Fallow plots provide the open, sparsely vegetated habitats that have been lost by a widespread move from spring-sown to autumn-sown crops.
Fallow plots are uncropped areas within arable fields, created by cultivating the plot in spring to produce a rough fallow. Fallow plots reproduce the environment provided by spring-sown crops which has been reduced due to the widespread switch to autumn-sown crops. They are therefore more likely to be of most use in areas dominated by autumn-sown cropping, particularly in England. Managing fallow plots can provide a vital resource of bare ground, and short or sparse vegetation.
Traditionally, birds such as lapwings and stone-curlews nested in summer fallows and spring crops that remained as open, short or sparse vegetation throughout the breeding season. Both now rely heavily on fallow plots and intentionally managed areas as neither can breed successfully in autumn-sown crops.
Fallow plots can also support a range of common and rare arable plants, especially on chalky or sandy soils. Many of these plants require bare or sparse ground to germinate, set seed and establish, so thrived in traditional farming rotations. Arable plants also support a wide range of insects and provide a seed-rich environment for many farmland birds. However, many arable plants now struggle to compete with vigorous crops and are highly susceptible to herbicides.
Fallow plots aimed at encouraging lapwings or stone-curlews are best created in areas where they are known to nest or have previously been known to nest. Stone-curlews primarily nest in the Brecks (Norfolk and Suffolk) and around Salisbury plain. The best sites are in large open arable fields, away from woodlands, tall hedges and overhead wires and at least 1km away from trunk roads in the case of stone-curlews. Plots of two hecatres are ideal to allow pair of stone-curlews to conceal themselves or for sufficient pairs of lapwings to nest and defend themselves from predators. One plot per square kilometre will support a sustainable population of both species.
Plots can be rotated until a suitable site is found, but be aware of the potential for wheat bulb fly to affect a cereal crop following a summer fallow. Once a plot has been used for nesting, it is best to consider a fixed plot to increase the chances of birds returning in subsequent years.
To create a suitable rough fallow, either rough plough in the autumn and allow to weather down through the winter, or harrow in February or early March. It is important to avoid creating a very smooth soil surface, as nesting birds like to conceal themselves on a rough surface. If a fine seedbed is produced, the birds will not generally nest until natural regeneration provides sufficient cover for concealment.
To create ideal fallow plots for lapwings or stone-curlews, the fallow must be created before mid-March and left undisturbed until mid-July. Where stone-curlews occasionally rear a second brood, plots should be left until September. If you have nesting stone-curlews, then contact the RSPB for specific advice on how to manage the plot, as a licensed surveyor will be able to accurately estimate how long the plot should remain undisturbed.
Although fallow plots aimed at supporting birds will have value for a great deal of arable plants and insects which are attracted to them, different approaches are required where the aim is to create opportunities for arable plants specifically. Site selection can be a crucial factor, particularly finding a site with a rich seed bank. Ideal sites may have been cultivated for up to 100 years, allowing them to accumulate a rich seed bank, while light, low nutrient and free-draining soils are often preferred. Consider choosing sites which are open and have a sunny, south-facing aspect. It is important to avoid sites which have a heavy pernicious weed burden, such as cleavers, grass weeds, docks and thistles.
Once a suitable site for arable plants has been identified, soil should be cultivated to a depth of around 15cm, establishing a firm, fine tilth in the autumn or spring. It is important that no pesticides or fertilisers are applied. Where there is a significant pernicious weed burden, spot-spraying should only be undertaken once annual plants have set seed, typically in September.
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