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!

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