It was around this time last year I walked into one of our old barns and sat on a bale looking at the dwindling hay supply and thought, "There has be a way round this." Most are familiar with the lean winter months in a garden; that time when only kale and chard seem to grow and your sick to the back teeth of stored roots. Well, 'the hungry gap' is the same in farming – that time after Christmas and before the Spring nip kicks the grass back in.
It's an age-old problem of producing enough feed in the summer months to tide animals through the winter. With all our ferreting for answers, it's interesting to note that even with the most holistic managed pastures in this country, farmers still need some additional feed in barren months. The UK is that bit too far north and bleak to rely on grass alone. As with so much of what we are doing, we decided to look to the past for answers and this year I looked to bring back an ancient tradition.
Seeing holly (Ilex aquifolium) as just a prickly seasonal decoration is doing a grand disservice to its cultural and agricultural importance. It was once held as a symbol of good luck, fertility and protection. In fact, as a hangover from old beliefs and former times, it's still considered bad luck to cut down an entire holly tree. Seeing the amount of holly left in our local hedges, the cultural persistence of holly in the farming community is obvious. When the hedge flail comes out in winter, my father will never cut a holly; when asked why he always recounts an old Devon saying....
Cut down the holly
Cut down your luck.
Allow the devil in
and he'll run-a-muck.
Cutting through the superstitions with a bit of biology and reasoning there is a sound basis to why holly trees were held in such regard. It is, of course, a reliable stock-proof hedge plant. Holly also provides shelter in the winter and shade in the summer. If a cow is calving outside we have noticed that she will always calve under a holly tree. The same can be said for our ewes, I noticed about 80% of them all birthed under holly trees simply because it gives the best protection from the elements.
Also, before the days of GPS, ploughmen used their conspicuous dark shape as 'sights' to align their furrows. Holly trees are very visible land boundary markers from the days before a proper land registry when boundaries were more contested than they are today. Even now, ordnance survey map makers regard mature hollies as being the best pointers to the course of old boundaries.
However, my main interest is using it as animal fodder. Its leaves have one of the highest calorific contents of any tree browsed by animals and are rich in nutrients. Feeding the leaves (never berries) to stock, especially sheep, during the winter is an ancient practice that doubtless goes back into prehistory. The leaves were said to induce a cow into milk, increase butter milk and nourish pregnant ewes. Today holly is still cut for fodder occasionally in Dumfries, Derbyshire, Cumbria and the New Forest, but in most of the country it's a practice that's long died out.
However you can still see remnants of the old ways – just up the road from our farm there is an ancient holly grove or 'Hag'. Hags were manmade holly plantations for the sole purpose of pollarding for winter animal fodder.
Studying these trees you can clearly see holly's amazing ability to defend itself from browsers, usually deer. Known as spinescence, it's induced by browsing. The more times it's cut or nibbled the more spiny the leaves become. Higher up the tree, beyond the reach of the deer, the mature leaves can be almost spineless. The old word is 'clear leaved' and it's the clear leaved boughs that are used for fodder.
So with my newly gained old knowledge I tripped off to the sheep one morning and cut some high boughs near our flock of pregnant ewes and watched. The ewes charged round took one sniff, stuck their noses in the air waddled off. Sometimes animals need a bit of coaxing to accept a novel food so I wiped some molasses over the holly leaves; once again the ewes charged in and I watched from afar. From a distance they were clearly nibbling at the holly but on closer inspection they were just humouring me. They had licked off all the sweet molasses and left behind pristine holly leaves. They clearly had no interest in it and I didn't know why.
A few days later I stumbled across the answer. On my daily rounds I noticed our resident herd of roe deer in our lower meadows as their cotton-ball white bums bounced into the distance. On the floor where they had been grazing were chewed off holly twigs and small branches – seemingly deliberate. After a bit of research, I found the same story with New Forest ponies. According to the forest officers at New Forest National park, at certain times of year, small branch tips are found lying on the ground around some holly trees. These have been bitten off by the ponies and are left to lie for some days before being eaten. This process makes the leaves more palatable.
So I left the boughs I'd cut in the field and almost forgot about them. Two weeks later I saw the flock gathered round stripping the holly leaves with gusto. So there was my result... it did work.
There are many reasons why holly died out as animal fodder but the main reason is that it clearly didn't fit in with the industrial model of agriculture. Nowadays though there is renewed interest in tree fodder around the world because of the rediscovered benefits of nutrition, parasite control, low energy inputs, landscape stabilization and resilience to climatic instability to name but a few. The warmer parts of the world are blessed with year round tree fodder options but here in the UK we are somewhat limited in winter. We know holly grows here: we know it's evergreen; we know it was previously used as fodder; we know it's nutritionally rich but – largely because of its slow rate of growth – it is still no panacea.
The challenge for us is to find a combination of species (maybe hundreds!) that stretch the fodder season by a few months at each end and then our old friend holly can plug the little hungry gap in the middle.