Case Study: A technique for rush control creates habitats for wading birds and black grouse in the North Pennines

Author: Janet Fairclough
Farm: Farms in Baldersdale and Lunedale, North Pennines, Durham

The North Pennines is a special place, providing excellent habitats for a wide range of important wildlife. The landscape has the highest density of breeding waders in mainland UK and more than 80% of England’s black grouse. As a result, the area has huge potential to help boost populations of nationally declining upland birds including lapwings, curlews and black grouse.

In the North Pennine Dales, the RSPB are working with farmers and land managers to enhance farm wildlife, concentrating on five dales; the Allen Valleys, Baldersdale, Lunedale and Upper Teesdale.

Aims:

Funds from a Teesdale man’s legacy are being used to create habitats for breeding waders and black grouse, by controlling areas of dense soft rush and creating scrapes for breeding waders, and planting small areas with trees for black grouse.

Thomas Raine originally came from Teesdale and always regarded the area as “God’s own country”. He very generously left some money in his will to the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) to help protect the area he loved. The Durham Branch of CPRE decided that it would be appropriate to spend some of the legacy by helping the RSPB to increase the amount of wildlife-rich habitat on farmland in the area.

As a result, the RSPB have been working with three farms in Baldersdale and Lunedale. On these farms, we have funded the cost of hiring a local contractor to control dense soft rush in fields that will be suitable for breeding waders once the rush cover has been significantly reduced.

Management:

Soft rush (Juncus effusus) is an important aspect of the upland landscape. It provides shelter for stock, particularly young lambs, and is an important habitat for various birds, invertebrates and insects.

Traditionally, soft rush stems were soaked in fat and used in household lamps as wicks, as it was a cheaper alternative to candlelight. This practice was revived during the Second World War in some rural areas.

Unfortunately, soft rush can also be invasive and troublesome. It spreads by rhizomes (underground plant stems capable of producing the shoot and root systems of a new plant) and each seed head can produce more than 8,000 seeds every year, which can remain dormant within the soil for at least 20 years until the conditions are right for them to germinate.

It can spread rapidly to form extensive, dense stands, and is tough and waxy so most livestock will avoid eating it. Once a soft rush infestation covers more than a third of a field, the value of that field is significantly reduced for both breeding waders and grazing livestock.

There are several methods for controlling soft rush, the main ones being cutting, herbicides, grazing and re-seeding. Sometimes a combination of several techniques is utilised. The choice will be influenced by a range of factors such as the topography, botanical diversity, ground conditions, cost and proposed management after control.

In the lowlands, rush is often managed using a combination of cutting in late summer, followed by weed wiping with herbicide 4-6 weeks afterwards. In the uplands however, plants grow much slower and we do not get enough rush re-growth following cutting to be able to follow up with weed wiping before the end of the growing season.

Up here in the hills, we therefore weed wipe without cutting the rush first. This method is proving to be successful in the North Pennines. The weed wiper is towed behind a quad bike, and has a rotating brush which is set to such a height that it applies the herbicide directly to the rush stem. This enables us to control the rush without damaging the grass or any botanical diversity in the field. Just four weeks after weed wiping, the soft rush has started to die off.

We have funded weed wiping on about 32ha of soft rush across the three farms this autumn and are planning to monitor the success of this work by carrying out breeding waders surveys next spring.

Now that the 2014 rush control work has been completed, we are talking to farmers in the area about using the remaining legacy money to fund some more habitat creation. We are currently preparing to plant a small area of scattered trees on a farm in Baldersdale for black grouse this winter, and will be on the look out for a suitable site to create some scrapes next year.

Case Study: Wet grassland for breeding waders in Oxfordshire

Author: James Taylor
Farm: North Aston Farms, Oxfordshire

The family has owned the farm since 1907, and we brought management back ‘in-house’ in the 1960s. We converted to organic status over a ten year period from about 1982 and continued as a mixed farm until 2006, when we decided to become purely a livestock enterprise.

We now farm around 100 South Devon suckler cows and 400 North of England mules. We aim for a simple, extensive meat production system, which suits the natural capacity of the land and its conservation.

Aims:

The farm has a 26ha flood meadow which includes both a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Local Wildlife Site (LWS), as well as some undesignated land. The SSSI was originally designated for a rare water snail but has since been re-designated as being a nationally important site for narrow-leaved water dropwort. The site has also been used for many years by breeding curlew and over wintering snipe.

Although we are obliged to manage the SSSI to benefit the wetland flora, it also fits with the way we want to run the farm.

Management:

We shut the water meadow up for hay over the early summer, which suits the curlew and allows the plants to flower fully. The hay cut provides forage over winter, and the cattle are turned onto the meadow to graze the aftermath.

We created shallow footdrains in the field a couple of years ago to allow us to keep a bit more water on the field over the spring for waders. They’re all long, thin features though, so we can still get round and cut the hay without too much difficulty.

We’ve been able to get support from Natural England when it comes to the SSSI and our agri-environment schemes. The RSPB have been surveying the waders in the area every year and helped plan and create the footdrains with their specialist rotary ditcher. We’ve also used advice from an independent consultant when it came to applying for some of the agri-environment grants, which was really helpful.

When the water meadow was originally designated as a SSSI, it had had a bit of fertiliser and some drainage to improve the grassland for grazing. The change to managing it for hay with no artificial fertilisers has improved its condition for its rare plants, and allowed the water dropwort to flourish.

The meadow is flooded every winter by the River Cherwell that borders it, but it can be hard to get the balance between getting enough wet edge for the waders in spring, and making the sure the soil across the field doesn’t stay waterlogged too long. Having the water features as long, thin footdrains should help with this to some degree. We are starting to get some lesser pond sedge forming a patch in one area, which could be tricky to control if it spreads much further. We have also noticed quite a lot of marsh ragwort starting to appear between the footdrains, which is causing us a little concern.

There have been a couple of very wet summers recently that have meant we haven’t been able to cut the hay at all. In the short term it’s not ideal for either the farm, or for the wildlife, but I think it recovers after a couple of kinder years.

We control the drainage of the foot drains back into the river via a very simple angle-bend. The original structure has been leaking a bit though, so we’re planning on replacing it with a better sluice.

We take at least 150 tonnes of forage from it in a typical year, which protects us a bit from the variability of buying winter feed in. We do have to keep an eye on the quality though; the water dropwort is particularly special to this farm, but we worry how much it affects the health of the cows if they eat too much of it.

Achievements:

The narrow-leaved water dropwort has definitely benefitted from the hay cut and wetter conditions. The meadow puts on an amazing wildflower display in the spring – early on it is a sea of ladies smock, then later a riot of yellow buttercups and pink ragged robin.

I’m so pleased we’ve been able to support the curlew in this part of the river valley. Hearing the first one of the year has always been one of my favourite childhood memories growing up here, and it’s still a bit of a magical moment each February when they return.

Another special bird that has enjoyed the meadow management is the barn owl. Following a reintroduction years ago (when it was still allowed under license), we now have three pairs on the farm. The nest site next to the meadow has been in use for 20 years, and they usually raise a good number of chicks on our local voles.

Advice for other farmers:

My tip would be to enjoy it – if I get a quiet moment, I like sitting out on the hill overlooking the meadow. It’s a great vantage point to take in the view and the sounds of curlew, sedge warblers and reed buntings below. Also, buy some waders!

Case Study: Delivering for yellowhammers in Northern Ireland

Author: Robert Maxwell
Farm: Ballyhornan, Down

Aims:

Wild bird cover and the retention of winter stubbles were chosen to help provide adequate feeding opportunities for priority seed-eating bird species such as the yellowhammer, tree sparrow, skylark and linnet. These features are important during the harsh winter months, when food sources are often scarce.

Rough grass margins were also incorporated in a number of areas on the farm. This feature provides an excellent habitat for insects, which help to feed chicks during the summer.

Management:

The management options put in place fit in very well to my farming system. The majority of my crops are spring sown, meaning that the adoption of overwintered stubbles has little impact upon my farming operations. The rough grass margins have been introduced in areas, which traditionally produce lower crop yields. This means that any income losses have been minimal. My farm was part of the RSPB’s Yellowhammer Recovery Project (2006-2011), which attempted to reverse the critical declines in farmland seed-eating birds. In participating in this project, I received regular support and advice from an RSPB advisor on how to manage features for the benefit of wildlife.

Following the harvest, I retain 14 acres of winter stubbles from the barley crop until the spring. This provides a food source during the winter in the form of split grain.

I also sowed one hectare of wild bird cover in spring, usually around May, using a one-year mix. This crop is left un-harvested over winter, providing more seed sources for the birds.

Originally, I had sown the two-year mixed crop wild bird cover. However, a weed problem began to take hold. As a result the wild bird cover did not establish itself properly, whilst weed seeds started to establish themselves in my barley crop. I moved to the one year mixed wild bird cover, which achieved better results.

Achievements:

Wildlife has definitely benefited because of the options put in place. In the space of five years, surveys of my farm showed that yellowhammer numbers increased from 10 to 18 pairs. Additionally, numbers of house sparrows and linnets more than doubled in this time. This demonstrates that well managed arable options are effective in supporting seed-eating farmland birds.

The creation of rough grass margins on the edge of watercourses acts as a buffer preventing the spread of pesticides and fertilisers from the field into the water.

Case Study: Managing for breeding waders on Shetland

Author: Sue White
Farm: Uradale Farm, Shetland

Aims:

Breeding waders are very much iconic species in Shetland. This particular feature forms an integral part of a holistic plan and along with mown grassland for wildlife management benefits breeding waders.

Uradale Farm covers 750ha of mostly heather moorland. On the lower ground there are about 200ha of semi-improved and improved grazing and a few hectares suitable for growing crops. The whole unit is organic, and now carries a flock of 600 Shetland ewes and a breeding herd of 30 Shetland cows. Lambs and beef are sold to Lidgates Butcher in London during September to November each year and the wholefood shop in Lerwick, Scoop, sells lamb in season and mutton and beef all year.

Management:

The organic status of the farm and the environment are important for marketing the meat, wool and a holiday cottage. So maximising benefits to biodiversity are important but this has had to be balanced against the sustainability of the unit and the ability to finish native stock on as much home grown feeding as possible. Grazing animals are either removed for 6 weeks or at a reduced stocking level for 3 months during the wader breeding season.

Stocking levels have to be kept low in order to make the organic system work on this unit so wet grassland for wader management fits in with the farming system fairly well.

Greylag geese numbers have increased and have a detrimental impact on adjacent silage fields.

Achievements:

This is an option that works well from an agricultural point of view on a unit where stocking densities are lower than average. Topping of rushes is needed in some areas and this is fitted in after the birds have finished breeding but before the ground gets too soft. The influx of greylag geese is a disadvantage that farmers will want to consider.

Uradale Farm is also a High Nature Value (HNV) farm, and farmer Ronnie Eunson has signed up to the HNV Manifesto – calling on governments, HNV farmers and crofters, farming groups, environmental organisations and citizens to work collectively to ensure the very best support for nature in HNV areas across the UK. Find out more about HNV farming and listen to farmer Ronnie Eunson talk about his farm here.

http://www.aalmerk.com

Case Study: Using unharvested cereal headlands combined with cultivated margins on heavy land

Author: Martin Lines
Farm: Papley Grove Farm, Cambridgeshire

Aims:

Using options that need spring establishment can be difficult on heavy land. We wanted to find a way of providing conservation management without needing a great deal of work in the spring and without causing undue problems to the crop following it.

I grow winter wheat, winter beans and oil seed rape. Because of my heavy soils we thought this combination would be ideal for using ground for two full cropping years, allowing me to follow it with another winter established crop and avoiding the need for trying to get a crop going in the spring. I worked with Niki Williamson of the RSPB, who gives free nature-friendly farming advice in the Fens area, to design the combination.

Management:

I plant a winter wheat crop as normal, leaving a headland as a conservation headland. This receives limited fertiliser, no insecticides after 15 March, and I apply limited fungicide (only when absolutely necessary to stop crop failure). This provides insect-rich habitat all summer, helping birds like grey partridges and corn buntings. The headland is left unharvested the following autumn, so provides winter seed food as well.

From 21 March, I cultivate the headland by ploughing or discing to form a cultivated margin. Problems with working the heavy soil at this time are not so important as I am trying to create a reasonably fine fallow, but not required to create a seedbed to establish a mix or a crop.

If there is blackgrass residue once I’ve cultivated I use a herbicide to control it. That needs doing as soon as cultivation is completed, to give as long a window as possible to allow the intended weeds to grow on the plot, forming cover and food sources for wildlife.

On my land there is no rare arable flora! But the plants that do grow will flower and set seed in time for turtle doves arriving back on the farm in late April, providing a much needed food source. It also provides a fallow, weedy area for other insects and birds to use during the summer months.

From 31 July I spray off the area to clean it up and cultivate it in time to follow it with autumn sowing.

In any one year there are two areas like this on the farm, one in each option. They are rotated around the farm to keep the weed burden in check.

Achievements:

This year we followed the cultivated margin with oil seed rape and I found that this was the best bit of rape in the field. It’s cleaner because of the seedbed preparation and it’s established better because there are less slugs where there are no stubbles.

On my soils blackgrass is an issue, and would normally make things like conservation headlands and summer fallows a no-no. However this management has not increased my weed burden any worse than the rest of the farmed field. There are two opportunities to cultivate the option and bury the blackgrass, one in March and one in July. There is also nearly 2 months across August and September that can be used to germinate weeds and spray them off to create stale seed beds before drilling, giving you plenty of opportunities to address blackgrass problems.

The seed from the unharvested headlands was being depleted by pigeons and crows really early, so I had to put out deterrents to make sure it lasted further into the winter for the smaller birds we were trying to target. In the end there were still big flocks of birds in it right up until March, finding something to eat. I also have other wild bird seed mixes on the farm, which are designed to retain seed through the winter months to make sure there’s a winter-long food source.

We noted that in shaded areas, wheat tended to stay in the ear and germinate there, making it inaccessible to birds. Although it’s clearly beneficial to site it near a hedge for birds to hop in and out, I think you need to avoid the north side of tall hedges or woodland s to avoid loss of seed in this way.

The plots are rotated around the farm, so this year it will be sited in a different place. The unharvested headland will be near woodland rather than hedge. Having observed it this winter, I now wonder if it will be as popular without the hedge for the birds to use as a base to feed from. Otherwise I am very happy with the option as it stands. It fits in well with our system and delivers what we wanted for wildlife.

I found the options very easy to manage. It needs an extra operation in March to create the cultivated margin but nothing onerous.

I do what it takes to make the margin work in terms of balancing wildlife benefits with weed control. Some years it takes more, sometimes less. Although I haven’t done the detailed costings, I’m confident it balances out overall and does not leave me out of pocket.

The hedge alongside the option was teeming with yellowhammers, corn buntings, reed buntings and sparrows for as long as there was seed left in the headland. There were still birds using it when I came to cultivate it in March. There are breeding turtle doves on the farm, which I hope would benefit from the early seed source the cultivated margin provides. I saw loads of starlings and blackbirds rummaging around in spring and summer, which must show how many insects there are in there.

You can also see areas where partridge have used the fallow as a sunbathing/dusting area.

It adds another feature to the farm that wouldn’t usually be there. It’s not common to find fallow areas on heavy land, so this adds to the diversity of our system.

It’s a simple straightforward combination option that has worked well for me in my farming system.

Case Study: Managing for wildlife in Caithness

Author: Katy Malone
Farm: Todholes Farm, Caithness

Todholes Farm is a 170ha lowland livestock farm in Caithness, where Ian Campbell raises prize winning beef cattle and sheep.

Ian Campbell took over the 170ha holding around 1990. Previously his father had managed the farm, having moved to Caithness in 1951. Since then, Ian has built up a herd of prize winning livestock, and won many rosettes for his Beef Shorthorn cattle as well as Lleyn and Texel sheep at a county level and further afield.

Aims:

Caithness holds nationally important populations of breeding waders such as lapwings, curlews, redshanks and snipe as well as twite, which have suffered from long-term declines in their breeding numbers across the UK. It is also a stronghold for the biodiversity action plan (BAP) priority species great yellow bumblebee which was previously widespread in the UK but is now one of our rarest native bumblebees. Populations of all these species have been maintained in Caithness thanks to high nature value farming systems. Todholes Farm is a typical example of these systems, which has been further enhanced through the tailoring of management for the benefit of key species.

The majority of the farm is grazed, with smaller areas of arable for livestock feed: spring barley for cattle feed, fodder rape for fattening lambs, and fodder turnips for wintering sheep.

Much of the farm is directly adjacent to the River Thurso, a Special Area of Conservation for Atlantic Salmon and a Site of Special Scientific Interest for a number of nationally rare or scarce plants.

Management:

Management advice was provided by the RSPB Scotland, specifically in relation to breeding waders and seed eating birds. Scottish Natural Heritage advised on management relating to designated sections of the site, and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust advised on the provision of pollen and nectar sources.

Of the options available for the non-designated parts of the farm, Ian opted for:

– Open Grazed Grassland for Wildlife (29ha)

– Management of Habitat mosaics (16ha)

– Management of Species Rich Grassland (4.5ha)

Open Grazed Grassland for Wildlife

Stock are excluded for six consecutive weeks between 15th March and 15th June, to restrict trampling of nests of waders such as lapwing and curlew. This could have had a high impact on the farm business, particularly in late spring, so the timing of the exclusions are calculated to allow two areas to be shut off while a third is opened up. This works well and has little detrimental impact on the economics of the business.

Management of Habitat Mosaics

This is an area of bog and heath with scattered rush and gorse bushes. Grazing is kept low between May to August to avoid trampling of wader nests and at the same time to avoid the vegetation becoming too rank.

Species Rich Grassland

Three areas of species rich grassland are managed on the farm. Wildflowers were relatively abundant right into early September, providing a much-needed late nectar source to bumblebees. In particular, the nationally rare great yellow bumblebee has been found on Todholes, and lapwings and curlews nest on the other areas of species rich grasslands.

There are some small areas of wetland within the habitat mosaics field, which were of concern to Ian in case they presented a problem with liver fluke. These areas were fenced off to address this. However, to prevent them from becoming rank, the wetlands still need to be grazed and cattle have access to them through the autumn/winter months. The cattle are dosed for fluke three times annually and Ian has not noticed any detrimental effect of fluke on his livestock as a result of grazing in these wetland areas.

Achievements:

It is still early days for the created species rich area and other taller more nutrient-loving species such as thistle currently dominate the field. Species that we hope will flourish here include vetches (e.g. tufted vetch and meadow vetchling), bird’s-foot trefoil and flag iris. Livestock are excluded between April and August but by the time the field is opened up again, the level of grazing is not sufficient to control the ‘weeds’. The grazing plan will be adjusted over time e.g. to increase grazing or allow for cutting so that a greater variety of plants can flourish. Some scarification and reseeding may also take place.