These March days are when the ground temperature starts to rise, heralding the arrival of Spring at the Woodhall Estate.  The early willows blossom to give that splash of yellow and white to the tree lines, while the woodland flowers such as snowdrops and violets beat the primroses to their first appearance.
Meanwhile the amphibians have been steadily emerging from their winter hibernation.  Frogspawn has already been laid in many of the Estate ponds and it has been a very busy week in the Park as toads appear in large numbers heading for spawning grounds in the larger water bodies around the Home Farm.  The deadwood and brash piles, which we take care to leave after forestry operations, provide an essential food source and refuge environment for newts, which are masters of camouflage on the woodland floor.
Beaters Day
To end what has been a very good shooting season, the last Saturday of January is Beaters day.

This is when the team of Beaters and pickers up, who have worked so hard all season to make the days successful, get a chance to shoot pheasants themselves.  This day is focused on reducing cock pheasant numbers to make the breeding ratio of males to females better for successful wild brood rearing.  This is also a chance for us at the Woodhall Estate to extend our gratitude for this season’s efforts. 

Harvest 2016 - A Seasonal Update from our Farm Manager
Another harvest is over and in record time.  Most farmers in the area were finished a good week to ten days earlier than normal.
We started in late July with barley when the weather was a little changeable but we got the crop into the barn without having to dry it, which saves costs.  Yields were not as good as last year but this is a characteristic for barley this year as the protracted cold wet spring followed by the lack of sunshine in June led to smaller grains with a low specific weight.
We then moved onto oilseed rape which, again, was affected not only by the weather patterns but also by pest damage, namely the Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle which has been in the Press in recent years, as the seed dressing available to control the pest has been banned for two years and seems likely that it will go forever.  As a result, many farmers, us included, have taken the decision to not grow oilseed rape for the time being.  This was a big decision as the crop has played a vital part in the farms’ rotational cropping for at least 30 years.  As it is early to harvest it gives us a great window to turn land around ready for the following wheat crop, which is normally a good one.  It has a good long tap root which aids soil structure and condition and, although the price fluctuates, has in some years been the most profitable crop on the farm.  But there it is, we have made the decision and just like Theresa May’s Brexit proclamation, “no oilseed rape means no oilseed rape”, so we will make a go of it!  However it does mean a lot of head scratching to come up with good alternatives for rotational farming which has occupied much of my thoughts and time since harvest.
The weather during August was fantastic for harvest and started with oats.  We grow winter oats which are on contract with Jordans, so please keep buying their excellent breakfast products!  We have had to jump through a lot of hoops to secure this contract and we undergo a strict audit of every aspect of the farming process to qualify.  This ranges from management of resources to wildlife management protocols and we need to show that we are addressing each area and improving where necessary year on year. The incentive for us is a small premium for the oats we produce but it does also focus the mind on some aspects of the farming business that might not receive the same attention otherwise.  The oats yielded a little less than I had hoped but considering the nature of the weather they fared better than barley and OSR.
Wheat harvest followed and with generally pleasing quality and yields which was a relief, bearing in mind the previous crops.  It came in in record time and none of crop has required drying which represents a massive saving in electricity and fuel.
The last crop to be harvested is the beans.
We traditionally sell a proportion of our crop well before we actually harvest it.  This can be as early as the previous November or December.  If we think the price will work for us, we secure a percentage, as in a volatile market there is always a risk of lower prices going forward at levels that are below the cost of production.  We treated this year no differently and our early sales looked very sensible because, as the year progressed, prices weakened somewhat.  Then, of course, along came the vote on the EU.  The unexpected vote to leave had an effect on the exchange rate of the pound in a very short time; a weak pound normally feeds through to higher farm commodity prices and indeed in this case did just that.  Not to get too excited as the increase is modest, but every little helps.
Since harvest finished we have been concentrating on cultivating ground ready for next year’s crops. It has been very dry so recent rains have been helpful.  We need as many of the small seeds blown out by the combine harvester and weed seeds to germinate so they can be killed off prior to drilling the next crop.  This reduces the amount of herbicide generally required in the following crop.
We are now half way through our drilling programme and indeed some of the first crops sown are now emerging, although we would welcome a good rain to help with the slower areas.  About two-thirds of our winter wheat crop is in the ground and the winter barley, so that leaves the rest of the wheat, the oats and winter beans.  The rest of our land is designated for spring cropping, namely spring wheat, spring beans and some peas.  Some of the fields have already been cultivated and sown with a cover crop to improve soil conditions and capture nutrients that would otherwise be lost over the winter.  The fields that are due to be sown with spring beans will be left as stubble over the winter and not cultivated until mid-February. This will provide cover over the winter for birds. That just leaves the land for peas which will be ploughed later this autumn and left to weather down during the winter with frosts and rain.

Countryside Management Services
The Countryside Management Services held their annual social event for their Practical Conservation Volunteers at the Woodhall Estate on Tuesday 16th August.

​Between them the volunteers attend in excess of 150 work parties per year, giving more than 13,000 hours of their time to improve Hertfordshire’s green spaces and public rights of way.

 The visit to Woodhall was an opportunity for them to hear about the history of the landscape, review river restoration projects on the Beane and spend time admiring the veteran oak and hornbeam trees in the Park.  After much walking and talking, the hog roast lunch was a great way to round off the morning.