Farm notes – Herbal Leys

August 29, 2023

Our blog has been a little neglected in recent times but we’re relaunching it with renewed gusto! We will be using it to delve deeper into life at Nancarrow, sharing favourite recipes, cuts & produce, and providing insight into how the farm works, the goings on, and introduce you to some of the characters involved! Looking ahead we hope it will encourage more of you to visit and get involved in farm life. If there is anything you’d like us to share more (or less) of, please do let us know.

Herbal Leys

Firstly, our Herbal Leys, which are looking spectacular at the moment, but what is a Herbal Ley? And what’s so good about them?

Herbal leys are complex seed mixtures that contain a range of herbs, grasses and legumes. The precise mix of species is designed to achieve specific goals (for example building humous, tackling compaction, or improving drought tolerance) and can be tailored to suit specific soil types or settings.

Whilst they can be pricy, the benefits of herbal leys far outweigh the costs, particularly with spiralling fertilizer prices, which are forcing even the most stubborn, more conventional farmers, to get involved!

The diversity provides grazing animals with a varied and therefore enhanced diet, with each plant offering different benefits. The same can be said below ground, where the variety benefits soil organisms in the same way. Species with long roots effectively mine nutrients, that are normally out of reach deep below and plants such as Ribwort Plantain, and Chicory are helpful in reducing parasitic worms in sheep minimising the need for chemical wormers. Legumes such as Clover, Vetch and Birds-foot trefoil have been used for many decades in organic farming. They fix nitrogen from the air above, providing the soil with natural fertility, replacing the need for man-made nitrogen fertilizer which is heavy on fossil fuels and has ruined the world’s soil and rivers in recent times.

We lean towards mixes that provide maximum diversity and tend to include both annuals and perennials. This allows the sward to evolve over the 5 years it’s in place, with an initial boost of above-ground colour and below-ground microbial activity as the annuals race away in year 1, followed by a balanced, bulkier structure with the perennials in the later years.

When the ley needs renewing, our preferred method is to sow directly into the existing crop (avoiding the plough and its negative impact on soil structure) following some strategic winter grazing. With the right amount of soil disturbance during winter, we are able to quickly establish a new ley the following spring and the process restarts. We have seen huge gains in SOM (soil organic matter) following this process.

SOM – is a key indicator for the amount of carbon being sequestered from the atmosphere into the soil. The French government made this a priority of their net zero strategy at COP21 in 2015. You can read more about this here France’s plan to increase its soil carbon is an example to the world (

Herbal leys have made up a significant part of the farm for the last 10 years and will continue to do so for the foreseeable. Good for soil health & fertility, good for pollinators & wildlife, good for our animals and for nutritious food production. Good for our system and good for the world.

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