Phil has one of the best ‘views from the office’ of anyone; he and his wife Pauline farm the land around Seacombe Valley, between Acton and Worth. As we walk into a field of his cows, they moo as if to say hello to Phil. Even Jeffrey, the bull, comes over to see what’s going on. Just another summer’s day on top of the Purbeck Hills, but Phil is looking at the landscape through the eyes of someone who knows about the quality of grass, flowers, and herbs, and how it makes his cows happy and healthy. I am touched, quite literally, by a sweet heifer who seems intent on licking my jacket and rucksack. She’s so gentle, I can’t complain. Phil is such a thoughtful, intelligent man and I’m not surprised his cows are so well-behaved.
Behind the pub in Langton, which Phil’s family ran for generations, his gran kept some pigs and chickens – a time when smallholdings were more common around here. Phil was given his first sow to look after when he was just 11 and he’s been looking after animals pretty much ever since. The challenges are becoming ever greater: the relative price of food goes down, but the costs of farming are going up, and the weather is increasingly unpredictable. However, Phil tells me, the Purbeck hills produce resilient livestock and buyers at the market know that a Purbeck cow will be a good one. Phil’s pigs also have formed within Purbeck. All his pork is sold locally, and he jokes that going out for a meal often means eating his own food!
For the last 8 years, Phil has been managing the land according to a Higher-Level Stewardship programme. It’s all about grazing the cows in a wildlife-sensitive manner, so they create a mosaic of different grass lengths. Some wildflowers need shorter grass in spring; some butterflies need taller, tussocky grass to complete their lifecycle. Every year is different, so Phil must adapt the grazing accordingly. As a result, cowslips, pyramidal orchids, spider orchids, early gentians, skipper butterflies, and a huge variety of birds flourish here. The cows’ hooves ruck up the soil in places – a bit of light ‘poaching’ it’s called – which creates places for seeds to germinate and for insects to burrow. Phil has found the changes interesting. As he gets older, he says, he appreciates the flowers and butterflies more. But we can’t eat butterflies, he laughs. Farmers need to make a living too. Finding the right balance isn’t easy. Conversations about it can be complicated because so few of us now have any link to a farm or a food producer. When he was young, Phil tells me, it was quite normal for local people to volunteer help with hay-making, say. But he thinks change is in the air: people are becoming more interested in how our food is grown.