This Google Earth snapshot is a bit outdated and doesn’t do it complete justice, but it helps illustrate what an amazing microcosm of productive and natural diversity Thorncroft is compared to the other fields.

Thorncroft, Mark Dickinson

Visiting the Orkney archipelago for the first time, it is striking how the landscape is almost completely dominated by livestock with some patches of cereal crops here and there. Yet, tucked in amongst all of this, on the island of Westray lies Thorncroft which immediately stands apart from (and to a certain extent, towers above) its surroundings on first sight. For 11 years, Mark Dickinson and his family have lived here, managing the land using veganic methods in order to feed themselves and others while providing a haven for all manners of wildlife.

Trees are the key visual feature that sets Thorncroft apart from other Orcadian farms and crofts. The trees serve several purposes and perhaps most important in this locale is their role as windbreaks. During my visit, this was made apparent while Mark was giving me a tour of the fields when he asked me to join him in crouching down behind one of the shelterbelts. Immediately, the background noise of the wind was significantly dampened, and the temperature was noticeably warmer being closer to the ground. With such a short growing season, keeping the ground and air around the crops warmer is vital for enabling them to get their growth on in time. Plus, in areas with strong winds, crop yields are higher when protected by shelterbelts. With Thorncroft’s coastal location desiccation can become a problem and so, the shelterbelts help to retain moisture and prevent plants drying out. On the other hand, the ground here can become very sodden at certain times of year, but by having willow (a waterlog tolerant tree) as the main constituent of the shelterbelts, this helps slow the flow of water through the land and protect the crops.

Mark’s shelterbelts are not restricted to the field perimeter however, as there are miniature shelterbelts between the rows of some crops. Interestingly, these mini shelterbelts are composed of cereal crops like oats which help give extra protection to some of the less hardy crops. The seeds of the cereal crops also help attract birds who do useful work like controlling pests and improving the tilth of the soil. Another useful feature of this kind of shelterbelt is that it fits in with the crop rotations, so it can be cut and mulched down in preparation for the next crop to be sown directly into it and the cereal shelterbelt can be resown where needed.

Aside from shelterbelts, Mark uses trees and shrubs for a number of other purposes, and he currently has a food forest developing as well as a field for alley cropping that he’ll begin planting soon. The other functions that the trees and shrubs provide include food (hazel, hawthorn, rowan, gooseberry, rosehips, aronia, blackcurrant, sea buckthorn), coppice materials (willow for basket weaving and as a soil amendment), fertility (various species of alder and gorse which are nitrogen-fixing) and habitat (in addition to the species already mentioned, there are birch, oak and fir trees growing and probably more that I forgot to mention and over 10,000 trees have been planted overall) for wildlife which helps with pest control among other things. Mark also pointed out to me that the droppings brought in by wildlife (birds, small mammals, insects) attracted to these habitats is not an insignificant source of nutrients for the soil.

Field in preparation for alley cropping.

A wide range of food is grown in the outdoor beds such as courgettes, marrows, pumpkins, dwarf French beans, broad beans, strawberries, cabbage, lettuce, potatoes, onions, asparagus and more. Interestingly, the strategies for generating fertility here are different than you might expect. Mark informed me that in his location in Orkney, green manures can be more problematic due to the short season, but may still be added to the rotation depending on September temperatures and rainfall. Moreover, despite the ready availability of seaweed, due to the combination of a harsh climate and the heavy soils on his land, top dressing with kelp may lower the temperature of the soil, meaning planting and sowing will be delayed and growth may be inhibited in certain temperature sensitive crops like french bean and pumpkin. Instead, Mark opts to use straw and hay grown on site which he mulches over the beds as well as sheet mulching with 100% recycled black plastic sheets which increases soil temperatures aiding the composting process. This offers ideal conditions for macro and micro flora to flourish, promoting microbially rich soils. Furthermore, Mark doesn’t do any traditional composting but instead leaves cut or leftover plant material to breakdown in-situ. Nor does he do much weeding, and if he does, the weeds are simply chopped and dropped too. 

In addition to the outdoor crops, Mark grows an amazing range of crops in both polytunnels and a greenhouse. This includes raspberries, several varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and much to my surprise given his Northerly location, an abundance of chillies. For the tomato and cucumber crops which he grows much more of, Mark uses what is called a hydroponic system. Hydroponic here means crops that are grown in biodegradable pots using a soil-less substrate like coir to which organic and mineral inputs can be added. His substrates are composed primarily of coir and Orcadian aggregate; the system is drip fed on a timer using rain harvested water. He also grows crops using veganic and bio-intensive methods without the need of irrigation in some of the tunnels.

Tomatoes and cucumbers.

Getting Thorncroft to where it is today has not been without its difficulties and it has taken a decade of radically simplistic work. In particular, some difficulties arose dealing with the Rural Payments Service. For one, when mapping the fields on Thorncroft, Mark’s usual greening payment from the BPS was reduced because the hedges around the field were deemed too wide (despite there being an allowance of up to 20m for field margins, field hedging can only be up to 3m wide). Given how vital the shelterbelt hedging is for the success of crops, it is a shame that Mark should be penalised for being a little over the 3m limit, especially when there is plenty of room leftover in the 20m allowance for field margins. In addition, while Orkney is considered ‘severely disadvantaged’ in the Less Favoured Area map for Scotland, Mark can unfortunately not make any use of the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme (LFASS) which requires applicants to have livestock in order to be eligible. Hopefully, with the coming changes to the subsidy system that should incentivise more wildlife on farmland, and with continued lobbying efforts, stockfree farmers and crofters won’t be as disadvantaged in the future.

It was a real pleasure being able to visit and learn from Mark and his family on Westray and for the very hospitable welcome they gave me. We look forward to seeing what direction Mark’s work takes in future!If you would like to hear from Mark himself, you can watch our recent webinar with him where he talks in depth about the workings of his system. Mark is also part of our stockfree advisory team and you can get in touch with him through the team webpage.

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