Why Bio-diversity Matters
At Lyons Hill Farm our insect, bird and butterfly population is every bit as important to us as our cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. This may sound like a romantic cliché, but creating a healthy, natural ecosystem for our animals to live in actually makes them taste better.
Ever since the 1950s and the “green revolution” that followed the second world war, intensive farming practices have led to a catastrophic loss of biodiversity in the UK. Since the 1970s our insect population has halved. Moths have declined 88%, ground beetles 72% and butterflies 76%. Since the 1930s, we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows. According to a 2012 study titled, Our Vanishing Flora, we are losing one of our 950 species of native wildflower every year. 60% of global biodiversity loss is down to the food we eat and much of this is down to the intensive growing of crops that are used to feed animals reared for meat.
At Lyons Hill Farm, our pastures are being carefully returned to their wild state. “See that?” says Mark, one morning on a stroll across the fields, stopping at a cluster of tall, yellow flowers, “that is Yellow Rattle. It feeds off the vigorous, invasive grasses, like Italian rye, allowing more delicate native species to come through.” The cattle at Lyons Hill Farm feed off up to six different types of native, wild grass, “a mixed leaf salad.” Mark explained.
The Government is taking action to reverse our biodiversity loss. Grants are available through DEFRA to restore land to old pasture. However, this is only available to farmers who graze rare and traditional breed cattle. Traditional grazers, like the White Park at Lyons Hill, are good for the land and help promote vegetation succession. However modern commercial breeds need high yield, high sugar grass like Italian rye to sustain them. These grasses exhaust the soil and have to be ripped up and replanted every few years, resulting in a monoculture. Old pastures require no ploughing and allow plant and insect life to flourish.
Pheasant shooting at Lyons Hill Farm offers an added incentive to plant cover for game, increasing the biodiversity on the property. In a patch of newly planted woodland, Mark points out an Alder Buckthorn, “this is the only source of food and breeding ground for the Yellow Brimstone butterfly,” he announced, “without re-introducing it we wouldn't see them here.” A keen entomologist, he recently spotted 15 of the 58 species of butterfly native to the UK within a single hour on the farm. On our short stroll we saw a Common Blue and a Marbled White.
Animals that are forced on grains and cereals end up with clumps of bright white fat as opposed to the yellow coloured fat found on grass fed beef. Slowly rearing animals on a natural and varied diet also creates more intramuscular fat, or marbling as it’s known in the kitchen, which enriches the flavour.
Slow reared meat that has had a natural diet is also better for you. Six intensively reared chickens today have the same amount of omega-3 as found in just one slow reared chicken from the 1970s. Cheap grain fed beef also contains unhealthy saturated fats which increase the risk of heart disease, whilst the leaner grass-fed animals contain a higher percentage of healthy fats and are more densely packed with nutrients.
70% of the land area in the UK is currently used for farming. If we are to stand a chance of restoring our lost biodiversity, farms like Lyons Hill will play a key role. Our exit from the European Union and emerging trade deal with the US looks almost guaranteed to allow a flood of cheap animal protein to enter the UK market. As well as the usual horror stories of “chlorinated chicken” and “hormone injected beef” there will also be more animals fed on crops grown in illegally cleared areas of the Amazon basin. This will present consumers with stark choices. In the words of Michael Pollan, “it is true that we are what we eat, but we are what we eat too"