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.

A Stepping Stone

Work has started on re-locating the entrance to Honeydale, with one of the first tasks being building a stone wall along the roadside. As you can see from the image the project is coming along nicely. We will keep you updated with further progress.

Elusive Queens, Super Additions, and Some Pesky Wasps

At Paul’s inspection this week, the surviving WBC was observed to be doing well, with lots of eggs and brood present. He still couldn't find the queen but the quantity of visible eggs prove that she must be in there somewhere. The bees have almost filled their second super so a third has been added. As you can see from the photo, it’s looking very tall!


It’s nicely balanced in size by the national hive which is also performing so well that it has received a third super too. Plenty of eggs and brood were present in this hive, and the queen was easy to spot here, which is great.

We now appear to have a colony of wasps in WBC2. We thought we had sealed up the hive after the bee colony had been lost to wasps, but the invaders have been managing to squeeze in and out of the breather holes at the top of the hive. To combat this Paul has sealed up the holes and put out some wasp traps, so hopefully this nest will die off and we can get it emptied and sterilised, ready for a new bee colony.

This is our only troublesome hive, and the good news is that all of the others are busy and there were lots of bees out and about taking advantage of the good weather.

Combining the Control Plots & Sowing for Winter

This weekend we took advantage of a break in the weather and combined our control plots of spring barley. Since we took over Honeydale four years ago, we have conventionally farmed the two plots totalling 4.6 acres in just the same way they had been managed for decades by the previous owners.

We were delayed slightly by a flat tyre and a slipping belt on the combine, but after we inflated the tyre and re-tensioned the belt we were off. It took us three hours to get the crop in, and it’s now gone to the Adams farm as we have no way of processing it, yet. We have a perennial sowthistle problem in the spring barley plots, which restricts the yield. We harvested 4.5 tons, so about a ton per acre, which is not great, considering the cost of inputs - we used 2 herbicides, broadleaf and graminicide, nitrogen fertiliser and a fungicide.

Away from these control plots, we’re using the time honoured low input/low risk method of farming, and are keeping detailed records of the results to make a proper comparison. Watch this space.

As part of our eight year rotation, we sowed stubble turnips and forage rape for the sheep to graze on over winter, once the grass in the ley has stopped growing. It will also prepare the way for spring wheat which will be sown next spring.

As we found the crop a bit lacking last year we also mixed in some crimson clover to add nitrogen to the soil and to provide a higher protein content in the forage. This is not standard practice but as we are still building soil fertility we’re making use of any opportunity to put in soil improving legumes.

We are still experimenting with the shallow plough but it didn’t work too well, as it wasn’t inverting the old ley, so we had to use the conventional deep plough on this occasion. But we’ll keep persevering with the shallow plough until we perfect the technique.

Honeydale Bird Report 2017

The latest bird report from Honeydale is available to view and as you'll see, things are still on the up and up in terms of species diversity and overall numbers, although there are some blips with declines of a few key species (e.g. Yellowhammer). But overall the farm is gaining and holding onto more species than ever before - the species diversity has increased by an impressive 46% since the first year of survey (2014).