Prince Charles has said he is “fascinated” by the potential of living mulch to reduce chemical fertilisers in farming and warned time is running out to restore nature.
The heir to the throne was attending the 10-year anniversary event of Innovative Farmers, a pioneering farmer-led research scheme that runs so-called ‘field labs’ to test nature-friendly farming methods.
Coordinated by the Soil Association, trials are primarily funded through grants from The Prince of Wales Charitable Fund, which in turn is funded by royalties from the Duchy Organic range at Waitrose.
In a short speech, the Prince said: “It has been fascinating to see the results of the Field Labs. I’m particularly interested, I must say, in living mulches, which is the next interesting and very critical area I think which I shall be particularly fascinated to see, and in agroforestry and silvopastoral possibilities. Again it’s something not considered in this country. To create some shade and biodiversity is critical.
“I can only say I’m so grateful for what you have all been doing. The fact that Defra has suddenly sat up and noticed is quite something,” he said.
“I’ve always felt that nature herself has so many of the answers and that if we read the book of nature carefully enough, we discover that she’s created this astonishing, miraculous really, waste free circularity.
“And that’s what I hope we can all build on, because technology can’t provide all the answers, the combination of the two, the precision technology and so on, and these extraordinary lessons we’ve learnt from nature can be hugely beneficial and very powerful.
“We’ve over exploited nature for too long and time is running out,” he added.
Over the past 10 years, over 120 Field Lab trials have looked at replacing soya in chicken and pig feed with alternative feed sources, like sprouting grain or vetch, playing classical music to hens for better welfare, testing peat-free compost combinations, using herbal teas for pest control and hot water for seed treatments to reduce disease in plants.
All results are open source so everyone can benefit and the trials are open to any farmer from any sector, in a powerful way of sharing methods traditionally used by organic farmers with those working non organically. In total the scheme has worked with 12,000 farmers and has given away grants worth just under half a million pounds.
Rebecca Swinn, manager of Innovative Farmers, said: “The idea is putting farmers’ ideas for research first, with a focus on sustainability. Obviously farmers are natural experimenters, but Innovative Farmers allows research to be more robust. So they know if something is a fluke, or if there’s science behind it.
“More recently we’ve been engaging with textile students to look at weaving flax, and I’m excited to see it expand in this way,” said Swinson, adding that another trial being considered is how to make ‘tree hay’.
The leaves and branches of some tree species are nutritious for animals, with various levels of protein and minerals. Studies into the system of farming called silvopasture has looked at how trees can not only provide shade and habitat for livestock, but also provide food and shelter from increasingly extreme weather caused by the climate crisis.
Lindsay Whistance, livestock specialist at the Organic Research Centre, said: “Animal behaviour every day is about maintaining or regaining ‘balance’, whether that’s physical or emotional health.
“Social licking in cattle in silvopasture systems is 80 per cent of behaviour – this is a positive behaviour,” she said, adding that trees also allow animals to self regulate their own skin health by itching or rubbing.
Speaking in a week of extreme heat temperatures across the UK, she also pointed out the main benefit of grazing animals among trees.
“Shelter from heat is the single most important thing trees can do for livestock. Heat stress equals three litres less milk per day for dairy cows,” she said. Trees also offer protection from rising rainfall levels and windspeeds, two other main effects of climate change in the UK, she added.
We’ve over exploited nature for too long and time is running out. Prince Charles
Visiting a demo of herbal leys (diverse combinations of grasses and plants used in a field to improve soil health and resilience), the Prince was shown a soil sample with roots of chicory, clover, yarrow and plantain.
He noted the length of the chicory tap root that was three times as long as grass, and was shown the nodules on the clover root from where nitrogen is stored and then flushed into the soil, as an alternative to chemical fertilisers, which are major greenhouse gas contributors.
Growing so-called ‘green manure’ or ‘living mulches’ in this way, as well as sowing underneath crops to reduce ploughing while adding fertility, is one of the key ways regenerative farmers are restoring field biodiversity and storing carbon.
James Daniel, director of Precision Grazing, a company which helps farmers transition to regenerative practices, said: “The last 12 months have really ramped up [in regenerative farming] mainly due to the cost of inputs.”
More farmers have been looking for natural alternatives to nitrogen fertiliser since prices have soared due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The high prices have been a ‘stick’ incentive,” said Daniel. “It doesn’t take long to change a system, what takes longer is changing a mindset.”
Vet and farmer Steve Turner said: “Grass has been looked at as a supplement rather than a basis for all feed. Climate change is really going to try and force these systems, especially in the drier land in this country.”
Talking about the role of livestock in regenerative systems, Turner, who is half Australian, said: “The wildfires in Australia are because there were no livestock grazing off the undergrowth. Back when we had forests in the UK, animals would have always been there.”
Turner added: “We have an opportunity to address the balance of labour; there are community and health benefits to being involved in food.”