Conservation headlands

Rotational conservation headlands support open-structured cereal crops with broad-leaved arable plants.

This is achieved by keeping an area of cereal crops free from broadleaf herbicides and insecticides.


By allowing the natural development of a variety of plants within the headland, feeding grounds and habitat for arable plants, pollinating insects, small mammals and brown hares are created. For farmland birds, this measure can benefit grey partridges, linnets, bullfinches, corn buntings, yellowhammers, reed buntings and skylarks.

The headland area can be harvested with the rest of the crop, but is ideally left to provide a standing crop which will then provide seed-rich habitat throughout winter.

conservation headland @ dipplebrae 07 Hywel Maggs


Conservation headlands in appropriate places can support small populations of broad-leaved plants, which have little competitive impact on the crops. Arable plants are the fastest declining group of plants in the UK and can thrive where they are allowed to germinate and establish free from herbicides.

The arable plants in conservation headlands can provide valuable pollen and nectar for insect pollinators and predators of pests. The boost in insect numbers and the prolific seed production of broad-leaved arable plants provides valuable food for farmland birds, particularly grey partridges and turtle doves, but also linnets, corn buntings, yellowhammers and skylarks.

Unharvested cereal headlands can help feed farmland birds through the hungry gap in the winter and early spring, when they can often struggle to find sufficient food.

By avoiding the use of insecticides, many of the beneficial insects on farms which move into fields after over-wintering in hedges, tussock grasslands and field margins are protected. The overall impact of conservation headlands is to improve populations of beneficial insects in the crop margins as well as the crop itself.

Skylark Alauda arvensis, at the grassy edge of a small field. Cornwall, England. June.


This management is most suited to light soils which do not have high levels of competitive weeds such as cleavers or barren brome. Sites which are known to support rare arable plants are also ideal and may even be considered on farms with a higher weed burden. They are best placed near to tussocky grass margins or hedges to maximise the benefits for beneficial insects.

Between February and April, sow a cereal crop of wheat, barley, triticale, oats or rye at a lower seed rate of 50-100kg/ha. This will ensure that the crop isn't too dense and will provide open habitat for broad-leaved plants. This can be either in 6-24m strips or at the field scale. It may be useful to avoid applying fertiliser to the conservation headlands area, to reduce the risk of competitive grasses and cleavers dominating at the expense of the less competitive broad-leaved arable plants.

To maximise the seed-rich resource for farmland birds, retain the unharvested strip as a weedier strip of standing crop. The cereals can be harvested with the rest of the crop, but preferably without the use of a pre-harvest desiccant. This is especially important where the subsequent stubble can be retained over winter to provide weed seeds for farmland birds.


More information

Read the RSPB's advice on creating and managing conservation headlands

You may also find Plantlife's Management Guide for Arable plants useful


In practice

Here are some useful case studies and articles about how farmers are putting Farm Wildlife into practice on their farms

Case Study: Managing Farmland for Grey Long-eared Bats

By John Dyer | 9th November 2019

Author: Craig Dunton, Grey long-eared bat Project Officer, Bat Conservation Trust Species: Grey Long-eared bat: © Craig Dunton/   Why is farmland important for this species? With as few as 1000 individuals In the UK, the grey long-eared bat is one of our rarest mammals. Their distribution is restricted to the southern coast (Devon, Dorset,…

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Case Study: Helping hedgehogs on farmland

By Kathryn Smith | 20th August 2018

Hedgehogs have 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, but as the dominant habitat in the UK, farmland is particularly important for hedgehogs.

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

By Kathryn Smith | 26th September 2014

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…

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