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

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: 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.

Case Study: Using unharvested cereal headlands combined with cultivated margins on heavy land

Author: Martin Lines
Farm: Papley Grove Farm, Cambridgeshire

Aims:

Using options that need spring establishment can be difficult on heavy land. We wanted to find a way of providing conservation management without needing a great deal of work in the spring and without causing undue problems to the crop following it.

I grow winter wheat, winter beans and oil seed rape. Because of my heavy soils we thought this combination would be ideal for using ground for two full cropping years, allowing me to follow it with another winter established crop and avoiding the need for trying to get a crop going in the spring. I worked with Niki Williamson of the RSPB, who gives free nature-friendly farming advice in the Fens area, to design the combination.

Management:

I plant a winter wheat crop as normal, leaving a headland as a conservation headland. This receives limited fertiliser, no insecticides after 15 March, and I apply limited fungicide (only when absolutely necessary to stop crop failure). This provides insect-rich habitat all summer, helping birds like grey partridges and corn buntings. The headland is left unharvested the following autumn, so provides winter seed food as well.

From 21 March, I cultivate the headland by ploughing or discing to form a cultivated margin. Problems with working the heavy soil at this time are not so important as I am trying to create a reasonably fine fallow, but not required to create a seedbed to establish a mix or a crop.

If there is blackgrass residue once I’ve cultivated I use a herbicide to control it. That needs doing as soon as cultivation is completed, to give as long a window as possible to allow the intended weeds to grow on the plot, forming cover and food sources for wildlife.

On my land there is no rare arable flora! But the plants that do grow will flower and set seed in time for turtle doves arriving back on the farm in late April, providing a much needed food source. It also provides a fallow, weedy area for other insects and birds to use during the summer months.

From 31 July I spray off the area to clean it up and cultivate it in time to follow it with autumn sowing.

In any one year there are two areas like this on the farm, one in each option. They are rotated around the farm to keep the weed burden in check.

Achievements:

This year we followed the cultivated margin with oil seed rape and I found that this was the best bit of rape in the field. It’s cleaner because of the seedbed preparation and it’s established better because there are less slugs where there are no stubbles.

On my soils blackgrass is an issue, and would normally make things like conservation headlands and summer fallows a no-no. However this management has not increased my weed burden any worse than the rest of the farmed field. There are two opportunities to cultivate the option and bury the blackgrass, one in March and one in July. There is also nearly 2 months across August and September that can be used to germinate weeds and spray them off to create stale seed beds before drilling, giving you plenty of opportunities to address blackgrass problems.

The seed from the unharvested headlands was being depleted by pigeons and crows really early, so I had to put out deterrents to make sure it lasted further into the winter for the smaller birds we were trying to target. In the end there were still big flocks of birds in it right up until March, finding something to eat. I also have other wild bird seed mixes on the farm, which are designed to retain seed through the winter months to make sure there’s a winter-long food source.

We noted that in shaded areas, wheat tended to stay in the ear and germinate there, making it inaccessible to birds. Although it’s clearly beneficial to site it near a hedge for birds to hop in and out, I think you need to avoid the north side of tall hedges or woodland s to avoid loss of seed in this way.

The plots are rotated around the farm, so this year it will be sited in a different place. The unharvested headland will be near woodland rather than hedge. Having observed it this winter, I now wonder if it will be as popular without the hedge for the birds to use as a base to feed from. Otherwise I am very happy with the option as it stands. It fits in well with our system and delivers what we wanted for wildlife.

I found the options very easy to manage. It needs an extra operation in March to create the cultivated margin but nothing onerous.

I do what it takes to make the margin work in terms of balancing wildlife benefits with weed control. Some years it takes more, sometimes less. Although I haven’t done the detailed costings, I’m confident it balances out overall and does not leave me out of pocket.

The hedge alongside the option was teeming with yellowhammers, corn buntings, reed buntings and sparrows for as long as there was seed left in the headland. There were still birds using it when I came to cultivate it in March. There are breeding turtle doves on the farm, which I hope would benefit from the early seed source the cultivated margin provides. I saw loads of starlings and blackbirds rummaging around in spring and summer, which must show how many insects there are in there.

You can also see areas where partridge have used the fallow as a sunbathing/dusting area.

It adds another feature to the farm that wouldn’t usually be there. It’s not common to find fallow areas on heavy land, so this adds to the diversity of our system.

It’s a simple straightforward combination option that has worked well for me in my farming system.

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: 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.