As the days continue to shorten, temperatures drop and the morning frosts start to appear, the value of autumnal vegetation for wildlife should not be underestimated.
In addition to creating the striking frost-bitten scenery in autumn and winter, allowing tussocky grass and wildflower seed heads to remain uncut through winter, in field margins, along tracks and roadside verges, and in gardens, will provide food and shelter for invertebrates and other wildlife.
The remaining seed heads of the summer flushes of wildflowers such as willow herbs, thistles and even dandelions supply food for goldfinches, linnets and other seed eating birds and shelter for invertebrates. Ladybirds and earwigs may shelter in large wildflowers seed heads.
Tall tussocky grass provides shelter for many overwintering invertebrates, and spiders construct their webs between long fronds that collect water droplets in the early morning mists. Grass tussocks may also hide ‘runs’ where mice and voles move from place to place protected by the dense vegetation above. Carder bee queens, emerging from hibernation, will search for nesting sites at the base of grass tussocks in spring.
Autumn is a great time to cut areas of long grass, including wildflowers meadows, and to remove the cuttings to help wildflowers to thrive the following year which in turn produce nectar and pollen to feed our valuable pollinators. But leaving leaving some patches of long tussocky grass and tall wildflower seed heads back then has now provided food and shelter in hardest months and nesting opportunities next spring.
Additional information on managing farmland for pollinators is available from:
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: Jo Terry Farm: Upper Hollowfields Farm, Worcestershire
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Towthorpe Manor Farm is a 242ha arable farm with chalk dales grazed with native breed cattle. There is a small shoot with cover crops of mustard and triticale privately funded.
Winter cropping includes oilseed rape, winter wheat, winter barley and oats for Jordans. Spring beans are also grown, and precision farming is undertaken on the farm.
This particular feature was chosen as part of a Conservation Grade agreenment which requires 10% of arable land to be in wildlife friendly options. The option is sited alongside an east-facing 6m grass strip which is adjacent to a chalk dale and hedgerow.
The seed mix used comprised clovers, vetches, bird's-foot trefoil and sanfoin.
Late May 2013 - Sown into stubble using a Simba Express cultivator with tines set at 10 inches into the ground to take out compaction with integral rollers behind the tines. The seed is broadcast electrically onto the cultivated surface and Cambridge rolled. A heavy flat roller is recommended to give soil seed contact on this chalk brashy land.
Establishment was slow due to dry conditions in this low rainfall area. Re-drilling was considered, but sufficient rainfall brought about a rapid improvement with 95% establishment ground cover.
Frequent topping was required in the first year to aid establishment and deal with arable weeds such as poppies, shepherds purse, creeping thistle and fat hen.
When sited alongside a 6m grass margin, the option enhances opportunities for over-wintering insects and also buffers the floristically-rich chalk dale. An attractive option for visitors and very attractive to butterflies particularly, with small tortoiseshell, peacock and the odd painted lady seen on the farm along with numerous Silver Y moths, bumblebees and hoverflies.
The ELS/HLS payment doesn’t cover the cost of establishment particularly if there is an establishment failure and it needs to be re-drilled. However, taken as a component of a comprehensive HLS agreement which includes payments for managing the chalk dales the HLS agreement makes an important reliable and consistent payment to the farm business.
The main benefit is the buffering of the chalk dale from potential drift or run off from the neighbouring arable operations. It also enhances the other HLS options on the farm which include floristically enhanced buffer strips
Tips for other farmers
- Only sow when conditions are right regarding soil temperature and moisture levels. Broadcast rather than sow and roll tight to gain soil/seed contact.
- Frequent topping in the first year with a flail topper but be wary of smothering with crop residue.
- Don’t let creeping thistle seed.
- Be patient and wait until year two before deciding whether establishment has been successful or not as an earlier crop of nectar mix established on the farm looked very poor in year one but now looks amazing in year two.
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.