Case Study: Bare ground for butterflies and moths

Author: Tim Pryor-Lettley
Farm: Matterley Estate, Hampshire

Matterley is a 2400 acre mixed farm with 200 dairy cattle and 1100 acres of arable including wheat, barley and oilseed rape. The estate ownership and farm management has been in the Bruce family for three generations. Peveril Bruce is a member of the Winchester Downs Farm Cluster group. The farm business is diverse and the estate supports a large music festival each year, motorcross, tank driving, cross country runs, cycling events and a large game shoot.  The farm has been in Higher Level Stewardship since 2014.

Aims:

As part of the Section 106 agreement for continuing to run the Boomtown music festival at the site, a decision was made to create a butterfly scrape to establish a breeding area for native Lepidoptera such as the small blue butterfly and the striped lychnis moth. This opportunity arose from a longstanding relationship with Jayne Chapman at Butterfly Conservation. The way in which the work was delivered in partnership with Jayne demonstrates the importance of good relationships and local conservation officers.

Creating the butterfly scrape. Image (c) Jayne Champan, Butterfly Conservation

Management:

The location and size of the butterfly scrape was determined by the local authority. Although when we undertook a site visit with Jayne, she suggested an alternative and more suitable location. We also agreed to make the scrape significantly bigger than the specification. The field earmarked for the scrape is north facing. The optimum location for a butterfly scrape is a warm south-facing slope. To remedy the aspect of the field we scraped the topsoil down to the bare chalk and banked up the soil on the bottom to create a level or near south-facing part to the bank. The work was undertaken in October 2017 and will be seeded by South Downs National Park Authority with a mix of kidney vetch, rock rose, dark mullein, knapweed, scabious and bird’s-foot trefoil with local provenance seed.

In terms of effort, the 20m x 5m scrape took about half a day to create and the ongoing management will be about an hour a year. This work will involve ensuring that grasses and weeds don’t encroach or dominate the scrape. This will be controlled using a herbicide around the edge and spot treatment where necessary.

Small blue butterfly. Image (c) Andrew Cooper, Butterfly Conservation

Achievements:

It’s too soon to say whether or not the bank has worked as it is yet to be seeded. We hope that it becomes home to breeding populations of the target species. However the continued benefits from having a great working relationship with the Butterfly Conservation officer are tangible. Jayne has helped steer us to think differently about lots of activities on the estate. These include teaching us how useful even a small amount of bare chalk is for creating habitat and that the areas around the farm where we expose the chalk do not need to be 'tidied up.' We now understand that disturbance (even just a very small amount) is a key part of sustaining biodiversity. We now look at our activities quite differently.

Working with Butterfly Conservation has also led us to thinking about different activities in a more pro-biodiversity way. An example is the creation of a new drinking water reservoir that will be landscaped to help encourage a variety of species. Jayne has given us such friendly, positive and practical advice and has provided leaflets to educate us about the importance of different species.

Creating the butterfly scrape. Image (c) Jayne Chapman, Butterfly Conservation

Advice for other farmers:

It’s really easy to do something very small that results in big, positive impacts. Building a relationship with a local conservation officer can help with many areas of the farm management. They aren’t scary and they do understand the needs of the business whilst offering practical ideas on how to tweak things so that more benefits for farm wildlife can be created.

For more information on the striped lychnis moth and the small blue butterfly use these Butterfly Conservation species factsheets.

Header image: Striped lychnis larva (c) Andy Foster

Case Study: Do we really need to feed the birds?

Nicholas Watts from Vine House Farm shares his experience of providing additional seed food for birds on his farm, and the benefits this has had for tree sparrows in particular.

I am often asked do we really need to feed the birds? As someone who sells bird food I am bound to say yes, but we are only selling bird food because people asked me to sell them bird food when they came to see all the birds that I was feeding on the farm.

Why was I feeding so many birds?

Because they were hungry. And they were hungry because when you look across farmland today there really isn’t much food out there.

In the 1970’s I was doing bird surveys for the Lincolnshire bird club and the British Trust for Ornithology but none of them were on Vine House Farm. In 1982 I decided to do a bird survey on our farm to record the birds breeding on the farm. I did the survey and have done it every year since but by 1992 I realised that there had been a big drop in numbers; skylarks had declined by 60% and corn buntings by 90% in just 10 years.

This worried me, so I wondered what could be done about it. I started feeding birds in my farmyards during the winter months and I was soon feeding a lot of birds, up to 800, nearly all of them were buntings and finches. All these birds created a spectacle and I wanted other people to see this spectacle so I organised an open day. At that open day 2 or 3 people asked me if I could sell them some bird food. I hesitated but did sell them some.

The next year I had the same spectacle so organised another open day. Again all the proceeds were donated to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and again people asked me to sell them some bird food, there I was selling bird food without even trying.

Image: Nicholas Watts

From the situation in my farmyards it would appear that birds need feeding during the winter months.

Birds were not having a party, they were simply on the farm to eat food. These open days continued for another 10 years, and even though the birds had a surplus of food all through the winter numbers were dropping off. They left our farm in the spring, not because I stopped feeding them, but because they needed to return to all the various habitats where they liked to breed or where they were bred.

However there are problems out there for breeding birds  in the countryside with crops often sprayed several times. Herbicides kill unwanted plants, and if we kill these plants there is nowhere for the insects to live, fungicides kill off foliar diseases which some insects live on and insecticides kill the insects that could be living on the crop. If this happens across most crops, there becomes a shortage of insects on farm land.

Birds can’t take water to their chicks, so it has to be included in their food as either insects or unripe seeds. Fewer insects means less available food which is not very good for the survival of chicks, so unless there are sufficient insects in the countryside they will decline.

About 10 years ago tree sparrows appeared at Vine House Farm, and so I started to feed them. I also erected nest boxes and numbers have built up. I feed them with red millet all through the year and we now have 175 nest boxes up. 150 of them were occupied and this year they reared about 1100 young tree sparrows.

Image: Nicholas Watts

Our tree sparrows at Vine House Farm are an example of a population increase when there is a surplus of food – seed through the winter and insects through the breeding season. If we want to see a lot of birds we have to breed a lot of birds, feeding them all through the year.

Read more about the conservation work on the farm at www.vinehousefarm.co.uk

Case study: Herb-rich leys

Author: Ian Boyd
Farm: Whittington Lodge Farm, Gloucestershire

Aims:

Whittington Lodge Farm has predominately thin Cotswold Brash soils on 280ha, mostly over 800 feet in altitude. The cultivated half of the farm was in a continuous arable system, but average yields meant it was only marginally viable and blackgrass was creeping in.

In 2015, it was decided to undergo organic conversion on all the arable area to combine with the fully organic grassland. Herb-rich leys were introduced into the rotation to build fertility for the organic cereals. They are grazed by an existing and expanded suckler herd of native Hereford cows and calves.

Cattle grazing a herb-rich ley at Whittington Lodge Farm. Image credit: Ian Boyd

Management:

The herb-rich leys contain at least 5 species of grass, 5 legumes and 5 herbs which all add to the biodiversity with varying rooting depth in the shallow soils. They are established by under-sowing in spring barley crops, broadcast with an Opico seeder/harrow once the barley plants have reached the 3 leaf stage. This way the undersown plants are still small enough not to interfere with the barley combining. Grazing can begin in the autumn.

The herb-rich ley can last for 4 years and can be grazed or conserved as hay or silage. It can fit in well with other grasslands like permanent pasture with the management of grazing livestock.

Mob grazing can help achieve the best from the leys. The cattle are moved frequently, usually daily, onto fresh grazing and a back fence stops them eating any re-growth after about 3 days. The adage is that you should not see the cattle’s knees when they go in and you should not see their ankles when they come out. Some of the herbage is eaten, some trampled and some left so that the root structure underneath the plants is maintained and re-growth is rapid.

Then, most importantly, the ley is rested for a couple of months to allow plants to flower and set seed before the next grazing. This will provide habitat for invertebrates, including crop pollinators, and improve soil structure and water infiltration.

Moving the electric fence is a daily commitment but it makes it easier to check and count the stock as they run past.

The cost of seed is significant but no nitrogen is required, and it is possible to incorporate this option into a Countryside Stewardship scheme and claim payments for it.

As the soil organic matter level is improved, more grass will be grown and stocking rates will be able to be increased. This system suits both cattle and sheep on organic and non-organic farms.

Achievements:

There are multiple benefits to herb-rich leys. When terminated, they provide an ideal entry to cereal crops for several years, organic or not. The arable weed spectrum is dramatically reduced, especially blackgrass.
Soil health and organic matters levels will have been increased with large amounts of carbon sequestered into the soil, far more than the effects of methane produced by the cattle.

The nutrient density of the beef will be greater when multiple species and biodiversity are eaten with knock-on health benefits for the cattle and consumer.

The farmland wildlife is a big winner here, with many different plants flowering producing nectar for pollinating insects and producing seed (and insects) for many bird species to eat. Skylarks nest everywhere, hares and roe deer love to graze it. Kestrels and barn owls hunt for short-tailed field voles living in the long grass and snipe are increasingly being seen looking for worms in the winter time.

It really helps to be organised and to have planned the rotational grazing before the start of the season. Access to water, ease of moving electric fences and having the cattle in the right place at the right date all have to be factored in.

This system really suits British native breeds of cattle, which can readily be managed to Pasture-for-Life standards (essentially no grain fed). Pasture-for-Life beef allows the opportunity to brand and market it yourself with a great story for a higher price than the beef commodity market can pay.

www.cotswoldbeef.com