As we head into winter and look forward to the first green shoots of spring, two guardians of the great outdoors share their experiences of tending their respective acres of ancient woodlands and mature vineyards. Darren Norris, Head of Forestry at The Goodwood Estate talks trees, soil, sustainability and the benefits of learning from the past with Gusbourne’s Vineyard Manager, Jon Pollard.
You’ve got a big job looking after 12,000 acres at Goodwood. What’s keeping you busy right now?
Our work on the estate is quite seasonal and I have a job of two parts. The first is looking after the forest as a single entity, from planting to felling – it’s a 120-150 year rolling project, which means I’m really a custodian. Late autumn into winter is our busy time of year. Lots of planting and tree-thinning, which we need to do outside of nesting season.
The other part is looking after the estate’s infrastructure: farm tracks, fencing, park trees and hedges – all the stuff that makes Goodwood look beautiful. Our next big project is cutting the hedges in January and February. One of my colleagues will spend six weeks on a tractor just doing that.
JP Sounds like quite a few similarities between your role and mine, although your patch of land is much bigger! We’ve also got a small amount of woodland – around 9.2 hectares in Kent. I’ve got a couple of guys coppicing, plus all the hedge work, the fencing, keeping things looking tidy around the vineyard and the tourism areas. What kind of woodland have you got at Goodwood?
DN It’s a mix of deciduous and conifer. The majority is on the Downs, predominantly beech. Quite a lot of conifer within that as well – Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar and a bit of larch. Off the Downs we’ve got sweet chestnut and oak. Oak will grow on the Downs, but it’s no good for timber so there’s quite a lot of coppice within that. The coppice is really useful, because we’ve got a biomass boiler going at the moment, which supports our clubhouse The Kennels and Hound Lodge, which is our private 10-bedroom country retreat. We’ve another much bigger biomass boiler coming online in the next few months that will supply electricity and hot water to the main Goodwood Hotel and to Goodwood House itself. My hope is that at some point it can also supply electricity to our organic farm.
You can’t say it’s completely carbon-neutral because obviously you’re capturing carbon when you’re growing the trees and releasing carbon again when you’re burning timber. It’s more about keeping a balance so that there’s always more growing than there is being turned into fuel. Our aim is to leave things in a better state.
JP Totally agree. I strongly feel we’ve got to leave the ground in a better condition than when we came to it. When we started Gusbourne, the top six to 12 inches of ground had been farmed pretty intensively for who knows how long. We’ve now put in a perennial crop that we want to grow and mature and stay healthy in that ground. So from the very beginning it’s been about putting something more back into the soil, not taking something out.
JP Darren, I know the farm at Goodwood is organic – how do you manage the animals and the crops?
DN Good old-fashioned rotation! Cattle, then sheep, then pigs – the pigs take the weed levels down. Then it’ll go to a crop for several years while the ground is at its most rich after being fertilised by those animals. You’ll have a couple years of crops, then back to a grass lay and then over to the animals again. But there are periods of fallow too. You do need to let the ground rest a bit. I think there’s a lot to be said for how people used to farm.
JP Organic is more challenging in the world of winemaking, but it can be done and there are some people doing organic viticulture here in the UK. For years I’ve said if you’re farming organically you should be happy expecting reduced yields. But I don’t know how true that is anymore. If you’ve got your soil in a very good condition, using cover crops and different species in the alley rows to drive the micro flora and fauna, then there are benefits for crops, whether that’s wheat or barley or a perennial crop like vines.
How long has Goodwood been organic? And do people understand what it really means?
DN They definitely get it, and they see the value in organic produce, but maybe they don’t see it in the same way that I do. We’ve been organic for 20 years now on the farm but we’re only really seeing the totality of the long-term benefits now. I’ve seen the amount of wildlife increase enormously. Yellowhammers have come back to the farm, which I haven’t seen in decades. Linnets too. Our population of goldfinches is enormous. That’s because there’s food and shelter for them now. I’m sure you find that at Gusbourne as well.
JP You’re right, we see loads of hares in the vineyard, because they nest and raise their young above ground – they seem to like the protective nature of the trellis work and the vines. There are 4,000 vines per hectare so it probably feels a bit like an open woodland structure to them.
When we started thinking about doing tours at The Nest, I thought people would want to come just to see the big shiny stainless-steel tanks and find out how wine is made in the winery. But I realised very quickly that visitors also wanted to see the vineyards and just be outdoors, walking around the estate, seeing the diversity of birds and hearing the bees humming around the wildflower meadows.
DN I think that’s one of the great things about coming to Goodwood or to Gusbourne – getting so close to nature. Seeing a huge expanse of sky and literally filling your lungs with fresh air. Simple things that make people think differently about their environment.
JP What we’re doing and what Goodwood are doing is fantastic – and it’s brilliant to see people taking enjoyment from being in the environments we take care of. By the time I retire, I hope the people that come behind me will be thinking that what we’ve started to do and developed over the next few years is just the way that things should be done going forward. And that means that things will always be in a better place.
We are proud to be partnered with Goodwood. Before we can meet again to enjoy a glass or two at the races, you can find our wines, along with an amazing array of tasty, locally sourced produce, at the Goodwood Farm Shop.
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