Case Study: Using ELS to maximise wildlife benefits in the Fens

Author: Steve Pinder
Farm: Greeves Farm, Cambridgeshire

I am a County Council tenant farmer. I grow winter wheat, beet, rape, and potatoes. I used to grow plots of miscanthus as game cover, which were shot by a small shooting syndicate. No birds were released and the shoot relied on attracting ‘wild’ pheasants. My wife runs a riding school on the farm, so there are several acres of horse paddocks. My land is a mixture of ‘Grade 1’ sandy loam and tougher areas. I make the best use of areas that are difficult to farm by providing for wildlife, like awkward corners and areas of heavier land.

Aims:

I live in a really important area for farmland birds – the Fens is one of only a handful of places where grey partridges, corn buntings, yellow wagtails, tree sparrows, lapwings and turtle doves can be found together. There are also a wealth of beneficial insect and arable plants that form the base of the food chain.

I provide a variety of options giving year-round wildlife habitat – over-winter seed food and in-field nesting habitat for farmland birds, foraging and sheltering habitat for insects and opportunities for arable plants to thrive.

Management:

I believe sensitive hedge and ditch management – including buffering – are part of good farm management, and something we should all do as a matter of course. The new challenges for me were learning about nectar flower mixes and wild bird seed mixes.

Nectar flower mix

I used a grass-free mix – they’re a bit more expensive but on these fertile soils, grass comes to dominate very quickly. The vigorous cultivars used in the mix in it ensure it stands a good chance of out-competing any problem plants in the seed bank.

Once the soil was prepared by ploughing and rotaring, I broadcast the seed on using a slug pellet spreader. This only worked because I had wider strips – it spreads it quite a long way so if they had been any narrower I would have been wasting seed.

I then rolled the plots. Small flower seeds like these do better if they are near the surface, as long as they have good contact with warm soil. I went for an autumn establishment, to give the seed a chance to germinate and get away before winter set in.

The mix had phacelia in it which did very well and helped to supress weed growth. Some of the plots I only needed to cut once to control weeds in Year 1. I can see there is less phacelia this year, and the clovers, vetches and trefoils are starting to come into their own. It looked fantastic last year, but I’m looking forward to even better display of colours this year.

Other plots I have elsewhere on the farm needed more cutting. I think a lot depends on the weed burden in the location you choose. I had to cut one of the plots three times to control the charlock, but it’s fine now it’s established properly. I don’t have a way of removing the cuttings so I make sure they’re chopped up fine when I cut the mix to prevent a mulch forming.

Wild Bird Seed mix

I have four blocks containing wheat, kale, quinoa, red and white millet, buckwheat, and sunflowers. My agreement started in January 2012 – anyone trying to get things started in 2012 will remember the almost complete absence of sunshine!

I tried to establish my wild bird seed mixes by drilling in the spring with very limited success. It didn’t help that they were sited on old miscanthus plots. I had treated it with herbicide but it had failed to kill it completely. By the time the seed mix germinated, there was already substantial miscanthus regrowth which effectively swamped the mix.

I was philosophical about it – from a wildlife point of view they weren’t a complete fail because there were still the chance for arable plants to grow there and encourage insects. They would set a bit of seed and provide winter food for things like skylarks and linnets. I also broadcast a couple of kg of mustard onto each plot area in July – it’s fast-growing and I hoped it might set seed in time to provide at least some winter food.

I re-drilled the wild bird seed mixes in spring 2013 and this time they’ve been a success. It shows what a massive difference the weather can make, even if you’re following the instructions and doing everything right.

I’ve also become aware of the plight of the turtle dove – we’ve lost 93% of them! There is now a mix available which contains early-flowering varieties of things like vetches and clovers, as well as some fumitory, which should provide a food source for them when they arrive here in late spring after migrating from Africa. There was a turtle dove here this summer, so I’m going to establish an acre or so this autumn, near to where I saw it.

Now I have my two-year mixes established and thriving, I can start to turn them into staggered plots. The kale seems to be doing well, so next spring I’ll re-establish half of each plot with the same mix again, so there is always some in its first year, full of cereals and millet, and some in its second year, with plenty of seeding kale.

Achievements:

The failed attempts at establishing bird cover were frustrating but luckily this is not the most expensive mix.

Even though I rent my land, I am able to make my environmental management stack up by using my worst land. It’s important we farmers all do our bit to look after the countryside.

I was amazed how well the nectar flower mixes did, and how alive with insects they were this summer.

I think the real benefits from the wild bird seed mixes will become apparent this winter, now they’ve worked. Anything’s got to be better than miscanthus! I’ve definitely got more sparrows around. I’m seeing small birds in the covers already, and it’s only October. I also see more sparrowhawks and kestrels now, which I’m thrilled about because it must mean the rest of the food chain is doing OK too!

I’m a real lover of owls – we have barn and tawny owls on the farm – and they all fledged families this summer which I’m really pleased about.

Advice for other farmers

Don’t be afraid to put some nitrogen fertiliser on your bird cover. It’s a crop, after all. I used about 50kg an acre on mine.

Horsetail can be a real problem in this area and it’s started creeping in from one of my margins. I’ve discovered that it responds better to herbicide if you roll it first, to flatten it and cause some damage to it so the chemical can penetrate.

In hindsight I would have cropped my old miscanthus plots first, giving me more opportunities to kill it off properly. I wouldn’t advise trying to follow it straight away with a bird cover or a nectar mix, because if it comes back your mix will not do well.

Case Study: Establishing a nectar mix on chalk in the Yorkshire Wolds

Author: Chris Tomson
Farm: Towthorpe Manor Farm

Aims:

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 agreement which requires 10% of arable land to be in wildlife friendly options. The option is sited alongside an east-facing 6m grass strip adjacent to a chalk dale and hedgerow.

Management:

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.

Achievements:

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.

Case Study: A farmland bird package on limestone soils

Author: Jeff Platts
Farm: Hazelmere Farm, Creswell, Derbyshire

Aims:

To provide summer insect food and seed food over winter for seed-eating birds, particularly targeting grey partridges and tree sparrows, and to provide suitable nesting habitat for lapwings on the arable land.

Management:

Hazelmere farm (270 acres) has been in the family for over 75 years, and is leased from Chatsworth Estates. I took the decision to leave dairying five years ago, and now the business concentrates on arable, with a livery and rural skills school on site.

Wild bird seed mix plots

To provide winter food for the seed eating birds on his land, I have included several plots of wild bird seed mix which have done very well on the free-draining, limestone based soil. The mix includes phacelia, kale, quinoa, millet and triticale with a handful of sunflowers also thrown in. The wild bird seed mix is re-established every other year and the land is prepared and drilled as if it is a normal crop. I occasionally get an infestation of flea beetle on the kale so a pesticide is used. A small amount of fertiliser is added to maintain nitrogen levels. The plots where the wild bird seed mix have been established were chosen to complement the adjacent land use such as hedges and margins with recognised bird populations.

The wild bird seed mixes have worked so well, I’m looking at re-sowing only one of them this year with the possibility of adding perhaps an additional row of quinoa or millet alongside another of the plots. The kale is showing through in this second year along with a reasonable amount of fat-hen which will also provide a good seed source.

Fallow plots

I have also included rotational fallow plots - it has proved very successful in encouraging lapwings to breed on the farm and I estimate there are slightly more than 20 breeding pairs. I’ve also seen flocks of up to 80 lapwings using the plots in the late summer.

Across the farm there are 51ha left as over-wintered stubbles after a spring cereal and, on average, 10ha are then sprayed off at the end of March and left as fallow after running over them with a light disc to break up the surface.

In the autumn, as long as there is no major weed cover showing, a single run with the cultivator or a light set of discs creates a suitable till and the cereal is then drilled.

There have been some issues with sterile brome on the fallow plot. After discussion with Natural England, the plot was left fallow all year including over winter and then cleaned up with a stale seed bed with a supplementary treatment with Roundup before being sown with another spring cereal this year.

Flower-rich margins

I’m currently looking at adding some additional floristically enhanced margins for grey partridge around some fields to increase foraging and breeding habitat. This will also benefit a wide range of insects, and other birds on the farm which feed their chicks on insects.

Achievements

Collectively, the wild bird seed mixtures, floristically-enhanced margins and fallow plots will provide an ideal package for farmland birds, giving the key requirements of winter seed food, summer insect food and in-field nesting habitat for ground-nesting birds, respectively.

The birds on the farm were surveyed in 2009 as part of the RSPB’s Volunteer & Farmer Alliance scheme. The survey picked up nine red list species of high conservation concern, including grey partridges and lapwings, and thirteen bird species of medium conservation concern, including bullfinches and reed buntings.

Of these, the density of lapwings recorded on the farm during the summer and autumn are testament to the benefits of fallow plots to this species with the number of lapwings breeding on the farm having increased since the adoption of this measure. It also provides a winter food source for those lapwings which over-winter in the area.

A large flock of around thirty tree sparrows were seen feeding on one block of wild bird seed mix and two of the blocks were sheltering coveys of grey partridge last autumn.

The wild bird seed mix plots are also magnets for hundreds of invertebrates including bees and butterflies.

The floristically enhanced margins will plug the final gap in farmland bird requirements by ensuring that there are insect-rich foraging areas.