Vicki and Chris Agar bought Spring Farm at Fletchling, near Uckfield, in 1998 as a 47-acre livery yard. Since then they have restored hedgerows, planted species rich wildflower grassland and bought two neighbouring plots of land including 38 acres of former floodplain on the Ouse, which is being restored to traditional wet meadow. Their land holding now comprises 110 acres, mainly wildflower grassland with a high nature conservation value.
Tell us about your background
Why choose farming?
How and when did you acquire your land?
Have you worked with any other organisations?
Have you received any grant funding?
What made you choose to keep Alpacas?
If we had an audience with DEFRA?
Can you outline the main changes that are happening with your land?
I studied Fisheries management at University but then worked for Barcalys Bank in London for over ten years, which I really enjoyed. In 1998 we had the opportunity to buy Spring Farm and I left my job to work full time on managing the farm.
I have always had a passion for wildlife, the countryside and managing animals so this was a dream come true. I have always had an interest in the natural world and the ways people interact with the earth. I studied Fisheries management at university which I enjoyed, especially working on Thames fisheries restoration. I now run Spring Farm Alpacas full time, employing three part-time staff and my husband Chris works on the farm and part-time in the city.
In 1998 we bought 47acres of land which was being run as a livery yard, prior to that, we assume it had been a small farm. The yard had been running since 1990 and included the Victorian farmhouse and a number of barn and stable buildings. The land holding comprises small fields, hedgerow and a little wooded copse. We lived in the farmhouse while we converted one of the barns and at this time we ran some livery business and kept a smaller number of alpacas. We started to improve the meadows with a three year programme to reduce the soil nutrient and establish a wildflower rich assemblage of plants using seed from local sources. From the outset we wanted to manage the land for wildlife while retaining the character of working farmland.
We had excellent advice from the Weald Meadows Initiative and Natural England which helped us develop a plan to reduce the nutrient content of the fields and re-introduce biodiverse, species rich grassland. We also replanted some of the hedgerow and over the past thirteen years have grown our landholding to 110 acres; we purchased 38 acres of wet meadow (adjacent to Bluebell Railway) that is managed for biodiversity and is also part of a floodplain restoration project. We also purchased 20 acres more grazing and 7 acres of woodland (post war Western Hemlock plantation on an ancient woodland site, PAWS) which is also going to be returned from conifer to native broad leaf woodland over time, using natural regeneration with continuous cover. The wet meadow contains the remnants of a meander of the River Ouse which has almost dried up following straightening of the river. When we bought this land is was full of ragwort which we pulled by hand! Now we are restoring it to wildflower rich grassland over an eight year programme. We have to reduce the nutrient levels in the soil before the meadows can support a diverse mix of grass and wildflower species. We have also planted 150 Black Poplar, a tree of high conservation value and installed artificial otter holts and a barn owl box. The Barn Owls have already used the box!
Originally our land management was subsidised through Countryside Stewardship, now most of our land is in a Higher Level Stewardship agreement with the remainder in Entry Level. We also receive the Single Farm Payment.
Alpacas are very gentle on the land, they do have hooves but the bottom of their foot is a soft pad, we graze them extensively so they do no damage to the meadows. They are also very beautiful gentle animals and we work very hard to ensure they are well socialised to people. We think our Alpacas are wonderful and when we sell them on we want people to have the same positive experience of this gentle animals that we have, so we put a lot of effort into training them to be calm and easy to manage as they will be going into domestic grazing situations. They are a good conservation grazing animal We have 103 Alpacas currently, we bred 37 in 2010 and sold on 30 of those. We also sold 30 fleeces last year, Alpacas produce highly prized fleece with a quality to rival cashmere. Why did we choose Alpacas? Well when we arrived here we had no fixed ideas about which animal we would use to graze the land, we visited one neighbour who had Alpacas, it was a beautiful sunny day and we saw a new animal being born. We visited the other neighbour, who keeps sheep, on a grey, miserable rainy day and it just looked like a lot more hard work. Our next step is to develop techniques for cleaning and processing the Alpaca fibre and work to develop the market for this premium fibre product.
I think we’d have to say that UK government needs to create a level playing field for British farmers. Our farmers work under very tight constraints and to tight margins but produce high quality food for us. Imported food is produced under different regulation and economic pressures. This disparity needs to be levelled out to ensure that the quality of British farming is recognised and farming in this country will thrive into the future.
We are fairly sure that the first land and the farmhouse we bought was once part of a larger farm that has been split up in the past. Half our land was livery and grazing for horses, this has been restored to species rich biodiverse flower meadow, we have also increased the size of our land holding. The remainder of the land is either wet meadow under restoration or post war conifer plantation. In twenty years or so all of our meadows will be established biodiverse wildflower rich grassland and the woodland will be half way to native broadleaf woodland, with some of the highest quality conifer trees remaining to provide protective cover for the growing native trees.