Case Study: Using ELS to maximise wildlife benefits in the Fens

Author: Steve Pinder
Farm: Greeves Farm, Cambridgeshire

I am a County Council tenant farmer. I grow winter wheat, beet, rape, and potatoes. I used to grow plots of miscanthus as game cover, which were shot by a small shooting syndicate. No birds were released and the shoot relied on attracting ‘wild’ pheasants. My wife runs a riding school on the farm, so there are several acres of horse paddocks. My land is a mixture of ‘Grade 1’ sandy loam and tougher areas. I make the best use of areas that are difficult to farm by providing for wildlife, like awkward corners and areas of heavier land.

Aims:

I live in a really important area for farmland birds – the Fens is one of only a handful of places where grey partridges, corn buntings, yellow wagtails, tree sparrows, lapwings and turtle doves can be found together. There are also a wealth of beneficial insect and arable plants that form the base of the food chain.

I provide a variety of options giving year-round wildlife habitat - over-winter seed food and in-field nesting habitat for farmland birds, foraging and sheltering habitat for insects and opportunities for arable plants to thrive.

Management:

I believe sensitive hedge and ditch management – including buffering – are part of good farm management, and something we should all do as a matter of course. The new challenges for me were learning about nectar flower mixes and wild bird seed mixes.

Nectar flower mix

I used a grass-free mix – they’re a bit more expensive but on these fertile soils, grass comes to dominate very quickly. The vigorous cultivars used in the mix in it ensure it stands a good chance of out-competing any problem plants in the seed bank.

Once the soil was prepared by ploughing and rotaring, I broadcast the seed on using a slug pellet spreader. This only worked because I had wider strips – it spreads it quite a long way so if they had been any narrower I would have been wasting seed.

I then rolled the plots. Small flower seeds like these do better if they are near the surface, as long as they have good contact with warm soil. I went for an autumn establishment, to give the seed a chance to germinate and get away before winter set in.

The mix had phacelia in it which did very well and helped to supress weed growth. Some of the plots I only needed to cut once to control weeds in Year 1. I can see there is less phacelia this year, and the clovers, vetches and trefoils are starting to come into their own. It looked fantastic last year, but I’m looking forward to even better display of colours this year.

Other plots I have elsewhere on the farm needed more cutting. I think a lot depends on the weed burden in the location you choose. I had to cut one of the plots three times to control the charlock, but it’s fine now it’s established properly. I don’t have a way of removing the cuttings so I make sure they’re chopped up fine when I cut the mix to prevent a mulch forming.

Wild Bird Seed mix

I have four blocks containing wheat, kale, quinoa, red and white millet, buckwheat, and sunflowers. My agreement started in January 2012 – anyone trying to get things started in 2012 will remember the almost complete absence of sunshine!

I tried to establish my wild bird seed mixes by drilling in the spring with very limited success. It didn’t help that they were sited on old miscanthus plots. I had treated it with herbicide but it had failed to kill it completely. By the time the seed mix germinated, there was already substantial miscanthus regrowth which effectively swamped the mix.

I was philosophical about it – from a wildlife point of view they weren’t a complete fail because there were still the chance for arable plants to grow there and encourage insects. They would set a bit of seed and provide winter food for things like skylarks and linnets. I also broadcast a couple of kg of mustard onto each plot area in July – it’s fast-growing and I hoped it might set seed in time to provide at least some winter food.

I re-drilled the wild bird seed mixes in spring 2013 and this time they’ve been a success. It shows what a massive difference the weather can make, even if you’re following the instructions and doing everything right.

I’ve also become aware of the plight of the turtle dove – we’ve lost 93% of them! There is now a mix available which contains early-flowering varieties of things like vetches and clovers, as well as some fumitory, which should provide a food source for them when they arrive here in late spring after migrating from Africa. There was a turtle dove here this summer, so I’m going to establish an acre or so this autumn, near to where I saw it.

Now I have my two-year mixes established and thriving, I can start to turn them into staggered plots. The kale seems to be doing well, so next spring I’ll re-establish half of each plot with the same mix again, so there is always some in its first year, full of cereals and millet, and some in its second year, with plenty of seeding kale.

Achievements:

The failed attempts at establishing bird cover were frustrating but luckily this is not the most expensive mix.

Even though I rent my land, I am able to make my environmental management stack up by using my worst land. It’s important we farmers all do our bit to look after the countryside.

I was amazed how well the nectar flower mixes did, and how alive with insects they were this summer.

I think the real benefits from the wild bird seed mixes will become apparent this winter, now they’ve worked. Anything’s got to be better than miscanthus! I’ve definitely got more sparrows around. I’m seeing small birds in the covers already, and it’s only October. I also see more sparrowhawks and kestrels now, which I’m thrilled about because it must mean the rest of the food chain is doing OK too!

I’m a real lover of owls - we have barn and tawny owls on the farm - and they all fledged families this summer which I’m really pleased about.

Advice for other farmers

Don’t be afraid to put some nitrogen fertiliser on your bird cover. It’s a crop, after all. I used about 50kg an acre on mine.

Horsetail can be a real problem in this area and it’s started creeping in from one of my margins. I’ve discovered that it responds better to herbicide if you roll it first, to flatten it and cause some damage to it so the chemical can penetrate.

In hindsight I would have cropped my old miscanthus plots first, giving me more opportunities to kill it off properly. I wouldn’t advise trying to follow it straight away with a bird cover or a nectar mix, because if it comes back your mix will not do well.

Contact Information

nicola.williamson@rspb.org.uk

Case Study: Establishing a nectar mix on chalk in the Yorkshire Wolds

Author: Chris Tomson
Farm: Towthorpe Manor Farm

Aims:

Towthorpe Manor Farm is a 242ha arable farm with chalk dales grazed with native breed cattle. There is a small shoot with cover crops of mustard and triticale privately funded.

Winter cropping includes oilseed rape, winter wheat, winter barley and oats for Jordans. Spring beans are also grown, and precision farming is undertaken on the farm.

This particular feature was chosen as part of a Conservation Grade agreenment which requires 10% of arable land to be in wildlife friendly options. The option is sited alongside an east-facing 6m grass strip which is adjacent to a chalk dale and hedgerow.

Management:

The seed mix used comprised clovers, vetches, bird's-foot trefoil and sanfoin.

Late May 2013 - Sown into stubble using a Simba Express cultivator with tines set at 10 inches into the ground to take out compaction with integral rollers behind the tines. The seed is broadcast electrically onto the cultivated surface and Cambridge rolled. A heavy flat roller is recommended to give soil seed contact on this chalk brashy land.

Establishment was slow due to dry conditions in this low rainfall area. Re-drilling was considered, but sufficient rainfall brought about a rapid improvement with 95% establishment ground cover.

Frequent topping was required in the first year to aid establishment and deal with arable weeds such as poppies, shepherds purse, creeping thistle and fat hen.

Achievements:

When sited alongside a 6m grass margin, the option enhances opportunities for over-wintering insects and also buffers the floristically-rich chalk dale. An attractive option for visitors and very attractive to butterflies particularly, with small tortoiseshell, peacock and the odd painted lady seen on the farm along with numerous Silver Y moths, bumblebees and hoverflies.

The ELS/HLS payment doesn’t cover the cost of establishment particularly if there is an establishment failure and it needs to be re-drilled. However, taken as a component of a comprehensive HLS agreement which includes payments for managing the chalk dales the HLS agreement makes an important reliable and consistent payment to the farm business.

The main benefit is the buffering of the chalk dale from potential drift or run off from the neighbouring arable operations. It also enhances the other HLS options on the farm which include floristically enhanced buffer strips

Tips for other farmers

- Only sow when conditions are right regarding soil temperature and moisture levels. Broadcast rather than sow and roll tight to gain soil/seed contact.

- Frequent topping in the first year with a flail topper but be wary of smothering with crop residue.

- Don’t let creeping thistle seed.

- Be patient and wait until year two before deciding whether establishment has been successful or not as an earlier crop of nectar mix established on the farm looked very poor in year one but now looks amazing in year two.

Case Study: Wet grassland and rush management for breeding waders

Author: Gavin Thomas
Farm: Chipping Moss, Leagram Estate, Forest of Bowland, Lancashire

Aims:

The primary aim was to restore upland in-bye wet grassland for breeding lapwings, redshanks, oystercatchers, snipe and curlews. By managing rush cover and water levels it was also hoped that the quality of pasture available to grazing livestock would also be greatly improved.

The site is tenant farmed with a sheep and beef system. Livestock numbers are reduced in spring to reduce disturbance to ground-nesting birds but at other times of the year sheep (mules) and cattle (mainly Herefords) are essential for creating the sward structure required for the birds and keeping soft rush cover in check.

Regular advice and guidance was provided by the RSPB’s Bowland Wader Project. This included help with securing funding and suitable contractors.

Management:

The 44ha of meadows and particularly grazing pasture on site had been under-grazed in the past leading to dominance of soft rush. In 2003, a programme of annual topping, weed wiping of the soft rush, and aftermath cattle grazing was introduced. Stocking densities were increased outside the bird breeding season in particular with hardy, native Hereford beef cattle to help with aftermath grazing and control of rush re-growth.

Drainage ditches were formerly steep sided, choked with vegetation and drained much of the site. These were opened up and re-profiled to provide shallow muddy edges for wading birds to feed on. Construction of earth dams and sluices now allow high water levels to be maintained on parts of the site at certain times of the year to provide shallow flood habitat for wading birds and also wildfowl. ‘Wader scrapes’ – small, shallow-edged features that gradually dry out towards the summer were also created to providing invertebrate-rich, muddy feeding areas for wading bird chicks.

Raising of water levels has allowed areas of mown rush to be flooded and killed off. Clearing ditches, re-profiling their edges and maintaining high ditch water levels has reduced the risk of losing sheep in the ditches. The ditches also provide a source of drinking water for livestock. The ditch management was undertaken by a local contractor and also by an RSPB contractor using the ‘spoil spreader’, a machine that is very quick, efficient and cost-effective. It also removes the necessity to deal with large amounts of spoil as this is spread thinly across the site by the machine.

Public access to the site has been improved by banking up parts of the footpath running across the site. Crossing points for farm machinery and stock have been created across the ditches for the tenant farmer to help with livestock management across wet areas. All work has been undertaken by local contractors and farmers and funded by a range of local organisations as well as through the stewardship schemes.

The wet nature of the Lancashire uplands means that ground conditions can be tricky for getting machinery on site, especially to top rushes in early autumn. It can also mean that weed wiping opportunities can be missed due to other farming tasks taking precedence. These problems were solved only by favourable weather!

The grazing and rush cutting/weed wiping regime is working well for livestock and wading birds. Weather and resultant ground conditions are the main obstacles to annual management being completed. Rush management is far easier if it can be mown annually.

Achievements:

In dry summers the rush cuttings (and coarser grasses) have been baled and used as bedding for livestock.

With the new regime, the quality of grazing available to stock is greatly improved. Gathering of sheep is easier with less tall, dense rush on site.

A rapid response to habitat work has seen lapwings, redshanks, oystercatchers, snipe and curlews all increase on the site. From just one pair in 2003, the lapwing population alone has increased to up to 15 pairs annually. Creation of larger areas of seasonal floodwater has also increased the site’s attractiveness to winter waterfowl and passage migrants. In particular the site is now regularly used by large flocks of curlew, with up to 350 present in March 2006, and smaller numbers of whimbrel that pass through this part of Lancashire en route to their Icelandic breeding grounds in spring. The pasture and meadow management also resulted in skylarks returning to breed on the site one year and the grassland management also provides good habitat for brown hares.

‘Opening up’ of the sward has allowed a more diverse range of grasses and some wildflowers to recover as they are no longer shaded out by tall soft rush.

Digging of ponds and scrapes and the ditch restoration work has greatly improved conditions for many species of dragonfly and damselfly and aquatic vegetation communities. This new network of wet features supports a wealth of wildlife including amphibians.

Advice for other farmers

Try not to allow rushes ‘get away’! Annual topping allows the rush cover to be managed more easily. Three or four years of uncut rush takes a lot of management especially when removing cuttings from site.

Case Study: Buffer strips on intensive grassland

Author: Robert Kynaston
Farm: Great Wollaston Farm, Shropshire

Aims:

Two and six metre grass margins have been established in fields with arable cropping as part of the rotation. Margins were established for a number of reasons:

- Buffer water courses with 6m margins to meet LERAP requirements

- Buffer hedgerows and hedgerow trees to develop wide wildlife corridors through the farm

- Margins made economic sense on the least productive parts of the farm

- Keep machinery away from roots, hedge growth and fences

Management:

Margins have been established in a number of ways on the farm.

The arable cropping on the farm is in a rotation with short-term ryegrass/red clover leys that are generally cut for silage. Some of the margins were created by leaving the margin unploughed when the field went back to arable. Margins have also been established through natural regeneration and sowing a specific margin seed mix. Cocksfoot and timothy give good tussocky growth and creeping red fescue provides ground cover.

Margins are generally left to develop into thick tussocky vegetation, and only cut with a flail mower if blackthorn starts to creep into the margin from the hedgerow. Spot spraying with a selective herbicide has occasionally been necessary for thistle and dock infestations. When fields with margins are down to grass/red clover leys, the margins experience some light grazing when silage aftermath is grazed with cattle, usually towards the end of July after the grasses have gone to seed. This grazing helps to manage the dense vegetation, allowing a greater variety of plants and structures to develop. Grazing is not so heavy that the tussocky sward structure is grazed out.

Problems and solutions

When fields with margins are down to grass/red clover leys silage mowing contractors have cut the margin as well as the silage. To reduce complexity and confusion for contractors, fields are either surrounded by a 2m or a 6m margin, rather than mixing the different margin widths in the same fields. Stakes with coloured tops can be used to mark the edge of the margin to make it easier for contractors.

Achievements:

Around 2.4 ha of buffer strips have been created around Great Wollaston farm. These have helped to meet LERAP requirements and benefited a host of wildlife such as providing insect rich areas for farmland birds feeding their chicks through the spring and summer. Also, they provide cover and seeds for small mammals such as voles and shrews which in turn are food for hawks and owls. Partridges and yellowhammers use them for nesting.

The aim is to add perennial flowers (to supply insect food) to some margins in the future to create a greater range of habitats.

Case Study: A farmland bird package on limestone soils

Author: Jeff Platts
Farm: Hazelmere Farm, Creswell, Derbyshire

Aims:

To provide summer insect food and seed food over winter for seed-eating birds, particularly targeting grey partridges and tree sparrows, and to provide suitable nesting habitat for lapwings on the arable land.

Management:

Hazelmere farm (270 acres) has been in the family for over 75 years, and is leased from Chatsworth Estates. I took the decision to leave dairying five years ago, and now the business concentrates on arable, with a livery and rural skills school on site.

Wild bird seed mix plots

To provide winter food for the seed eating birds on his land, I have included several plots of wild bird seed mix which have done very well on the free-draining, limestone based soil. The mix includes phacelia, kale, quinoa, millet and triticale with a handful of sunflowers also thrown in. The wild bird seed mix is re-established every other year and the land is prepared and drilled as if it is a normal crop. I occasionally get an infestation of flea beetle on the kale so a pesticide is used. A small amount of fertiliser is added to maintain nitrogen levels. The plots where the wild bird seed mix have been established were chosen to complement the adjacent land use such as hedges and margins with recognised bird populations.

The wild bird seed mixes have worked so well, I’m looking at re-sowing only one of them this year with the possibility of adding perhaps an additional row of quinoa or millet alongside another of the plots. The kale is showing through in this second year along with a reasonable amount of fat-hen which will also provide a good seed source.

Fallow plots

I have also included rotational fallow plots - it has proved very successful in encouraging lapwings to breed on the farm and I estimate there are slightly more than 20 breeding pairs. I’ve also seen flocks of up to 80 lapwings using the plots in the late summer.

Across the farm there are 51ha left as over-wintered stubbles after a spring cereal and, on average, 10ha are then sprayed off at the end of March and left as fallow after running over them with a light disc to break up the surface.

In the autumn, as long as there is no major weed cover showing, a single run with the cultivator or a light set of discs creates a suitable till and the cereal is then drilled.

There have been some issues with sterile brome on the fallow plot. After discussion with Natural England, the plot was left fallow all year including over winter and then cleaned up with a stale seed bed with a supplementary treatment with Roundup before being sown with another spring cereal this year.

Flower-rich margins

I’m currently looking at adding some additional floristically enhanced margins for grey partridge around some fields to increase foraging and breeding habitat. This will also benefit a wide range of insects, and other birds on the farm which feed their chicks on insects.

Achievements

Collectively, the wild bird seed mixtures, floristically-enhanced margins and fallow plots will provide an ideal package for farmland birds, giving the key requirements of winter seed food, summer insect food and in-field nesting habitat for ground-nesting birds, respectively.

The birds on the farm were surveyed in 2009 as part of the RSPB’s Volunteer & Farmer Alliance scheme. The survey picked up nine red list species of high conservation concern, including grey partridges and lapwings, and thirteen bird species of medium conservation concern, including bullfinches and reed buntings.

Of these, the density of lapwings recorded on the farm during the summer and autumn are testament to the benefits of fallow plots to this species with the number of lapwings breeding on the farm having increased since the adoption of this measure. It also provides a winter food source for those lapwings which over-winter in the area.

A large flock of around thirty tree sparrows were seen feeding on one block of wild bird seed mix and two of the blocks were sheltering coveys of grey partridge last autumn.

The wild bird seed mix plots are also magnets for hundreds of invertebrates including bees and butterflies.

The floristically enhanced margins will plug the final gap in farmland bird requirements by ensuring that there are insect-rich foraging areas.

Case Study: Cultivated margins

 

Author: Nicholas Watts
Farm: Vine House Farm, Lincolnshire

Aims:

The aim was to create an insect-rich foraging habitat for farmland birds. I farm on fertile peat soils, so effective control of pernicious weeds is essential.

Management:

I started using this option 5 years ago. For the first four years, I cultivated annually in the spring. Blackgrass is hit by spring cultivations and the seed is short-lived, so successive spring cultivations along with lack of fertiliser have virtually eliminated it.

This year, I applied a herbicide in March to control grass weeds instead of cultivating. This has the advantages of providing seed food for birds through the ‘hungry gap’ (January – April inclusive), providing pollen and nectar throughout the spring, and I think that the plant diversity has increased as a result. It has taken me 4 or 5 years to get the margins to produce food in the lean time of year, because of the need for annual spring cultivations to get on top of the blackgrass. If someone has no blackgrass then an early spring food source can be produced in year two or three. In future, I may only cultivate in alternate years and use herbicide in the 2nd year.

Creeping thistle is a major concern with potatoes and sugar beet in the rotation, so I spot spray thistles with a knapsack sprayer. This has reduced the thistle numbers over time. I had to spot-spray some areas to remove couch and field bindweed with a boom sprayer at harvest time, when the annuals were dormant.

Achievements:

The floristic diversity of these margins is unparalleled by any other habitat on the farm. Plant species richness per margin varies from 55 to 70 species, almost an order of magnitude greater than my wild flower margins, and even more impressive compared with my grass margins, ditch banks and hedgerows.

In years when the spring cultivation is not required, it delivers pollen and nectar throughout the year as well as any sown mixture. Red dead-nettle feeds bumblebees in March and a progression of a wide range of flowers take over from then onwards. When spring cultivation is undertaken, these margins provide pollen and nectar from June onwards.

The full range of farmland birds forage for insects in these margins: grey partridges, linnets, reed buntings, corn buntings and even quail. Turtle doves are scarce on the farm now: common sense suggests that they should use them as a source of seed food too, but I have not been able to witness this. I now have ten times the density of linnets feeding on this farm compared with neighbouring farms. I put this down to the availability of seeds in these margins. I think that the accessibility to the ground in combination with the abundance of insects (and seeds in the case of linnets) provides the ideal conditions for foraging birds.

The combination of spring cultivations, use of selective herbicide and spot-spraying have effectively controlled all of the noxious weed problems. Uncropped cultivated margins are more work than grass margins, but less than some of the other arable options, such as wild bird seed mixtures.

http://www.vinehousefarm.co.uk

Case Study: Skylark Plots

Author: Ian Dillon
Farm: Grange Farm, Cambridgeshire

Aims:

We include two skylark plots per hectare in all winter cereal fields on the farm as an easy means of supporting skylark numbers on the farm.

Management:

In 2009, we trialled spraying out the plots, and found that they worked successfully for skylarks provided that they were sprayed before the end of December. From 2013 this will be the preferred way of creating them, as our contractor has changed to an 18m drill and is less able to create plots when drilling. It also means that the plots are exactly 4m x 4m and so we are taking less land out of production. The plots are sprayed out using a 36m boom sprayer which is pre-programmed to spray out the plots at specified locations within the fields.

Achievements:

The plots work extremely well for us, increasing skylark territories from 10 in 2000 to 43 in 2012. We have good crop yields (9 t/ha for winter wheat and 3.2/ha for oilseed rape), having been doing skylark plots for 12 years now.

Skylark numbers have increased by over 400% on the farm in the last 13 years, against a backdrop of continued decline in the East of England as a whole. Monitoring nesting success in the first three years of using skylark plots showed that the number of nesting pairs in fields with plots increased and the number of chicks that each pair rears also increased.

Case Study: Wild flower margins

Author: Nicholas Watts
Farm: Vine House Farm, Lincolnshire

Aims:

The aim was to boost insect food for farmland birds through the summer. The farm is on peat soils in the Lincolnshire Fens.

Management:

The first margins were established 15 years ago. A wild flower and grass mix was purchased from Emorsgate Seeds. The seed mixture was 20% wild flowers and 80% fine grasses. Wildflowers included yarrow, common knapweed, wild carrot, lady’s bedstraw, self-heal, meadow buttercup, common sorrel and red campion. In addition, some flowering plants that were not in the original seed mix have established from the seed bank.

We cut them for hay in early August, as we have a market for it. Cutting and removing is important to reduce the fertility and maintain the floristic diversity. In addition, I have applied a herbicide in the spring whenever I have considered that coarse grasses were becoming a problem in the previous summer. One margin was sprayed this year for the first time in 7 years. I also pull ragwort and spot-spray thistles with a knapsack sprayer.

Achievements:

Although the floristic diversity of the original mix has declined, they remain as diverse flower margins absolutely humming with insect life. Knapweed has not survived in some of the mixtures on the acid soils. Our 15-year-old margin still retains mallow, sorrel, wild carrot, buttercup, lady’s bedstraw and self-heal. Yarrow has remained particularly dominant. In one margin, we incorporated cowslip and betony, but these did not appear in the sward until 5 years and 8 years after sowing, respectively.

The range of birds that use them has disappointed me. They are used by skylarks, meadow pipits and linnets (which take the sorrel seeds), but apparently not by my corn buntings and other small passerines. It may be that they are too dense for them. As a result, I have tried uncropped cultivated margins as an alternative means of providing an insect-rich foraging habitat for birds.

I feel that they are a significantly better option for wildlife than the standard grass margins.

http://www.vinehousefarm.co.uk/

Contact Information

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