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Space for nature being squeezed at Yewtree Farm

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Yewtree Farm is the last working farm in Bristol. They farm in a way that is sensitive to biodiversity, but their farm as they know it has come under threat.

A winter view of the scrub mosaic at Yewtree Farm
A spring view of the scrub mosaic at Yewtree Farm

If you’ve not taken a walk on the footpaths that criss-cross Colliter’s Brook and Yewtree Farm on the edge of South Bristol, make sure you do so as soon as possible. Here, there is wild beauty in the billowing hedgerows that are washed with white blossom in the spring. In winter, you can marvel at the twisted shapes of the veteran trees that dot the landscape. And you can listen to the burble and songs of finches and winter thrushes foraging in the patches of unique scrub mosaic that break up the species-rich grassland.

The question, though, is how long will these sights and sounds last?

Blackthorn blossom at Yewtree Farm
Blackthorn blossom at Yewtree Farm

Sadly, on 29th November 2023, the majority of Bristol's councillors (excluding the three Green Party members) voted for the expansion of Bristol City Council’s crematorium.

True, the expansion is on its own land, bordered by land owned by Yewtree Farm, yet the owners of Yewtree Farm have had an informal tenancy agreement to graze cows on this council land for decades. This has meant the creation of a unique habitat due to an unusually light grazing regime - the area is loved by many people and benefits a wide range of species.

Special enough to be given conservation designation

As a designated Site of Nature Conservation Interest (SNCI), we’ve watched the land here blossom in the last twelve or so years under the careful stewardship of Catherine Withers. It was interesting to hear Patsy Mellor, Director for Management of Place in Bristol City Council, state publicly that future management would "protect the council-owned land from future degradation of grassland due to bramble and scrub encroachment". The ecologist speaking on behalf of the applicant (i.e. Bristol City Council) also stated that there had been a “decline in recent ecological value due to extensive bramble incursion.“

Since we’ve often found a concentration of butterflies, bees and birds using the island patches of bramble, particularly in bad weather, how can the ecological value of scrub mosaic be swept aside? Perhaps species-rich grassland has become more of a widely accepted goal, or a mantra, that grabs people’s attention rather than a ragged patchwork of bramble, wild rose and hawthorn interspersed amongst the grassland.

A red admiral butterfly enjoying a feast in scrub at Yewtree Farm
A red admiral enjoying a feast in scrub at Yewtree Farm

The value of scrubland

However, land like this is such good habitat that the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) actually has a blog on how to create scrub and scrub mosaics. Here we find that creating scrub can “increase the species variety of invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and birds. It also helps lichens to grow, which provide food and nest material for wildlife. It boosts populations of pollinators, helps remove carbon from the atmosphere and maintains carbon rich soils.” So, what’s not to like?

Maybe this is answered later on in the blog when it states, “it’s best to avoid scrub and scrub mosaics on land that is already important for wildlife, like species-rich grassland.” So is Patsy Mellor right to call for protection of council-owned land from "future degradation of grassland due to bramble and scrub encroachment"?

How could this site work for nature?

Let’s take a look at this particular site with a forensic eye. We know many families already come to the site, maybe more in the future. Dogs often come along too and many run free. With such a heavy footfall, the result may be consistent, low-grade disturbance of wildlife. Bees have trouble foraging, roosting butterflies don’t have peace, and birds lose energy taking flight far too often. So, perhaps on this site there should be a good mix of species-rich grassland and scrub mosaic that, as we’ve seen, gives protection to pollinators, insects and birds from adverse disturbance.

The scrub mosaic at Yewtree Farm in summer

One step forwards, one step back

Go back to last year and, soon after the species-rich 13-acre hay meadow in front of Yewtree Farm was designated a SNCI, it was removed as a development option from the council’s revised Local Plan. All good, one would think. However, suddenly the tenancy agreement for this field was terminated so Catherine lost any access to both the meadow and its hay crop.

Early this year, after a catalogue of errors by Bristol City Council, part of the ancient, boundary hedge was destroyed to give new tenants ‘access’. Social media comments revealed that the owners (an investment company), under the advice of their land agent, had made this surprise decision. So, why could this be? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they let the field to another grazier. And maybe this new tenant may inadvertently slowly degrade the meadow. The SNCI status will be lost and removed, perhaps opening it up for development?

As a result of both the crematorium expansion and the loss of the hay meadow, perhaps the vultures are circling. After all, an investment company wants to make money to increase its multi-million pound portfolio whilst the adverse effects of climate change, biodiversity loss and reducing public access to high quality green and blue space it appears to be very low down on its agenda.

What hope is there?

Will Bristol City Council be keen to enforce the retention of the species-rich SNCI hay-meadow? Indeed, is there legislation to ensure this? Spoiler alert: No. Not now since ‘normal’ agricultural practices are allowed. Watch this space, we say.

So, with Yewtree Farm being squeezed on two fronts, the future looks uncertain indeed. However, we want to pay tribute to Catherine Withers who has created a unique, welcoming, wildlife friendly farm. If only the Planning Department and some councillors on Bristol City Council had really taken this on board. More than this, we want her to stay and continue her amazing work.

If you want to watch the full meeting that may have decided the future of this very special farm, the link is here.

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