When we developed the Farm Wildlife approach, we wanted to make sure that the advice was not only simple to follow, but based on the latest evidence so that it would work – both for farmers and for wildlife.
A new partner for Farm Wildlife
We are therefore delighted to welcome Fair to Nature to the Farm Wildlife partnership. The Fair to Nature scheme recognises the value of the Farm Wildlife approach, and the six key actions are embedded into the updated Fair to Nature standard. This ensures farmers who are signed up to the scheme really work towards maintaining and improving the habitats on their farms for wildlife and that they are recognised for their efforts by the consumers who purchase the end product.
"Fair to Nature is the only UK farm scheme to deliver the scale of land management that wildlife requires to thrive. And Fair to Nature is not just positive for wildlife! Farmers benefit from increased farm resilience and from links to like-minded brands who want to source nature-friendly produce and products," says Shelley Abbott, facilitator for the scheme.
Fair to Nature farms are required to manage at least 10% of their farmed area as a range of wildlife habitats aligned with the six key Farm Wildlife actions. The delivery of these habitats is based on the following specifications:
Existing wildlife habitats – including native woodland planted on farmland since 1992, semi-natural grassland, heathland and other high-nature value habitats – no minimum, but contributes towards the 10%
Flower-rich habitats across at least 4% of the farmed area
Seed-rich habitats across at least 2% of the farmed area, although this habitat is not a requirement on farms with less than 10% cropped land
Wildlife-rich field boundaries and margins covering at least 1% of the farmed area
Wet features – one feature per 100 ha, average size 25 m2 (area contributes towards the 10%)
In-field habitats – no minimum, but contribute towards the 10%
Habitat on a Fair to Nature farm. Image (c) Shelley Abbott
The wider sustainability of the farm is also important. Soil, carbon and pesticide management are therefore also key considerations within Fair to Nature to ensure that a holistic approach across the whole farm is adopted, for the benefit of nature and the long-term resilience of the farm business.
If you would like to find out more about Fair to Nature, or you’re interested in signing up, please visit www.fairtonature.org for further details and to register your interest.
Author: Lynne Roberts: The RSPB’s Manor Farm, Newton Tony, Wiltshire
Aims and setting
Chalk grassland is one of the richest landscapes for wildlife in the UK and is a habitat which has suffered significant losses in past decades. This case study focuses on Manor Farm in Wiltshire, now the operational base of RSPB’s Winterbourne Downs nature reserve, which was acquired by the RSPB in 2005 with the overall objective of creating a habitat ‘stepping-stone’ for wildlife between two internationally important chalk grassland areas: Salisbury Plain and Porton Down.
To enable wildlife species to thrive on the farm and expand their range from the neighbouring chalk grassland areas, much of the arable farmland was reverted to lowland calcareous grassland, a UK priority Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) habitat. An initial reversion of about 40ha in 2006 has been followed by further grassland creation projects at the rate of around 25ha per year, and now almost 200ha of the total farm area of 296ha has been reverted to semi-natural chalk grassland.
Agri-environmental scheme grants from Natural England and capital grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund were major contributors to the reversion works. This case study describes in detail the reversion of a 24ha area of arable land, started in 2008.
Site preparation and sowing
In order to select the most conducive sites for reversion, soil samples from across the farm were analysed. It is recognised that land with low nutrient levels, particularly available phosphorous, is the most suitable for creating and restoring species-rich grassland – the best sites will have a phosphate index of between 0 and 1. The results of this showed much of the farm to have high soil phosphate levels and two fields totalling 24ha with a phosphate index of around 2 were selected.
Machine-sowing of harvested seed was chosen as the most suitable method of starting off the reversion process. Natural re-colonisation was thought to be unlikely to produce the right levels of target species, since this requires plentiful supplies of nearby seed – something which could not be guaranteed, especially over such a large area.
A mixture of brush-harvested wildflower and grass seed was sourced from four local downland sites, including the Salisbury Plain Training Area, where there are several thousand hectares of good quality calcareous grassland. Using locally sourced seed increases the chances that the plants will thrive, as they will be better adapted to the local conditions.
After harvesting the last arable crop from the selected fields, a sterile seed bed was created by spraying with glyphosate and cultivating with a spring-tine cultivator to provide a good tilth. A few weeks later, in mid-September, the wildflower/grass seed mix was sown using a pneumatic fertiliser spreader, which blows out the seed from tubes spaced 1m apart along an 18m boom width.
The seed was mixed with kiln-dried sand to improve the flow of seed through the spreader and sown at a rate of 20kg per hectare. Four complete passes of the spreader were made to ensure good distribution of the seed. The fields were then rolled with a Cambridge roller to ensure good contact with the soil. The approximate cost for this (in 2008) was just under £900 per hectare, split between herbicide (17%), seed (76%), dried sand (2%) and labour and diesel (5%).
Early establishment and management
In the first year, the sites looked very patchy, although many chalk grassland species were showing by midsummer, such as salad burnet and small scabious. The fields were topped once in early May, timing the cut to catch most of the black grass and other unwanted plants such as thistles and docks before seed set.
An early cut avoids topping more than 25% of the yellow rattle, which is a key species in the arable reversion process. Yellow rattle is semi-parasitic on grasses and clovers, suppressing grass growth and increasing the light available for other wildflowers to prosper.
The side shoots from the yellow rattle and the other chalk grassland species were then allowed to flower and set seed and a further cut was made in July. The arisings from this July cut were collected and removed to prevent mulching and help drive down the nutrient levels, allowing the flowering species to compete effectively with the grasses.
Sheep were introduced in the Autumn/Winter to create a short open sward with occasional tussocks, which created some habitat diversity in an otherwise flat field. In the following two years, hay crops were taken to further reduce soil nutrients levels, with aftermath sheep grazing from autumn to early spring. Supplementary feeding was avoided to prevent the import of nutrients.
Assessing for habitat quality
By the third year after sowing the plant community was typical of early grassland creation, with a large diversity of species present – 37 species were recorded inside the assessment quadrats, with a further 21 species elsewhere in the sward. These included species which are characteristic of chalk grassland and typical of nutrient-poor conditions. Analysis of the species makeup showed that there were five ‘dominant’ or ‘abundant’ wildflower species: yellow rattle, ribwort plantain, black medick, self-heal and white clover. Of those recorded at lower frequencies, several were chalk indicator species, including harebell, perforate St. John’s wort and field scabious, as well as those listed in the Natural England ‘species indicators’ table below. The woodier perennials like greater knapweed, oxeye daisy and wild marjoram were establishing well.
The following table shows the criteria for success set out by Natural England for this type of habitat and how the reversion fields measured up against these criteria:
The importance of soil fungi and organic matter
We found that some species were slower to establish than others. This is likely to be due to the abundance and diversity of mycorrhizal fungi present in the soil. Intensive arable agriculture reduces this diversity, and some plant species will not be able to exist on the land until the correct fungi arrive. It wasn’t until about four years after the start of the reversion that the first signs of fungal colonisation, the ‘fairy rings’, could be seen and species such as dropwort and devil’s-bit scabious began to appear. It was more than five years after sowing before any orchids were spotted, which is likely to be an indicator of the developing populations of mycorrhizal fungi.
Some good indicator species like saw-wort, have still not been recorded, although we know the seed was sown. This could be due to the soil conditions or plant associations not yet being right for them to get established.
The levels of organic matter in the soil were extremely low to begin with, at around 2%, which is consistent with the land having been in long-term continuous arable cultivation. The establishment of permanent grassland will cause the organic matter levels to increase over time, especially where the land is grazed. The soil analysis results for 2017 showed that the levels in the early reversions had generally gone up to around 5-9%. The increase in soil organic matter goes hand in hand with bacterial and fungal diversity and with the locking up of carbon, making semi-natural grasslands like chalk grasslands in our landscapes a natural way of helping to tackle climate change.
Other insects, such as moths, beetles, bees and flies had also colonised the grasslands, although no formal assessment was made in the early years to compare with the baseline survey taken at the start of the reversion process. However, in an invertebrate survey undertaken in 2016, one new BAP Priority species (the bumblebee Bombus ruderatus) and eight new Nationally Scarce species were recorded, including the six-belted clearwing moth and the picture-winged flyMerzomyia westermanni.
When farmland is taken out of cultivation there is a risk that some bird species associated with arable cropping might decline, so it was important to ensure that the key requirements of these species were maintained. To help ensure seed food availability for farmland birds on the farm, some strips of wild bird seed mixes were sown alongside natural features such as hedges. Farmland birds are regularly seen in the floriferous arable margins and the bird seed plots, and whilst the figures from the Common Bird Census recording took a little while to show real signs of benefit, the ongoing provision of suitable habitat has reaped rewards. Local populations of farmland birds such as skylark, yellowhammer, linnet, lapwing and corn bunting, all of which are currently species on the Red List of Conservation Concern, have either increased or been maintained, as the chart below shows.
We have learnt a couple of important technical lessons regarding nutrient levels and seed sowing as a result of our reversion projects.
Where we started the reversion process with a phosphate index of around 2, it sometimes produced a thick grass-dominated sward very quickly, crowding out some of the sown wildflowers and emphasising the need for a lower initial phosphate index. Although haymaking can be used as a way of reducing nutrient levels in the soil once the wildflower seed mix has been sown, we have found that growing barley for a couple of years without a compound fertiliser prior to starting the reversion is a more cost-effective way of reducing the levels of key nutrients, especially available phosphorous. These crops are best grown with the application of ammonium nitrate fertiliser; this helps the barley pull up the phosphates from the soil without contributing to the nutrient load, as nitrates will leach readily from chalk soils.
We did not mix the seed with any other agent at first and found that the seed clumped together in the machinery (termed ‘bridging’). Mixing the seed with the kiln-dried sand improved the flow, but we have found in other reversion projects that it is even better to use a fertiliser spinner, which broadcasts the seed through a wider aperture.
All photos supplied by Patrick Cashman, site manager RSPB Winterbourne Downs
If there was an agent acting within your crops that could reduce eggs and first instar larvae of the cabbage root fly by up to 90%; reduce emerging wheat blossom midge by 81%; and reduce seed stock of crop weeds in the range of 65-90%, then I’m sure you’d want to keep it in there. Well, with a little effort you can have this voracious destroyer of pests working across your farm. Carabid beetles, sometimes known as ground beetles, eat ALL major crop pests, and weed seeds too, and are present in all farm habitats across the UK. This makes them ideal agents of natural enemy pest control.
Natural enemy pest control is a bit of a mouthful but is just what it describes: the eating of crop pests by the predators that would control them in a natural system. The problem for natural enemy pest control is that we are not dealing with a fully natural system. Since the post-war agricultural revolution, farmland has been subject to tremendous change. Over time this has caused substantial decline in the populations of carabid beetles and other natural enemies. Unfortunately, pest species are adapted to bounce back quicker - especially since large crop areas are ideally suited to support population booms. Whilst pesticide sprays are necessary in this system, they compound the problem - hitting the predators as well as the pests, added to associated resistance building.
The importance of biodiversity
Carabid beetles are incredibly variable. Of the 350 species in the UK, 30 of these are common in farmland. They range in size from 2mm to 3cm in length; some can fly long distances, some run up to 16cm per second; some breed in the autumn, and some breed in the spring. Each has their own habitat preferences, meaning that they are active at different times, tolerate different weather and farm management practices, and are better at eating different crop pests. Therefore, having a diverse range of carabid species will mean that you have the best chance of effective pest predation.
So what can we do to help boost carabid numbers and diversity?
Luckily carabid beetles are well studied and we already know a lot about what they need to thrive. We can break this down into areas to feed, areas to breed, and areas to shelter.
Areas to Feed
Of course we want them to feed in the crop or pasture area when pests are there- but pests are not there all the time (luckily for us!) to support the carabid beetles needs. So semi natural areas are essential to provide the invertebrate and plant resources for all year round food. Conservation headlands, grass/ flower margins, beetle banks and taking field corners out of management, can all provide these close to productive areas, so carabids can move quickly into the crop to eat the pests they prefer, when they appear.
Areas to Breed
Carabids lay their eggs in the soil, hatching into larvae- which take around 6 months to grow, before they pupate and emerge into adult beetles. The larvae are actually predatory on crop pests too, and eat more than adults as they need a lot of protein to grow. Some larvae also eat weed seeds, which is particularly useful as they live in the top soil levels in the crop area. To help larvae grow undisturbed in crop areas, minimum tillage systems may be useful.
Areas to Shelter
Carabids have two main periods when they need shelter: hibernation, and aestivation, which is a summer rest period when conditions are too hot and arid. At these times, the beetles take advantage of permanent habit with structure that creates a protective microclimate- such as hedges, ditches, banks, and at a small scale the tussocks created by some grasses.
Another important aspect is the shelter from machinery and chemical applications. These can cause direct mortality, or affect the carabids ability to feed and breed, so safe areas near to crops allow some beetles to thrive and repopulate when such management is necessary.
Linking up farm habitats
To preserve or enhance the diversity of carabids on your farm it is important to have a range of habitats, but also for them to be linked up. Firstly populations need those seasonal and foraging movements, but as conditions change, different species can immigrate into your farm from surrounding areas to boost your assemblage of species. Carabids move in the landscape in a variety of ways, flying species will use habitats as stepping stones, whilst running species may need ‘corridors’ of hedges and margins to encourage them to move around the farm.
Farm habitats for beetles: a) grass and flower margins, along with hedges provide food resources year round, and connect other habitats; b) beetle banks create stable resources in the centre of fields, to encourage beetle presence in crop areas; c) taking corners out of management encourages scrub and tussocky grasses- ideal for sheltering carabids.
But there is still work to be done
Although scientists have done a lot of research on carabids, there is still a lot we don’t know. My recent work has shown that different species are associated with different landscape features such as field boundary habitats, crops, soils, and management such as tillage regimes. If we can better understand which habitats are most beneficial for different beetles, it will become possible to tailor your farm habitats to get a good selection of predatory species that suit a farms particular pests.
Pitfall trapping to monitor farm habitats
Pitfall trapping is a quick and easy way to see what carabids you have on your farm, and if you do pitfall trapping periodically, you can track how the populations vary over time relative to your farm management interventions. For details see my factsheet:
The main knowledge gap is how these habitats work in practice, over time. This is where we need to work with farmers closely, monitoring farm habitats, seeing what works, where, and why. But also, crucially, we need to know which interventions fit well into your farm business. Even if something works for beetles, if it’s going to be difficult for farmers to apply, it will not be widely applied!
Which leads me on to my plea: I need farmers to take my survey!
Then take my beneficial beetles survey to tell me your opinions on carabids, management that may be useful for them, and monitoring. Link to survey
If you are motivated after reading this article to carry out pitfall trapping or set up monitoring on your farm, I would be happy to help with advice, and support with verification of carabid identification.
Author: Martin Lines Farm: Papley Grove Farm, Cambridgeshire: 160 ha farmed in-house plus 360 ha contract farmed
In 2013, my agronomist recommended that I spray for black bean aphid, but conditions were too wet and windy for a period of ten days, after which aphid numbers had dropped and ladybirds were eating them, so I decided not to spray and saw no detrimental impact on my gross margin. This got me thinking about the pros and cons of insecticide use, as insecticides were becoming less beneficial due to resistance and were taking out the beneficials that were doing the natural pest control. Prior to this, I had already stopped using Dursban to control Orange Wheat Blossom Midge (OWBM) about 15 years ago because of the damage I could see this did to the insect life as a whole in the field. Also, my experience of contract farming an area of organic farmland for ten years led me to realise that insecticides were not necessary for yields in this system: the reduced yield of the organic land seemed to be more down to crop nutrition and weed pressure than pests or diseases. So I took the decision to do everything I could to control pests without insecticides and monitor the impacts on my yields and profit margins.
I took advice from my Frontier agronomist, who is very understanding of where I am coming from and where I want to get to. I also get ideas from events and social media.
Prior to 2013, insecticide spray decisions were based on a combination of thresholds and convenience. As the products cost £1.60 / ha and the operation cost £5 or £6 / ha, I would occasionally add an insecticide to a fungicide or herbicide application if its use was likely to be necessary, to save the money of running two operations. After 2013, the convenience use of insecticides stopped and I monitored against thresholds for the first few years and did not find a single justifiable case to spray. There were anxious moments in the early years when I would see signs of Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV) on small areas, but in experience this did not result in a net economic loss. Pest numbers seem to have been suppressed from exceeding thresholds from year one. Subsequently, I keep an eye out on forecasts and look for visible signs of an issue but am more relaxed that I have built up the resilience of my soil, crops and beneficials to have confidence that I may never need an insecticide again. I am not saying that I will never use them, but as yet, I have not had a need to. I occasionally see OWBM, but timing of control for these is so critical, and the use of a summer insecticide is so damaging that I have resisted the urge I would have previously had to resort to the can. Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle (CSFB) problems seem to occur whether I use insecticides or not and the way I look at it now is that the more you use the chemical, the greater the risk of resistance build up.
I have broadened the range of crops I grow. Previously, I stuck to a rigid two wheats, oilseed rape, one or two wheats, beans, all winter-sown, and the ratio of crops in the ground would be roughly 70% wheat, 20% oilseed rape, 10% beans. Now I have added winter and spring barley and have no fixed rotation, tailoring the cropping in each field to weed pressure and soil health. So, for example, if I have a black-grass problem then I will not go with a 2nd wheat, even though this gives a better return than a break crop. In general, I grow less wheat, more barley, less oilseed rape and more beans than previously. I now average about 40% wheat, 30% barley, 20% beans and 10% oilseed rape. The reduction in area of oilseed rape is more due to the challenges of dry August / September than issues with CSFB. On paper this would seem like a less profitable rotation, but in reality, I have slashed my cost of production, which has more than made up for loss of yields and crop values and my net profits have increased. Books also say that incorporation of spring crops to reduce black-grass levels results in a net loss in profits, but in reality, incorporation of the full range of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques more than makes up for this through reducing costs of production.
I use pest resistant varieties where possible, but take decisions based on the best contracts that I can get, so this is not a major consideration. I have moved back towards traditional recommended cropping intervals, but this is a balance to have full IPM and maintaining a balanced rotation, so unlike virtually all farmers, I am moving back towards five to six years between oilseed rape crops.
I drill cereals after mid-October if weather allows, rather than September to reduce black-grass and autumn aphid pressure. I avoid over-feeding crops with nitrogen fertiliser in one application to prevent rapid growth, making the crop more prone to pest and disease pressure.
Making the habitats to enable the beneficial insects and spiders to thrive is key to the success of this system. I started off with flower-rich margins around the outside of the fields, and now have been adding flower-rich strips every 4th tramline (120m) to improve natural pest control and insect pollination. I am forever increasing my habitat areas voluntarily until my agri-environment agreements expire and allow me to top up the payments based on the areas I am taking out of production. I see the benefits of the in-field strips on the yield maps of my oilseed rape and beans, with yields being 5-20% greater next to the strip and tailing off further into the field: this also reflects my observation of the number of bumblebees I see across the fields. The yield response is probably a combination of the effects of increased insect pollination and increased natural pest control. I have not looked at whether the enhanced pest control next to the flower strips shows any benefits in my cereals yields yet.
What area/% of cropped land is now out of production for AES / voluntary habitats compared with pre-2013?
I have around 9% on rented land and 12% at home. I also see increasing soil organic matter and, where soil structure allows, direct drilling of crops as measures that benefit the natural pest predators in providing a more functional soil ecosystem within which they can thrive. Many of the measures I have adopted in the transition to regenerative agriculture have multiple benefits, and it is difficult to tease out individual cause and effect impacts.
As well as stopping the use of insecticides, I have also cut down on the use of herbicides, fungicides and molluscicides. I put this down to improved soil health, crop health and better rotations – a consequence of the holistic regenerative agricultural system. I am conscious that pesticides as a whole do damage to the functional ecosystem that boost my yields, and I am looking to reduce use across the board. I monitor slug levels, but if I see lots of beetles in the field, I see if they can do the job first and only treat areas that seem to be struggling. I am not looking to eliminate slugs from the field, but keep them at manageable levels, whilst maintaining a thriving food chain for the beneficials.
This year, I have tried a few new ideas to further benefit from the IPM approach. I have sown a mix of wheat varieties in my wheat field to avoid the pest and disease risks that can arise from a single variety monoculture. I have also undersown my beans with clovers and tried intercropping my oilseed rape with phacelia and clovers to see if these measures will disguise the crop from pests and boost beneficial numbers further.
Overall, crop yields are a little lower, but I think this is more because of the switch to direct drilling than the loss of insecticides. The yield losses are more than made up for by the reduction in costs of production and the net margins are up, despite reducing the areas of wheat, our most profitable crop. Last year, cost of production of my wheat was c.£72 per tonne, about half of the average across my peers. Prior to 2013, profit margins had stagnated, but the trend is now definitely upwards. The total farm profit is so variable from year to year, it is not possible to put an average percentage figure on it yet. I do feel my business is more resilient to the market and weather pressures.
There are visibly more beneficial insects and spiders. I don’t know what they are, but the ground is alive with them. There is noticeably more wildlife overall, especially the birds. The incidence of pest levels exceeding economic thresholds has declined to zero. This was apparent from year one, but probably accrued over the first few years. Prior to 2013, I might spray a cereal crop with insecticides in the autumn against BYDV, at ear emergence and potentially again for OWBM. In oilseed rape, I would spray between two and four times in the autumn for CSFB.
I also believe there are benefits in this approach to my personal health, with fewer potentially harmful chemicals to deal with.
There is no blueprint to IPM and I feel it has to be a whole farm and landscape approach as it is not as easy as conventional farming with pesticides. Farmers need support through Knowledge Transfer platforms to help them to reduce pesticide use – this is not readily available beyond organic farming.
Author: Ceri Watkins, Co-Founder of Dung beetle UK Mapping Project
Species: Dung beetles
Why is farmland important for these species?
There are approximately 60 species of dung beetle in the UK. They are not the ‘ball rollers’ seen in warmer countries and on TV, instead they live inside the dung pile (dwellers) or in the soil beneath it (tunnellers). Livestock grazing provides much of the dung required for the survival of these beetles, although other animals such deer and badgers also contribute. Some species are rather specialised and require exacting conditions. For example, Volinus sticticus prefers horse or sheep dung in the shade and Onthophagus joannae is a sun loving beetle that favours sheep dung on light soils. Others are less fussy and have few specific requirements.
It is possible to find dung beetles at work all year round. Several species are winter active, although the vast majority are found in the spring, summer and autumn. Given the right conditions, dung beetles can decimate a pile of horse poo or a cow pat in just a couple of days.
Volinus sticticus (c) Katherine Child
Onthophagus joannae (c) Katherine Child
How do dung beetles benefit farms?
Dung beetles provide a wide range of ecosystem services that help to maintain healthy pastures and soils. These include the most obvious, the consumption of dung thereby removing it from the fields thus reducing pasture fouling, but also some that you may not have considered. As the beetles tunnel down through the soil, burying the dung for breeding purposes, essential nutrients are recycled within the soil profile. This improves grass growth and provides a direct benefit to grazing animals. The larger species such as the Minotaur beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus) can tunnel a metre or more, this action breaks up the ground and improves drainage, especially useful on clay soils.
In addition, dung beetles also reduce nuisance fly populations by transporting phoretic mites that eat fly eggs and help control intestinal parasites by reducing dung suitability for worm larvae. The beetles are also an important food source for many other farmland favourites such as bats and birds.
Onthophagus similis with phoretic mites (c) Ceri Watkins
Continuity of the dung supply and diversity of habitat are key factors in supporting a diverse range of dung beetle species on the farm. If possible, maintain some outdoor grazing year-round, even if only a few animals. Planting a group of trees and grazing within them will provide variety of forage and shelter for livestock and support the shade loving dung beetles too.
Broad spectrum livestock wormers such as avermectin are detrimental to beneficial dung invertebrates. These chemicals are excreted in the dung for many weeks after treatment and a range of lethal and sub-lethal effects occur depending on the concentration. Such effects include slowing beetle larvae development, reducing the size attained at adulthood and reduced breeding capacity.
Cutting down the use of chemicals on the farm with a sustainable worm control policy that includes monitoring with faecal egg counts will help. Treating animals only when necessary will save money and also slow the rate of anthelmintic resistance. As a natural alternative in a rotational system, consider using herbal leys. Sainfoin, birdsfoot trefoil and chicory all have anthelmintic properties. The latter has been shown to reduce worm burden in sheep by as much as 40%. In permanent grasslands, mixing up cattle and sheep grazing works by reducing the stocking density of the parasite host – cattle and sheep worms are different species.
Supporting dung beetles on your farm not only helps keep pasture and livestock healthy, it also represents good economic sense. It has been estimated that dung beetles save the UK cattle industry £367 million per annum through the provision of ecosystem services (Beynon et al., 2015). So, it really does pay to look after these useful little creatures.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Author: Nida Al-Fulaij, Grants Manager, People’s Trust for Endangered Species
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Author: Ian Boyd Farm: Whittington Lodge Farm, Gloucestershire
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Author: Robert Kynaston Farm: Great Wollaston Farm, Shropshire
Two and six metre grass margins have been established in fields with arable cropping as part of the rotation. Margins were established for a number of reasons:
- Buffer water courses with 6m margins to meet LERAP requirements
- Buffer hedgerows and hedgerow trees to develop wide wildlife corridors through the farm
- Margins made economic sense on the least productive parts of the farm
- Keep machinery away from roots, hedge growth and fences
Margins have been established in a number of ways on the farm.
The arable cropping on the farm is in a rotation with short-term ryegrass/red clover leys that are generally cut for silage. Some of the margins were created by leaving the margin unploughed when the field went back to arable. Margins have also been established through natural regeneration and sowing a specific margin seed mix. Cocksfoot and timothy give good tussocky growth and creeping red fescue provides ground cover.
Margins are generally left to develop into thick tussocky vegetation, and only cut with a flail mower if blackthorn starts to creep into the margin from the hedgerow. Spot spraying with a selective herbicide has occasionally been necessary for thistle and dock infestations. When fields with margins are down to grass/red clover leys, the margins experience some light grazing when silage aftermath is grazed with cattle, usually towards the end of July after the grasses have gone to seed. This grazing helps to manage the dense vegetation, allowing a greater variety of plants and structures to develop. Grazing is not so heavy that the tussocky sward structure is grazed out.
Problems and solutions
When fields with margins are down to grass/red clover leys silage mowing contractors have cut the margin as well as the silage. To reduce complexity and confusion for contractors, fields are either surrounded by a 2m or a 6m margin, rather than mixing the different margin widths in the same fields. Stakes with coloured tops can be used to mark the edge of the margin to make it easier for contractors.
Around 2.4 ha of buffer strips have been created around Great Wollaston farm. These have helped to meet LERAP requirements and benefited a host of wildlife such as providing insect rich areas for farmland birds feeding their chicks through the spring and summer. Also, they provide cover and seeds for small mammals such as voles and shrews which in turn are food for hawks and owls. Partridges and yellowhammers use them for nesting.
The aim is to add perennial flowers (to supply insect food) to some margins in the future to create a greater range of habitats.