Field Notes: A Visit to Hill Crest Farm Project

I arrive at Hillcrest Farm, a classic farmhouse on an autumnal morning in early November. I meet Bracken, Vicky and Morgan (the Maremma livestock guardian dog) in the pastured chicken field next to the farmhouse. We get straight to work moving the chicken runs to fresh pasture. This is a daily move and gives the 300 chickens fresh grass to graze, it’s also great for the soil leaving a naturally tilled, manured patch every day.

First generation farmers, Bracken and Vicky have been farming regeneratively for 3 years on their farm in the foothills of the Howardian Hills and North Yorkshire Moors. Like many others in the regenerative movement they have been inspired by farmers from America, like Joel Salatin and Gabe Brown and Allan Savory from Zimbabwe. The ideas from these regenerative pioneers, from holistic planned grazing to composting, no-till to the water cycle have now spread across the world to hundreds of farms like Hillcrest.

After the chickens are moved, fed and watered we jump in the truck to fill up the water troughs for the cattle and sheep. Hill Crest’s flock of 16-month-old hoggs (a lamb in its second spring and summer) are bred from Swaledale ewes (for the hardiness) and put to Blueface Leicester or Beltex tups (for a better meat carcass). They can stay out all year with just hay for the winter. 

We reach a mob of Hereford cattle at the top of the farm; they are placed in a one-acre paddock and moved each day to mimic the movements of wild herding animals like bison. Cattle and sheep are prey animals, and in the wild they would move regularly in a bunched group (for security) to find fresh grass to graze on. It also means parasites are left behind and the land is sanitised by nature. The impact of the hooves on the ground disturbs the natural seed bank in the soil and, along with the added fertility from the animals, stimulates the regrowth of the diverse pastures.

Bracken and Vicky manage their land holistically. Livestock is used to improve soil organic matter, soil biology, encourage diverse insect life, vigorous plant growth, capture carbon and improve the water cycle.

The livestock graze 30-50% of the grass with the remainder being trampled. This is soon to be followed by the pastured chickens which scratch through the manure and spread it more evenly over the field. The chickens eat the insects and larvae from the cow pats, which makes up the biggest portion of their diet.

As regenerative agriculture is about mimicking nature as closely as possible, Bracken is starting to bring some elements of natural selection to Hillcrest Farm. This is something that is rarely talked about with farm animals. In the wild, natural selection is essential for creating a stronger and more resilient herd. The weakest animals are hunted or die, leaving the strongest animals to reproduce.

One example would be to introduce three bulls into the herd. They will sort out their own hierarchy and the dominant bull will be the one serving the cows.

If any animal does not make the grade for breeding, they are removed from the maternal herd. This ensures that Bracken and Vicky are continually strengthening their breeding stock, mimicking nature where only the strongest animals survive.

We get back in the truck to look at the Hillcrest cold store and butchery unit. All the butchery is done on site and nothing goes to waste - scraps are dog food and bones make bone broth. 

Back at the farmhouse Vicky has cooked a big breakfast - eggs, beef bacon and sourdough bread. It is the perfect end to an inspiring morning. I found it fascinating to discover the philosophies and practices of two farmers with a true passion for regenerating land and creating a biodynamic system that works in harmony with nature