Dairy farm creating a buzz

Authors: Gethin Davies (RSPB), Anna Hobbs (BBCT), Stuart Taylor (farmer, Argoed)

Dairying can be a challenging sector for farmers and wildlife. Small margins have driven increasing efficiency and specialisation, which has tended to squeeze out people and space for nature. The number of dairy farmers in the UK has declined by two thirds since 1995.

Argoed Farm in North Wales showcases an alternative vision for dairying, one where nature and minimising environmental impacts are at the heart of the system.

Farming at Argoed

Argoed has been in the family of Stuart Taylor for more than 100 years. He farms it with the help of Robert and Owen Evans who have worked with him for over 20 years. As its current custodian, Stuart feels a strong responsibility to farm it well, and this extends to the farm’s natural environment, from its soil to the wildlife that share the fields overlooking the town of Mold in North Wales. This was a driver for converting to organic in 2000. The 68 hectare farm currently milks around 65 cows, selling milk through the Calon Wen organic dairy co-operative.

'Adopting a low input approach across the whole farm not only allows more space for nature to thrive – it’s also a more cost-effective way of farming.' Stuart Taylor

Stuart has kept faith with the traditional British Friesian cow. They average 6 to 7 lactations (around double the industry average), have excellent fertility and suit his focus on producing milk from grazed grass and conserved forage as he looks to minimise bought-in concentrate feed. The farm used to grow cereals in a rotation with grass but has moved to maintaining the whole farm as permanent grassland, with grass reseeding done by over-sowing into a minimally disturbed soil surface. He feels this brings more resilience to the system with the increasingly unpredictable weather making bare ground at reseeding a challenge.

Stuart has always tried to fit in wildlife conservation measures where he can, such as restoring hedgerows, digging ponds and putting up nest boxes. Recently, along with other Calon Wen farmers, he’s been working with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the RSPB on the Pasture for Pollinators project, which trialled simple grassland management changes to boost pollen and nectar resources for bumblebees and other pollinators.

'As a farmer it’s my responsibility to look after nature and the environment on the farm as best as I can whilst I’m here.'

This project showed Argoed to have a wealth of habitats on the farm, providing the foundations for a rich food web. Although the farm is visibly nature-friendly, we wanted a way to objectively illustrate why and how Stuart’s system delivers for wildlife.

Herb-rich grasslands underpin milk production on Argoed. Image (c) Anna Hobbs

How ‘Fair to Nature’?

We tallied all the various opportunities for nature on Argoed against the criteria of the Fair To Nature standard. This looks at the percentage of the farm delivering the Farm Wildlife key actions, accounting for both non-farmed habitats such as hedgerows and ponds as well as in-field nature-friendly cropping and grassland practices. This information also provides a means to benchmark a farm’s habitat delivery over time, and potentially, with other similar farms.

Established wildlife habitats

Well-established farmland habitats are often the most wildlife-rich. On Argoed, this included a network of dense hedgerows, some small areas of woodland and scrub, and around 3ha of species-rich grassland.

Stuart believes the area of species-rich grassland hasn’t been ploughed for at least 120 years, but did receive inputs of slurry and fertiliser into the 1980s. In the last few decades he has been managing it as a hay meadow and inputs have been restricted to composted farmyard manure. He has seen plant diversity increase and the area now includes abundant ribwort plantain, yarrow, vetch, trefoil and black knapweed, with the occasional orchid starting to appear. The hay is a valued feed for the farm’s youngstock.

The field boundaries are predominantly multi-species hedgerows with many hedgerow trees, both developing and mature. Stuart trims the hedges rotationally to increase flowering and fruiting, and into a dense A shape between restoration events to provide abundant shelter and wildlife habitat.

Dense rotationally trimmed hedgerows provide corridors for insects and other species. Image (c) Stuart Taylor

Although outside the farmed area, a small traditional orchard and farm garden provide early blossom and a wide diversity of flowering plants to help pollinators obtain a continuous source of food. Wet features on the farm include three ponds, two holding water for most of the year, the other seasonally.

Flower and seed-rich habitats within the farming system

As Argoed is organic, there is a need for leguminous plants to bring nitrogen into the farming system. Stuart has been increasingly sowing diverse legume and herb mixes into his grassland, and these provide an excellent source of pollen and nectar for insects if the grazing and mowing management allows them to flower. Such grassland can be included within ‘Fair to Nature’ with a conversion factor, since the wildlife benefits, although positive, are lower per hectare than semi-natural habitats or those created primarily for nature conservation.

Grazing practices allow plants to flower and seed. Image (c) Stuart Taylor

Around 42ha of grassland is periodically over-sown with a herbal mix containing a variety of grasses along with red, white and alsike clover, ribwort plantain and chicory. This grassland area is rotationally grazed or mown for silage, where three cuts are taken with a forage wagon. Having both white and red clovers in the sward caters for both short- and long-tongued bumblebees.

The ‘Pasture for Pollinators’ project trialled leaving unmown strips in the herbal leys to extend the flowering period. If such margins are not left, widescale silage cutting can mean the local landscape can go from ‘feast to famine’ for insects overnight.

Uncut herbal mix strip. Image (c) Anna Hobbs

Bumblebee Conservation Trust surveys identified all Big 7’ widespread bumblebee species to be present on the farm, along with a diversity of other pollinators. In addition to abundant flower-rich habitat, the farm also provides good nesting opportunities for bumblebees and other pollinators through tussocky grass, bare earth in sunny locations on tracksides and field edges, and some dry-stone walls.

Common carder bee. Image (c) Anna Hobbs

Beyond the 3ha of semi-natural grassland, there is another 9ha of long-term permanent grassland that isn’t over-seeded, some parts of which contain a high diversity of flowering plants, including yarrow, self-heal, lesser trefoil, sheep’s sorrel and finer grasses such as sweet vernal. Some of this land is grazed with youngstock and some is made into hay, weather permitting. This area was counted with the legume-rich grassland at a corrected value, rather than as semi-natural, but with ongoing appropriate management this can change in future.
A total of 7.8% of the farm is made up of a variety of well-established semi-natural habitats. The main area of productive but also wildlife-friendly grassland management contributed significantly, bringing the total for the farm to around 23%. Research has shown that if between 10% and 20% of farmland can be managed in a diversity of high-quality habitats, it will provide a major buffer to the negative effects caused by increasing agricultural productivity.

Nature-friendly Argoed

‘In the past, wildlife was a by-product of farming, but farmers now have to make a choice of how nature-friendly they want to be.’

Argoed highlights that despite the immense pressures in dairying, we still have wildlife-friendly systems to champion. We need future agricultural policy to better support farmland habitats and nature-friendly practices for the many public goods they provide and help farming deliver them at scale. But perhaps the most important way we can support nature-positive food producers like Stuart is to buy their produce, giving confidence for more farmers to do similar, and drive the creation of landscapes where farmland wildlife can thrive.

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Fair To Nature habitat requirements

All Fair to Nature farms manage at least 10% of their farmed area in a range of wildlife habitats based on the following specifications:

• Existing wildlife habitats – including native woodland planted on farmland since 1992, semi-natural grassland, heathland and other high nature value habitats – no minimum (contributes towards the 10%)

• Flower-rich habitats – minimum 4%

• Seed-rich habitats – minimum 2% (not obligatory on farms with less than 10% cropped land)

• Wildlife-rich field boundaries and margins – minimum 1%

• Wet features – one feature per 100ha, average size 25m2 (area contributes towards the 10%)

These specifications are based on the Farm Wildlife partnership’s key actions for farmland wildlife. Several habitats have a conversion factor since the wildlife benefits, although positive, are lower per hectare than semi-natural habitats or habitats created primarily for nature conservation.

Case Study: British dung beetles – here to help

Author: Ceri Watkins, Co-Founder of Dung beetle UK Mapping Project

Species: Dung beetles

Why is farmland important for these species?

There are approximately 60 species of dung beetle in the UK. They are not the ‘ball rollers’ seen in warmer countries and on TV, instead they live inside the dung pile (dwellers) or in the soil beneath it (tunnellers). Livestock grazing provides much of the dung required for the survival of these beetles, although other animals such deer and badgers also contribute. Some species are rather specialised and require exacting conditions. For example, Volinus sticticus prefers horse or sheep dung in the shade and Onthophagus joannae is a sun loving beetle that favours sheep dung on light soils. Others are less fussy and have few specific requirements.

It is possible to find dung beetles at work all year round. Several species are winter active, although the vast majority are found in the spring, summer and autumn. Given the right conditions, dung beetles can decimate a pile of horse poo or a cow pat in just a couple of days.

Volinus sticticus (c) Katherine Child  

Onthophagus joannae (c) Katherine Child

How do dung beetles benefit farms?

Dung beetles provide a wide range of ecosystem services that help to maintain healthy pastures and soils. These include the most obvious, the consumption of dung thereby removing it from the fields thus reducing pasture fouling, but also some that you may not have considered. As the beetles tunnel down through the soil, burying the dung for breeding purposes, essential nutrients are recycled within the soil profile. This improves grass growth and provides a direct benefit to grazing animals. The larger species such as the Minotaur beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus) can tunnel a metre or more, this action breaks up the ground and improves drainage, especially useful on clay soils.

In addition, dung beetles also reduce nuisance fly populations by transporting phoretic mites that eat fly eggs and help control intestinal parasites by reducing dung suitability for worm larvae. The beetles are also an important food source for many other farmland favourites such as bats and birds.

Onthophagus similis with phoretic mites (c) Ceri Watkins

Habitat management

Continuity of the dung supply and diversity of habitat are key factors in supporting a diverse range of dung beetle species on the farm. If possible, maintain some outdoor grazing year-round, even if only a few animals. Planting a group of trees and grazing within them will provide variety of forage and shelter for livestock and support the shade loving dung beetles too.

Broad spectrum livestock wormers such as avermectin are detrimental to beneficial dung invertebrates. These chemicals are excreted in the dung for many weeks after treatment and a range of lethal and sub-lethal effects occur depending on the concentration. Such effects include slowing beetle larvae development, reducing the size attained at adulthood and reduced breeding capacity.

Cutting down the use of chemicals on the farm with a sustainable worm control policy that includes monitoring with faecal egg counts will help. Treating animals only when necessary will save money and also slow the rate of anthelmintic resistance. As a natural alternative in a rotational system, consider using herbal leys. Sainfoin, birdsfoot trefoil and chicory all have anthelmintic properties. The latter has been shown to reduce worm burden in sheep by as much as 40%. In permanent grasslands, mixing up cattle and sheep grazing works by reducing the stocking density of the parasite host – cattle and sheep worms are different species.

Benefits

Supporting dung beetles on your farm not only helps keep pasture and livestock healthy, it also represents good economic sense. It has been estimated that dung beetles save the UK cattle industry £367 million per annum through the provision of ecosystem services (Beynon et al., 2015). So, it really does pay to look after these useful little creatures.

For further information and dung beetle identification resources, please visit the Dung beetle UK Mapping Project website or get in touch via email or twitter.

Case Study: Bare ground for butterflies and moths

Author: Tim Pryor-Lettley
Farm: Matterley Estate, Hampshire

Matterley is a 2400 acre mixed farm with 200 dairy cattle and 1100 acres of arable including wheat, barley and oilseed rape. The estate ownership and farm management has been in the Bruce family for three generations. Peveril Bruce is a member of the Winchester Downs Farm Cluster group. The farm business is diverse and the estate supports a large music festival each year, motorcross, tank driving, cross country runs, cycling events and a large game shoot.  The farm has been in Higher Level Stewardship since 2014.

Aims:

As part of the Section 106 agreement for continuing to run the Boomtown music festival at the site, a decision was made to create a butterfly scrape to establish a breeding area for native Lepidoptera such as the small blue butterfly and the striped lychnis moth. This opportunity arose from a longstanding relationship with Jayne Chapman at Butterfly Conservation. The way in which the work was delivered in partnership with Jayne demonstrates the importance of good relationships and local conservation officers.

Creating the butterfly scrape. Image (c) Jayne Champan, Butterfly Conservation

Management:

The location and size of the butterfly scrape was determined by the local authority. Although when we undertook a site visit with Jayne, she suggested an alternative and more suitable location. We also agreed to make the scrape significantly bigger than the specification. The field earmarked for the scrape is north facing. The optimum location for a butterfly scrape is a warm south-facing slope. To remedy the aspect of the field we scraped the topsoil down to the bare chalk and banked up the soil on the bottom to create a level or near south-facing part to the bank. The work was undertaken in October 2017 and will be seeded by South Downs National Park Authority with a mix of kidney vetch, rock rose, dark mullein, knapweed, scabious and bird’s-foot trefoil with local provenance seed.

In terms of effort, the 20m x 5m scrape took about half a day to create and the ongoing management will be about an hour a year. This work will involve ensuring that grasses and weeds don’t encroach or dominate the scrape. This will be controlled using a herbicide around the edge and spot treatment where necessary.

Small blue butterfly. Image (c) Andrew Cooper, Butterfly Conservation

Achievements:

It’s too soon to say whether or not the bank has worked as it is yet to be seeded. We hope that it becomes home to breeding populations of the target species. However the continued benefits from having a great working relationship with the Butterfly Conservation officer are tangible. Jayne has helped steer us to think differently about lots of activities on the estate. These include teaching us how useful even a small amount of bare chalk is for creating habitat and that the areas around the farm where we expose the chalk do not need to be 'tidied up.' We now understand that disturbance (even just a very small amount) is a key part of sustaining biodiversity. We now look at our activities quite differently.

Working with Butterfly Conservation has also led us to thinking about different activities in a more pro-biodiversity way. An example is the creation of a new drinking water reservoir that will be landscaped to help encourage a variety of species. Jayne has given us such friendly, positive and practical advice and has provided leaflets to educate us about the importance of different species.

Creating the butterfly scrape. Image (c) Jayne Chapman, Butterfly Conservation

Advice for other farmers:

It’s really easy to do something very small that results in big, positive impacts. Building a relationship with a local conservation officer can help with many areas of the farm management. They aren’t scary and they do understand the needs of the business whilst offering practical ideas on how to tweak things so that more benefits for farm wildlife can be created.

For more information on the striped lychnis moth and the small blue butterfly use these Butterfly Conservation species factsheets.

Header image: Striped lychnis larva (c) Andy Foster