Using hay strewing as a technique to create species-rich grassland

Author: Jennifer Palmer

Farm: High Burnham Farm, Epworth

Aims

High Burnham is a large (+300ha) arable farm.  As part of the RSPB’s Axholme and Idle Farmland Bird Initiative¹ (Lincolnshire), an opportunity was identified to revert an arable field corner to a species-rich meadow.  The 1.7ha field corner sits within the base of a large L-shaped arable field.  Because of the clay-based soil type, the field corner lay wet so was deemed unsuitable for arable cropping hence it was left out of production for four years.

The low-lying field corner lends itself to a pastoral management and is less than 200m from Rush Furlong Meadow SSSI.

This will be the only parcel on the holding managed as grassland.  It is anticipated that hay will be cut by a local contractor used by the Lincs Wildlife Trust and aftermath grazing will be carried out by a local grazier.

Management

Verbal advice and a written proposal were provided to the landowners on species-rich grassland establishment and management.  The RSPB’s Hay Meadow and Arable Reversion topic sheets were used to supplement this verbal and written advice.  The landowners understood the principles of grassland management through knowledge of a local grassland SSSI.

Hay strewing is a tried-and-tested method for enhancing the botanical diversity of species-poor grassland² and can also be used to create diverse grasslands on arable land³.  It entails taking freshly cut ‘green hay’ from a local donor site and, on the same day, strewing (spreading) it onto a suitable receptor site.  It is a cost-effective method and ensures that the received seeds are of local provenance.

Two donor sites were identified and Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust kindly donated and cut the hay from Sedge Hole Close, a damp meadow (MG4 National Vegetation Community) containing cowslip, great burnet, lesser knapweed, oxeye daisy and cuckooflower.  Natural England consent would have been required for using SSSI hay.

Loading a trailer with green hay at East Lound with Matt Cox Lincs Wildlife Trust

Technical advice was followed to ensure the receptor site’s soil was suitable, through testing phosphorus (P) levels.  The soil sample results showed a P Index of 1 (low) so was deemed acceptable.  The farmer prepared the site by spraying off weeds using herbicide and creating a create a fine, firm and level seedbed, avoiding looseness at depth.

The site has no historical significance.

Because the donor site is an NVC MG4 vegetation community, containing abundant great burnet, we followed advice from a floodplain grazing meadow conference (attended by Helen Norford of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust) to spread the hay at reasonable depth (up to 10cm).

Once strewn, in the first year the vegetation growth should be cut up to 4 times and then the grassland should be treated as a traditional hay meadow thereafter.

Because the donor site was smaller than the receptor site (0.9 and 1.7ha respectively) we found that we had a deficit of green hay for the receptor field and a ratio of 1:1 (as recommended by Dr Duncan Westbury) would have worked better.  Partners therefore plan to revisit, survey and repeat if necessary next year.

Black grass growth will also be re-sprayed off this year.

The cost of the green hay was free as it was donated by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.

There was a minimal fuel and labour cost incurred by the farmer transporting the two loads of green hay from the donor site to the receptor site.

Achievements

Breeding skylarks have been recorded in adjacent fields during RSPB bird surveys and breeding skylarks are also recorded at Rush Furlong SSSI so the parcels should attract skylarks.  The parcel also offers potential lapwing nesting habitat, providing the additional scrape excavation works are undertaken. There are records of yellowhammers in the hedges and reed buntings nesting in the adjacent OSR crop.

Sitting within the Humberhead Levels NCA, the project meets multiple NCA priorities – the creation of lowland meadow (biodiversity priority) and permanent grassland (landscape priority).

Advice for other farmers

Don’t be tempted to miss out the soil testing step! If phosphorous index is anything above low, species-rich grassland creation may not be viable for your site at this moment in time.

Ground preparation is really important and if strewing onto established grassland, really open up the sward so that lots of bare ground is showing.

Orchids may take several years before they appear so don’t be disheartened if nothing happens for the first few years.

Expect to have to consider repeating the method to ensure a diverse sward.

Additional information

¹ The Axholme and Idle Farmland Bird Initiative covered the river catchment area in the Idle Valley and Isle of Axholme, an area of Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire recognised as being nationally important for its farmland bird assemblage.  The project area was one of the RSPB’s Farm Advice Focus Areas and ran from 2012 to 2018 combining farmland bird monitoring and farm conservation advice.
² Natural England Technical Information Note TIN063, Sward enhancement: diversifying grassland by spreading species-rich green hay.  Also through own experience on land owned by the Malvern Hills Trust, following advice from Dr Duncan Westbury of Worcester University.
³ Visit to arable reversion hay strewing site led by Professor Ian Trueman, 15-18 June 2012, FSC Shropshire Wildflower Weekend.
⁴ Natural England Technical Information Notes: TIN035, Soil sampling for habitat recreation and restoration and TIN036, Soil and agri-environment schemes: interpretation of soil analysis.

Helping hedgehogs on farmland

Author: Nida Al-Fulaij, Grants Manager, People’s Trust for Endangered Species

Species: Hedgehog

Why is farmland important for this species?

Hedgehogs are found throughout the UK in all habitats. They have historically been associated with farmland for centuries. Hedgehogs are insectivores, foraging in fields and on grassland for worms, and along field margins and at the base of hedgerows for beetles, snails and other invertebrates. They are considered a generalist species, inhabiting most areas of our countryside, our villages and many areas of our towns too. However, as the dominant habitat in the UK, farmland is particularly important for hedgehogs.

Hedgehog (c) Stephen Oliver

Hedgehogs, like all animals, need to feed, hide from predators and find mates. A variety of habitats that provide foraging areas and secure nesting sites is ideal. Both arable and pasture land can support healthy hedgehog populations. Wide, species-rich hedgerows with buffers of grassy margins on either side provide safe ‘highways’ for hedgehogs to move around the landscape. Hedgerows with wide bases that are managed on rotation should have healthy invertebrate populations for hedgehogs to feed on. Old hedges with dense root systems and lots of deciduous leaves are ideal for them to use as nesting sites, both during the summer and in winter as hibernation spots.

The denser the network of hedges, the more securely hedgehogs can move around, and the higher the availability of prey species for them to feed on.

Recently ploughed fields can provide a bounty of earthworms and other prey; hedgehogs can be found in-field taking the opportunity to feed on invertebrates once crops have been harvested.

Recent studies show hedgehogs are found nearer to farm buildings. These areas could be providing safety from predators on farmland with less robust and fewer hedgerows, and larger fields.

Habitat management

Hedgerows:

Increasing hedgerow availability provides more nesting and foraging areas for hedgehogs. Ensure that hedgerows are species-rich, contain native trees and are as wide, high and dense as possible. Maintaining hedge bases at least 2m wide with minimal or no gaps provides secure safe nesting sites. Managing hedgerows on a 3 year rotation ensures that hedges remain diverse and robust.

Field margins:

Field margins provide buffer zones to protect hedgerow bases. 2m margins in arable fields and 3-6m margins in pasture ensures the hedges are protected from trampling and grazing, whilst the grassland provides extra invertebrate prey. Beetle banks also provide buffer zones and extra foraging areas.

Fields:

Smaller field sizes with a mixed crop provides greater variety, and therefore greater food security, for hedgehogs and other wildlife. Increasing hedges and field margins on farms with fewer, larger fields, provides habitat for hedgehogs. Reducing tillage or moving to no-till or conservation agriculture reduces soil compaction, increases soil invertebrates and improves and increases the depth and quality of the soil organic layer.

Pesticide & herbicide use:

Reducing pesticide and herbicide use means that more invertebrate prey, in particular earthworms, will be available on farmland for hedgehogs to feed on.

The above management measures recommended to provide a healthy landscape for hedgehogs are typically those associated with traditional farming practices. There should be no problems, though many of the measures may be more time-consuming than those associated with farming on a larger scale.

Hedgerow with grassy margin (c) Gethin Davies

Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) have created an advice note detailing management and stewardship options that will benefit not only hedgehogs but other wildlife too (see link below).

Benefits and costs

Creating and managing hedgerows sensitively has financial costs but there are stewardship options available; individual ones for the management regimes listed above are detailed in the attached advice note.

Hedgehog (c) Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Managing a farm for a species such as a hedgehog involves looking at the farm as a whole. Unlike species that fly, such as butterflies, hedgehogs needs the entire landscape to be suitable in order to thrive. Consequently, many of the management techniques recommended to improve habitats for hedgehogs will also provide a healthier landscape. A denser proportion of hedges and associated smaller field sizes both help to reduce soil erosion. Reducing tillage improves soil organic matter and reduces soil compaction.

PTES and BHPS guide – How to help rural hedgehogs

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

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

Case Study: Restoration of rank wetland habitats to benefit waders

Author: Dan Brown, Dr Duncan Allison & Sarah Bird
Farm: Anston Farm, Dunsyre, South Lanarkshire

Aims:

Anston is a 651 ha mixed upland livestock farm in South Lanarkshire. A variety of habitats can be found across the farm. The hill ground includes dry heath and acid grassland, whilst the upper in-bye fields contain a mixture of permanent pasture and grass/clover leys. The in-bye on the lower ground runs down to the South Medwin river and it is here, on the river floodplains, that marshy grassland dominates, with scattered remnants of lowland raised bog nearby.

Over numerous years the field had become wetter, as drains stopped being maintained. This, in combination with reduced grazing levels and no cutting, resulted in the dominance of marshy grassland vegetation (primarily soft rush) and grasses (e.g. tufted hair-grass). The vegetation had become too tall and dense to be used by waders, as confirmed by a 2013 RSPB breeding wader survey which surveyed the entire valley within which Anston sits. No waders were breeding on the wetland, but curlews, lapwings, redshanks, snipe and oystercatchers were all recorded on adjacent fields. The decision was made to try and improve the habitat, knowing that birds were nearby to take advantage of improvements.

Management:

The RSPB provided advice, including the importance of cutting and grazing in order to keep wetland vegetation sufficiently low in height, in order to attract breeding and feeding waders.

In September 2014, AMW Arboreal were contracted to carry out one day’s work with a Softrak, a low ground-pressure vehicle equipped with a forage harvester, chipper, reed cutting head and heather cutter. This allows management of rank rush, reed, heather and scrub whilst protecting wetland surfaces. It has an average speed of 1-2 mph and can cut between one-third and half a hectare per day.

Around 0.5 ha of dense rush pasture was cut and removed, with cuttings piled together to compost over the following year (a composting licence may be required for larger jobs). This work was undertaken as part of a management agreement between Dr Allison and the RSPB.

The following summer (2015), Dr Allison used a tractor-mounted flail mower to cut re-growth and access other uncut areas, using the open areas and ‘rides’ that had been cut into the dense rush by the Softrak. As a result of the benefits from this initial work, the decision was made to scale up the management for the remainder of the wetland, and a further 6 days of rush cutting with the Softrak were carried out in March 2016. This time, cuttings were left on site to mulch down, as Dr Allison felt there would be benefits for soil fertility (see below).

Dr Allison used a Kverneland FXJ flail topper, which was found to have benefits over the more conventional whale tail (hammer) head flail, or long swinging blade vertical axis type pasture topper. The FXJ is fitted with pairs of swinging "J" shaped flail blades with intermediate fan lifter fingers. The blades cut and shred the dense rush more efficiently than other machines, with near double the forward travel speed being achieved. The shredding action pulps the fibrous vegetation which was blown from the rear of the machine and left on the surface. The deposited shredded material composted down far quicker than when cut by the farms other topping machines, and quantity and variation of flora and fauna species regrowth was noticeably improved. Additionally, shredding and allowing the rush vegetation to compost on the surface returns potash to the soil, a distinct advantage over removing the cut vegetation. Carting away the vegetation ultimately reduces the fertility of what is already poor land.

Wetlands are problematic and in certain situations can potentially be dangerous. Dense cover can prevent ground visibility, and many farmers are concerned about getting equipment stuck as a result. Similarly, livestock safety becomes an issue where there are unknown or obscured ditches which may prevent grazing.

By removing the dense rush with the Softrak, Dr Allison had a much better understanding of ground conditions i.e. the location of ditches and waterlogged areas. This enabled him to access the site with the quad during drier weather, and gave him the confidence to put sheep out in greater numbers.

The wetland has been brought back into a condition that will allow further follow-up management during dry periods in the future.

Benefits and costs

One of the benefits to arise is increased grazing. During drier periods, sheep are now put out onto the site, allowing grazing of grasses and herbs previously hidden by the rush pasture. There is more grass than was expected; it has taken the removal of rushes to ‘open up’ the sward and make apparent.

A second benefit is access. The micro-topography of the site is now clear to see; standard machinery (quads, tractors) can now enter the site. Previously, the site was a no-go zone due to fear of getting stuck.

Continued rush management and grazing will also benefit the farm business in the longer-term; it will improve habitats for target species within agri-environment schemes, and demonstrates a willingness on part of Dr Allison to maximise his management for wildlife. In time, this should enhance his chances of entering future agri-environment schemes. Removing tall dense rush will increase evapotranspiration, allowing the wetland to dry out more quickly during the summer, in turn making site management requirements easier to undertake (i.e. machinery and livestock access).

In terms of costs, the Softrak work was funded by a local RSPB budget for conservation work in South Lanarkshire. This funding stream was earmarked for trialling novel management techniques that couldn’t be funded through existing agri-environment options. The contractors used cost £360 per day (plus haulage).

In addition, fluke is present in the area and it is acknowledged that grazing these areas may increase the chances of infection.

Tips for other farmers

Due to the high costs involved, a Softrak is likely to only be appropriate in certain circumstances. At Anston, the farm lies within a valley that supports important populations of lapwings, curlews, snipe, redshanks and oystercatchers. It would make sense that the two following criteria are met if considering using a Softrak elsewhere:

a) priority species are adjacent to the site so there is a high chance of utilising the improved habitat

b) it should only be used on farms that possess suitable equipment for follow-up management (topping, grazing) as well as a clear understanding and commitment on the part of the farmer or land manager to undertake the follow-up management.

Case Study : Bumper crops from hedgerows

Author: Jo Terry
Farm: Upper Hollowfields Farm, Worcestershire

Aims:

Upper Hollowfields is a mixed farm with arable crops and cattle/sheep grazing the grassland areas. The hedgerow pattern contributes to the historic character of the site. Hedge management is considered carefully in each field, where possible complimenting other environmental work on the farm, for example higher, thicker hedges provide sheltered semi-shaded spots on 6m wildflower arable margins to benefit plants and wildlife suited to these conditions.

Our hedges are managed sympathetically to provide the best range of habitats for wildlife including the brown hairstreak butterfly, a variety of bird species and small mammals. We aim to preserve the historic landscape pattern, whilst maintaining hedges as physical barriers to help prevent flooding, wind erosion and pollution. It is important that hedge management results in a plentiful berry crop as a food source for wildlife during the winter months and hedgerow trees are managed sensitively.

Management:

We benefited from advice from Natural England on hedge options, and Butterfly Conservation guided our hedge cutting schedule to suit the brown hairstreak butterfly, the female of which lays eggs on young blackthorn shoots. They stressed the importance of blackthorn coppicing and 3 to 5 yearly cutting rotation for this rare species. Birds have been recorded through the RSPB Volunteer & Farmer Alliance Scheme. Our RSPB volunteer has continued to monitor the birds pointing out the significance of established hedges for yellowhammers, lesser and common whitethroat, chiffchaff and willow warbler all of which breed on the farm.

Hedges have been sympathetically managed to provide a variety of hedge heights to benefit the varying needs of birds species, e.g. hedges over 4m tall for bullfinches compared to 1.5m for whitethroats. Blackthorn suckers have been allowed to grow along field edges to provide young shoots for the brown hairstreak butterfly. Hedges have been coppiced to regenerate the hedges natural cycle of growth. Thinner hedges have been replanted with native species including blackthorn. Hedges have been cut on rotation, sometimes only cut on one side to allow maximum benefits for wildlife with many cut once in 3 years. Cutting takes place at the end of the winter season to allow a generous berry crop to benefit wildlife.

During one very dry summer, new hedge plants failed and had to be replanted. Extreme wet weather conditions on another occasion made hedge cutting difficult, so some hedges were cut a year later. Cutting on a 3 year cycle made hedges more difficult to cut, so we sought the use of a hedge cutting contractor with equipment appropriate to deal with larger hedges providing excellent results.

We will continue to monitor wildlife on the farm and allow results to dictate the work, seeking further specialist advice on other species and adapting the work accordingly.

We have found the total hedge cutting cost for one hedge to be roughly the same, if the hedge is cut once a year or once every three years.

Achievements:

The benefits are stronger, thicker and denser hedges with new growth where coppiced. They provide good shelter for stock, a windbreak for crops and compliment our other agri-environment scheme options.

The success is obvious and measurable. West Midlands Butterfly Conservation have recorded over 400 brown hairstreak eggs on hedges to the east of the farm this winter.

82 species of birds have been recorded by our RSPB volunteer. For many of these such as the bullfinch, linnet, song thrush and spotted flycatcher hedgerows are a primary habitat. Berry crops are plentiful due to this management, providing a valuable food source for wildlife. During extreme wet periods, hedges can be seen to contain flooding.

Our tips would be:

– Assess your own farm environment and choose management options that fit with your farming pattern and benefit species relevant to your situation.

– Don’t hesitate to seek expert advice from organisations such as the RSPB and Butterfly Conservation to give in-depth understanding of management techniques and their benefits relevant to your farm.

– Choose good quality hedge plants and pay attention to details such as mulching and using rabbit guards when planting.

www.wildhollowfields.co.uk

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.