertility, before looking at establishing the ley. Grazing management, electric fencing, water, crop rotation and integrating plants, livestock and wildlife were also covered.

Benchmark Barley

Our control plots of Spring Barley have been sprayed with glyphosate to control creeping sow thistle and barley volunteers (grains that fell off during combining and germinated). This is standard agricultural practice before sowing the next crop. At Honeydale the spring barley is followed by a cover crop of mustard, but we’ve only sprayed the 4 acre control plots in line with our policy of continuing to farm these areas just as they’ve been farmed for many years, since long before we took over Honeydale. We are not using this method on the rest of the farm though, as we are exploring alternatives that don’t depend on costly inputs. The aim is to use the control plots as a benchmark in order to compare different management methods, so we are handing the costs and other data over to James, our farm analyst, and are looking forward to seeing the results.

Summer's End

Finally, we found, clipped and marked the elusive queen in our healthy WBC hive. She has been playing very hard to get! She's laying eggs and looking healthy, but the laying has slowed down now that summer is at an end. The national hive is also healthy and the bees are still flying well. 

See if you can spot the queen in this image
As we are approaching the end of the season now, Chris removed all of the full supers from his hives but we are a bit disappointed with honey yield. The bees have been feeding on it during the changeable weather over the last few weeks. Chris says it’s also likely that they’ve been finding it hard to draw out honeycomb on the frames. We'll have an accurate idea of yield once the honey has been extracted.

We took a super off each of our hives (both the WBC and national) which will be stored and extracted in due course but we have left some supers on both hives in the hope that we might get a final flush over the next few weeks if the weather is favourable.

As part of our 8 year rotation at Honeydale, we have a large wild bird plot which contains lots of sunflowers. As you can see from the photo, these are now all coming into flower which is great because the bees love them. It will be plants like this that will contribute to any late honey-flow if we get one and the weather behaves itself!

On Your Bike!

We’ve been drilling Ryegrass (Westerwold) and vetch at Honeydale Farm today before the rain forecast for this weekend. It’s to provide ground cover over winter and grazing for sheep. In order to establish grass in the autumn the seedbed needs to be firm before and after sowing. According to an old wives’ tale, it needs to be firm enough to ride a bike across.

Honeydale History with Jim & Wendy Pearse

‘When I was a young boy, riding on the tractor with my dad, I found it fascinating to watch the soil moving through the plough and the harrows. That’s all I wanted to do,’ recalls Jim Pearse, who farmed Honeydale from the 1950s until 2013, when he retired and passed the baton to Ian Wilkinson.

It’s this focus on the soil that has underpinned his life as a farmer. ‘Jim’s real incentive was always to look after the land, for the future,’ his wife Wendy explained.

This is very much Ian Wilkinson’s incentive too, and while farming methods have undergone considerable changes since Jim’s early days, his intimate knowledge of these particular fields in West Oxfordshire have proved invaluable to Ian and the rest of the team from Cotswold Seeds, who now own and manage Honeydale.

Honeydale was once part of the larger Coldstone Farm which stretched right up the Charlbury Road and encompassed College Farm, which Jim’s relations were farming back in the 1600s. When Jim’s parents had to leave Coldstone they bought the highest and best part of it - the 107 acres that now make up Honeydale. There were no buildings, so for a while Jim, his sister and parents, lived in a caravan.

‘We wondered what to call our new farm,’ recalls Jim. ‘Many farms are named after the biggest field and our biggest, on the right as you look towards Ascott, has been called Honeydale since at least the 1500s.’ Again this is all about the soil. ‘It’s such a romantic name because it’s describing the land. A sticky yellow clay, just like honey,’ Jim recalls.

The old names of the fields are also reflected in Ian’s present day plans for the farm. Withy Slade takes it’s name from withies or willows which grow beside streams and before enclosure in 1838 Withy Slade Ditch meandered through this field. It was rerouted to follow the line of the new hedge, and Jim’s Aunt told him how it was ‘all switch and quagmire’ before Jim took it on. But Ian has allowed the stream to return to its original course where it now forms part of the natural flood management works.

Jim has an endless supply of such observations and stories.

He recalls how his father told him that Honeydale field was ploughed up in the war whereas Plum Tree field was too uneven. ‘We couldn’t chain harrow it but rolled it sometimes.’ Withy Slade field displays straight ridge and furrow which were probably made by steam ploughs.

When it was part of Coldstone, Withy Slade was always mown for hay every year, and then cattle were put in afterwards. Back in 1930s up to 1950s there was a problem with couch grass which Jim managed with bare fallow, ploughing four times to dry and kill the roots.

Jim farmed Honeydale with his father until his dad retired in 1974. Then Jim bought a milking machine and increased the number of cows to 23, which produced manure four foot deep. He also planted tetraploid red clover with ryegrass, which he says ‘grew like mad’ and produced five leafed clover. ‘Every year it snowed after we planted that grass,’ Jim recalls. They were regularly snowed in for three weeks during the 1980s.

The only fertiliser he used was the muck from the animals, his own livestock and the pigs from the farm across the road. He operated a five year rotation. The red clover and ryegrass, or bare fallow, then wheat, then oats and two crops of barley. The clover was cut in June for hay, then again in August or September, but if it was too wet it was ploughed in to increase soil fertility.

Jim stopped milking in 1988, continuing with beef calves, but in 2004 he had to give them up because he suffered from bad knees. ‘But what do you do with a grass field if you have no animals?’ Jim asks. His solution was to let out the field to a neighbouring farmer to graze his herd of twenty cows over the summer, a forerunner to what Ian is now doing with Nigel and Ed Adams and their sheep. The arable fields were simplified too, just growing barley each year which went straight down the road to FWP Matthews Mill.

Jim returns to his favourite subject: the soil.

He remembers a field of wheat that was swamped with blackgrass which he destroyed with cultivation rather than spraying. ‘At one stage everyone was spraying everything all the time, but I don’t agree with that.’ Weed seedlings and black grass were ploughed again at Christmas time, to get rid of seedlings. ‘The old way of ploughing twice worked, and we didn’t need to keep spraying it. Frost and weather take care of it for you, settle down the soil and make it perfect for ploughing in March. You can’t get a seed bed like that without using frost and weather. Soil is so important. That’s why we went to all the trouble with the cultivations to keep the soil good.

I do miss riding up and down the fields on the tractor doing the ploughing and taking in the view,’ says Jim. But the cottage where he and Wendy now live has a view of Honeydale from the garden, so they can still keep an eye on us!

The End Of Summer

The last few weeks have been very busy ones at Honeydale. Not only have we been haymaking and harvesting but we’ve also been progressing with plans for the development of Honeydale as a Centre for Food and Farming Diversity.


We’re letting our field of sainfoin go to seed with a plan to harvest it for retail. The seeds are beginning to ripen, albeit unevenly, but we are hoping it will be ready to direct combine at the end of September. It’s a special landrace selection which offers fantastic diversity, selected over many generations. Unlike bred strains with are chosen for their stability, this variety of sainfoin has been given the epigenetic freedom to adapt to its local environment.

It will be very satisfying to see the seeds harvested at Honeydale for sale through Cotswold Seeds next year.


We undersowed herbal ley to buckwheat to act as a nurse crop to protect the herbal ley from hot weather while it establishes, especially important on our thin, free draining soils. It was sown seven weeks ago at 10 kilos an acre of buckwheat and as you can see from the below the herbal ley has taken wonderfully well. We’re not going to graze the sheep on it, because we’re not certain how they will take to the buckwheat, so we ran the topper over it this week to allow the light to get to the herbal ley for regrowth. We’ve also left a trial strip of buckwheat so that we can observe what happens if we don’t top it. 

Combining the Wheat

Like many farmers, there was no rest for Sam over the hot and sunny bank holiday weekend. He was busy combining the wheat. As part of our rotation it was late sown in May, undersown with trefoil and white clover for the sheep to graze in spring.

We achieved a yield of 1.4 tons an acre, which we’re very happy with, given that it was a zero input/no cost crop. The financial data is being professionally monitored by Farm Business Analyst James Turner from Strutt & Parker which will enable us to compare the new rotation with the control plots from the previous conventional, high cost/input system.

We were hoping to combine the oats too, but they weren’t quite ready.


Two permanent grass fields, fifteen acres each of ridge and furrow, have been cut for hay. It’s been baled and Sam has been tedding it for the past 4-5 days. Weather permitting, it might only need a couple more turns and then it will be ready to bale and feed to sheep and cattle over the winter.

Wildbird and sunflower seed mix

This was thin when it was sown in April because of the dry weather, but it’s looking a bit better now, and getting plenty of interest from our farmland birds already.


H and Kelvin from local dry stone walling and fencing company ‘Sticks & Stones’ have been carrying on with the building of the wall at the entrance of Honeydale and it’s progressing slowly but steadily. It’s highly skilled and painstaking work and we could of course have just erected a fence here. But limestone walls are so quintessentially Cotswold and there was a wall at the entrance of Honeydale which had fallen down, so we wanted to rebuild it reusing the old stone.

Development of Honeydale

We’ve been working closely with architects and West Oxfordshire District Council to progress the plans for the development of Honeydale. We’re currently at pre-application stage and Tim and Chris, our architects, are now drawing up visualisations, taking great care that replacement farm buildings will be perfectly in-keeping with the landscape of the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 

Exciting times.