Case Study: Providing food and shelter for invertebrates in Autumn

Author: Catherine Jones, Buglife

As the days continue to shorten, temperatures drop and the morning frosts start to appear, the value of autumnal vegetation for wildlife should not be underestimated.

In addition to creating the striking frost-bitten scenery in autumn and winter, allowing tussocky grass and wildflower seed heads to remain uncut through winter, in field margins, along tracks and roadside verges, and in gardens, will provide food and shelter for invertebrates and other wildlife.

© Gethin Davies

The remaining seed heads of the summer flushes of wildflowers such as willow herbs, thistles and even dandelions supply food for goldfinches, linnets and other seed eating birds and shelter for invertebrates. Ladybirds and earwigs may shelter in large wildflowers seed heads.

© Guy Sharrock

© Jodie Randall

Tall tussocky grass provides shelter for many overwintering invertebrates, and spiders construct their webs between long fronds that collect water droplets in the early morning mists. Grass tussocks may also hide ‘runs’ where mice and voles move from place to place protected by the dense vegetation above. Carder bee queens, emerging from hibernation, will search for nesting sites at the base of grass tussocks in spring.

Autumn is a great time to cut areas of long grass, including wildflowers meadows, and to remove the cuttings to help wildflowers to thrive the following year which in turn produce nectar and pollen to feed our valuable pollinators. But leaving leaving some patches of long tussocky grass and tall wildflower seed heads back then has now provided food and shelter in hardest months and nesting opportunities next spring.

© Gethin Davies

Additional information on managing farmland for pollinators is available from:

https://www.buglife.org.uk/resources/farming-hub/helping-pollinators-at-farm-scale/

https://www.buglife.org.uk/resources/farming-hub/helping-pollinators-at-a-field-scale/

Case Study: Managing Farmland for Grey Long-eared Bats

Author: Craig Dunton, Grey long-eared bat Project Officer, Bat Conservation Trust

Species: Grey Long-eared bat:

© Craig Dunton/www.bats.org.uk

 

Why is farmland important for this species?

With as few as 1000 individuals In the UK, the grey long-eared bat is one of our rarest mammals. Their distribution is restricted to the southern coast (Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire, Isle of Wight and Sussex) and there are only 9 known maternity colonies; meaning that this species is on the brink of extinction in this country. Currently, work is being carried out to conserve this species as part of 'Back from the Brink' – a Heritage Lottery funded conservation project aiming to save 20 species from extinction. https://naturebftb.co.uk/

Farmland is vitally important to all bat species. 70% of land in the UK is used for agriculture, so for very mobile species that utilise the whole landscape, farming practices can have significant impacts on bat populations. Some bat species are more resilient than others, but for those that have very low populations, are particularly sensitive to light and disturbance, and have very specific habitat requirements, there are significant threats to their survival.

Like all bats, the grey long-eared bat needs some key elements throughout its range in order to survive and thrive.

Roosts: Bats utilise a wide variety of structures to roost in, as their requirements change throughout the year. Roosts are needed for different activities – hibernation roosts, maternity roosts, night feeding roosts (for some bats) – these are all needed at different times of the year, and different bat species choose different structures for different activities.

Many bats hibernate underground, using caves, mines, cellars and tunnels that have a cool and constant temperature that bats need to hibernate. Many farms have these types of features, so it is important to be aware of their importance for bats. Some bats roost in a variety of different tree features; cracks, splits, woodpecker holes, loose bark – so it is important to retain trees that have ‘interesting’ features.

Grey long-eared bats are mostly associated with man-made roosts – usually the roof spaces of large, traditional, stone buildings with slate roofs. There are some records of them using caves and rock crevices, but no records of them using bat boxes in England.

Many buildings on farms can provide important roosts for grey long-eared bats, particularly large stone buildings with slate roofs and large, open roof voids. These can provide vital maternity roosts, temporary day and night roosts and opportunities for hibernation. As all bat species are protected, if you are planning to carry out any work that might impact bats or their roosts, the National Bat Helpline will point you in the right direction, please email enquiries@bats.org.uk

Foraging sites: As with roosts, different species of bats have different types of habitats that they favour for foraging. All UK bat species are insectivores, and depending on their size, flight habits and other physical adaptations, different species need different insect prey and therefore different habitats for foraging in. Greater horseshoe bats are large bats and so favour large prey, particularly around the maternity period. Cockchafers and dung beetles are their food of choice. Daubenton’s bats are often seen foraging over water, trawling insects from the surface of the water with their specially adapted, large hairy feet.

© Craig Dunton/www.bats.org.uk

Grey long-eared bats have a close association with unimproved lowland grassland and riparian (wet) habitats such as meadows and marshes.

Managing permanent pasture more extensively with very low or no inputs will benefit grey long-eared bat populations, offering more opportunities for invertebrates including the moths and craneflies that grey long-eared bats favour. Managing land to maintain or increase species diversity (more flowering plants) as well as structural diversity (a range in sward height), will give insects food and shelter resources. If possible, consider transitioning land back to hay meadow management as opposed to silage production, as this allows insects and plants to complete life cycles and thrive.

In terms of cultivated land, increase pollen and nectar plots and wildflower margins, and manage by cutting or grazing to maintain plant diversity. These areas alongside trees and tall hedgerows have proven benefits for some bat species. Minimise pesticide use and consider crops that contain lots of flowering plants such as herbal leys.  Within arable land, conservation headlands or low input cereals can be beneficial if management results in increased invertebrate numbers. These are all ways of increasing foraging opportunities on less productive areas of land for grey long-eared (and other) bats.

Farming organically has many advantages, including huge benefits to biodiversity, natural resource protection and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Following organic principles should be considered if aiming to encourage bats and other biodiversity.

Connectivity: For so much of our wildlife, good habitat connectivity is critically important. Linear features in the landscape such as hedgerows, watercourses and ditches, enable different species to flow freely through the landscape, enabling opportunities for feeding, interacting and breeding. For bats, good connectivity is vital, as many bats use linear features to navigate through the landscape, using their echolocation to move from roosting sites to foraging sites. When these features are well managed, they can also provide foraging opportunities as well as providing obvious features to allow free movement. Extensive hedgerow management (2-3 year cutting cycle) allows hedgerow plants to flower and fruit, providing vital resources for insects. Buffer strips along streams and rivers not only provides increased opportunities for foraging, but can also protect watercourses from nutrient and pesticide run off, protecting aquatic flora and fauna.

For more information on land management for grey long-eared bats contact Craig Dunton (Grey long-eared bat project officer) on cdunton@bats.org.uk

 

 

 

Case Study: Adding Value to Chalk Grasslands: Creating Chalk Banks to benefit butterflies and other insects.

Author: Lynne Roberts . Farm: The RSPB’s Manor Farm, Newton Tony, Wiltshire

Aims and setting:

Manor Farm is a 296 ha working farm strategically placed between two of the largest tracts of semi-natural chalk grassland in the British Isles – Salisbury Plain and Porton Down. The RSPB purchased Manor farm in 2006 and have been reverting former arable land back to species-rich chalk grassland to create a landscape-scale stepping stone between these two areas.

Whilst this reversion has been very successful in establishing flower-rich grassland, even after several years the ex-arable fields still have unsuitable soil conditions for the plant species typical of very thin, nutrient-poor chalky soils. The fields are also rather flat as a result of historical cultivation, lacking the humps and hollows of natural grassland which help to create a variety of microclimates for a wider range of plants and insects.

For these reasons, in 2013 it was decided to create two large mostly south-facing banks to support viable populations of species characteristic of thin, chalky soils. Butterfly banks and scrapes can provide ideal conditions for butterflies, with sheltered sunny spots and bare ground for basking, alongside a mosaic of nectar-rich flowers for foraging adults and specific foodplants for growing caterpillars.

Funding for the creation of the banks was provided by the SITA Trust (now SUEZ) “Conservation of the small blue butterfly at RSPB Winterbourne Downs” project, and the Biffa Award “Saving a special place for Wiltshire’s endangered butterflies” project. Appropriate permissions for the work were also obtained.

Construction:

The site for the butterfly banks was flat terrain with a 20cm layer of flinty loam over chalk. Two large banks measuring 150m x 12m and 180m x 12m were constructed in two different fields. The loam topsoil was bulldozed into an S-shaped mound, oriented so that most of its length faced south. The mound was then covered with the chalk from the beneath the soil, leaving a wide 'scrape' area of bare chalk alongside.

The S-shape ensures that there are sides facing all possible directions, creating a variation in topography and diverse range of micro-climates. The idea is that this helps to increase the resilience of both plants and insects to the more extreme conditions predicted as a result of climate change. In the mornings, butterflies, bees and other warmth-loving insects can warm up on the east-facing side of the banks, which catches the early morning sun. During the main part of the day, they can use the warm, sunny, south-facing side. If it gets too hot on the south side, the insects can retreat to the north-facing side. As expected, during the middle part of the hottest July day on record in England in 2015, all the bee activity was on the banks’ north-facing slopes.

Construction begins

The first bank was initially seeded with a generic chalk grassland and wildflower mix as well as kidney vetch and horseshoe vetch, which are vital food plants for small blue, chalkhill blue and Adonis blue butterflies. On the second bank, only the kidney vetch and horseshoe vetch were introduced. The banks could have been left to regenerate naturally, but the butterfly foodplants were not growing in the vicinity and therefore seeding with specific species was preferred to ensure that the right plants established.

Development over time and ongoing management

The vetches were the first plants to establish and were flowering in the first summer after autumn sowing. Over the following two years other species, such as small scabious, ribwort plantain, harebell and quaking grass appeared, the coverage developing into a patchwork of abundant flowering species interspersed with bare areas - the ideal structure for butterfly habitat.

Vetches establish quickly on the bare chalk

The vegetation on the banks has become denser over time but has required little ongoing management as the tough conditions prevent many unwanted species from colonising. Sheep are our management tools, grazing from August onwards, when most flowering is over. This helps us to keep on top of any scrub encroachment and keeps the sward open, with some disturbance of the ground surface to create germination opportunities. Cattle would probably cause damage to the banks, so are avoided.

Where necessary, brush cutting is carried out in the summer and the arisings removed and taken to other areas of the farm which are species-poor and could benefit from wildflower sowing.

Brush cutting the coarser vegetation

Achievements:

Colonisation of the banks by breeding small blue butterflies was impressively quick - within the first three years, as the kidney vetch established readily. The abundance of suitable foodplants is particularly important for sustaining viable populations of butterflies, so the fact that small blues were seen on the banks in August, probably a second brood from eggs laid in June, was a good indication that suitable habitat for breeding had been achieved.

Small blue on its larval foodplant, kidney vetch

Other chalk grassland butterflies have also been recorded on the banks in the last few years: common blue, brown argus, marbled white, dark green fritillary and, excitingly, the marsh fritillary, a species in severe decline which has been attracted to Manor Farm by the abundance of scabious plants in the grassland. Good numbers of these species are now being seen on the farm as they are moving in from the neighbouring strongholds on Salisbury Plain and Porton Down. We have yet to record chalkhill blue, but the Adonis blue was a new record in 2018, so hopefully it will just be a matter of time before the chalkhills arrive.

The diversity of flora species continues to develop, with some of the less common chalk specialists such as devil’s-bit scabious, starting to appear on the banks.

In addition, we have shown that the fields containing the banks can still be used as grazing land, albeit in a carefully managed way.

Our experience and lessons learned:

Five years on we found that some plants had been harder to establish on the banks than others. The pioneer species kidney vetch and horseshoe vetch, two of our key butterfly food plants, established readily from seed and plug plants were not required. However, we didn’t have the same success with common rock rose, the food plant of the brown argus and cistus forester moth. This was easier to establish from plugs, although the sown seed may germinate eventually when conditions are favourable and the seed coat has weathered a little. Plugs are more expensive, so a pragmatic approach may be to try sowing seed first and then supplementing with a few plugs after a couple of years if the seed has not germinated. Germination rates of common rock rose can be improved by scratching the seed surface (scarifying) prior to sowing.

Where we sowed the generic mix, some of the taller plants have become dominant, greater knapweed particularly, shading out some of the foodplants, such as horseshoe vetch. We have therefore had to manage some of the less desirable species in order to help the key plants thrive.  This was not such issue on the second bank, where we had just sown the foodplants, with just the odd thistle to deal with.

We suspect that by creating the base of the banks from the flinty loam topsoil, the longer rooted chalk grassland species may be accessing nutrients from this base and gaining an advantage. Ideally, the bank would be created from pure chalk and the removed soil utilised elsewhere. A chalk-only bank would create the harsher alkaline conditions which favour the more extreme chalk specialists, including the kidney vetch and horseshoe vetch, and would slow the rate of encroachment by scrub species.

Although our butterfly banks are very large it is important to note that banks of any size can make a big difference to the survival of butterfly populations - even just moving soil around to create variation in the topography of reverted arable fields or pasture can help. Butterflies exist in small populations which are linked to create larger ‘metapopulations’, so even quite small areas of suitable habitat could provide a vital link in the chain.

All photos supplied by Patrick Cashman.   
For more information, contact: patrick.cashman@rspb.org.uk

Further examples of butterfly banks

Organisations such as Butterfly Conservation and Buglife have been constructing butterfly banks on several sites, both rural and urban, as a way of creating breeding habitat suitable for a number of different butterfly species. For further information see the following links:

https://butterfly-conservation.org/our-work/reports-and-factsheets/habitat-creation

https://farmwildlife.info/2017/12/15/bare-ground-butterflies-moths/