(website in English and French) at the mountain top ‘La Combe’ (900 meters), near Bezaudun sur Bine, surrounded by three mountains, called ‘les becs’, is an extension of the Eco Farm established in 1996 at Little Ash Eco Farm.
It moved in December 2003 to set up and run an experimental Ecological Farm and Nature Reserve in the mountains of the pre-Alps in La Drôme. This is the fifth experimental / demonstration ecological farm that they have developed. The Centre and farm are set up and ran by Marthe Kiley-Worthington and Chris C. Rendle. They give advice on how improved welfare and quality of life of domestic and captive animals can be achieved. They work for governments, private individuals, zoos, circuses, national parks, nature reserves, farmers and NGO’s all over the world and publish widely.
Who is Marthe Kiley-Worthington?
Dr. M.Kiley-Worthington (B.Sc.D.Phil. M.Phil. BHSAI, Fellow Girton College Cambridge) has spent her professional life researching the behavioural problems & welfare of mammals, and is one of the first and best known Animal Behaviour Consultants worldwide, with over 35 years of experience. She spent her childhood in Kenya on farms, attended University in Scotland and then returned to East Africa to Makerere College, Kampala, Uganda (1955-60) with a Goldsmith scholarship. She was one of the first researchers studying the behaviour of large mammals in the field in Africa. She returned to the UK to complete a doctorate on communication in domestic and wild mammals at Sussex University and won a series of post doctoral fellowships to study the welfare of farm animals, develop an ethogram for cattle, distress in veal calves, thus was one of the first Animal Welfare Scientists.
While being on the farm I have witnessed the remarkable work of Marthe with the horses. They just listen and react to all het verbal commands! No whip needed here. The horse riding lesson she gave to the volunteers showed her enormous experience and understanding of these animals. She transmits this understanding and feeling of the horse to the students. You learn so much more with her than in most equestrian schools!
Picture their beginning at this farm!
The evening at dinner, together with two Wwoofers (French and Italian) and a French stagiair in biology and ethnology, Marthe and Chris told us their compelling story of how they started. They arrived on Christmas 2003 by horse, as the van could not climb the steep mountain! This farm had not been used for 50 years, meaning that nature had taken over. They found some (semi) ruined buildings, one 40 Watt electric bulb, one cold erratic tap, an enormous fireplace, and wind that whistled through the walls. There was no food for them or the horses and dogs. They shared in their first winter the buildings with the animals, as it used to be in the old days. Being there made the enormous amount of work to renovate and build the facilities and starting the farming activities very clear. This was done with the help of many volunteers, students, local naturalists, etc.
Multi-facet farm and activities
The 172 hectares, mainly limestone mountain farm, has a great variety of eco systems including coniferous and deciduous woodlands, wet areas, dry grassland, cliffs and rocks, springs and rivers. It is of an astonishing beauty (foto view and toilet). They have de-bushed and cultivated around 10 hectares of arable and fodder crops, and fenced around 15 km of paddocks to be able to control the grazing and the wildlife. They have planted around 100 fruit trees, and cultivate one quarter of a hectare of vegetable garden. They have sheep and cows and make their own dairy products.
Furthermore, they breed, teach and sell youngsters from the Druimghigha Stud, Arab horses. And this already in the 7th generation!
Energy supply comes from the windmill, they have solar water heating, and a small hydro-electric generator is planned. Water comes straight from the mountains, so taking care of water use for the people and livestock is crucial. It made me realise that you become far more conscious of water use, as one day there may come no more from the tap! Whereas, in the cities, prices for water may increase as means to make people more conscious, but the bottom-line: the tap will still run!
The farm is also an important place for nature conservation. With help of local naturalists they keep records of species (such as the wild chamois), birds, flowering plants, bryophytes, and they work on butterflies and beetles. So far they have found 22 species of wild orchids. They have a forest management policy to ensure sufficient heating and building wood, without clearing all the dead wood, which is crucial as a reservoir of decomposing species and other species dependent on them. Their land is also partially open to hikers. One of the jobs I did together with the volunteers during my stay on the farm was clearing wood in the forest to make some trails and paths for hiking and horse riding.
Science and Education
In the work established by Marthe and Chris there is a strong connection with science and transmitting knowledge. They work together with the Elm Farm Organic Research Station in the UK, on the cultivation and production of a variety of leguminosae suitable for this dry area in order to be able to increase nitrogen in the soil and protein intake of the stock and consequently reduce importation of protein feeds on farms. An important aspect of the work of Marthe is her life long experience on animal behaviour. They work on the welfare and cognition of farm livestock and horses, studying how to increase the quality of their lives, rather than just avoidance of suffering. They run several day and week courses for small groups on their farm. Students do their internships or work for diploma and thesis.
And as part of their place in the community, Marthe and Chris also give a weekly informal English conversation class to people from the village Bezaudun sur Bine (80 inhabitants). I assisted at one. Apart from the nice cakes and coffee of course, we had interesting discussions, in English, on how to improve the quality of your soil for gardening; a subject Mastered by Marthe and Chris!
Two major questions that this farm has been addressing
- This question comes from the European Forum on Nature Conservation & Pastoralism, who are concerned with the reduction of wild life and species diversity in the mountain pastures as they are re-colonised by scrub. This mainly due to the reduction of transhumance throughout Europe. This farm wishes to apply the techniques and ideas of ecological agricultural (see definition on their website) activities of this mountain farm so that high-mountain pastures can again be summer grazed economically and enhance species diversity.
- Can such a farm also provide sufficient food from its own resources to feed 30 families? If this can be achieved, then this one farm can feed one third of the community of Bezaudun sur Bine. If all the 10 or 20 farms in the commune could do this, then they could even export food to the wider surroundings.
Indeed this is a challenging environment and complete self-sufficiency takes at least 10 years, in a place where there has been no cultivation for a long time and which is ran by just two people. The farm also produces jams mainly for its own use, but more can be done. For instance using the wool of the sheep, produce oils, etc. In 2013 the farm will celebrate its 10 years of existence. The couple is currently looking for other people to take over the farm, as they wish to retire. The hardest part in the first 10 years has been done by Marthe and Chris, and much more is possible. I appreciated the enormous wealth of knowledge of them and the openness to share that with as many people as possible (including a library in their house open to the volunteers).
The importance of running a farm is, according to Marthe, knowing how to prioritise. “You need to know what you need to do first and when, and then just do it! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, you’ll learn from them, but doubting or being too perfectionist is lethal on a farm”.
Last but not least, I appreciated her philosophy on running a farm and life:” Take every day some time to do other things than just farming. We need variety in life and it is important for your well-being and personal development”. I’ll remember that Marthe, thank you!