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.