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 scale, 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: Managing Farmland for Grey Long-eared Bats

Author: Craig Dunton, Grey long-eared bat Project Officer, Bat Conservation Trust

Species: Grey Long-eared bat:

© Craig Dunton/www.bats.org.uk

 

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, Somerset, Hampshire, Isle of Wight and Sussex) and there are only 9 known maternity colonies; meaning that this species is on the brink of extinction in this country. Currently, work is being carried out to conserve this species as part of 'Back from the Brink' – a Heritage Lottery funded conservation project aiming to save 20 species from extinction. https://naturebftb.co.uk/

Farmland is vitally important to all bat species. 70% of land in the UK is used for agriculture, so for very mobile species that utilise the whole landscape, farming practices can have significant impacts on bat populations. Some bat species are more resilient than others, but for those that have very low populations, are particularly sensitive to light and disturbance, and have very specific habitat requirements, there are significant threats to their survival.

Like all bats, the grey long-eared bat needs some key elements throughout its range in order to survive and thrive.

Roosts: Bats utilise a wide variety of structures to roost in, as their requirements change throughout the year. Roosts are needed for different activities – hibernation roosts, maternity roosts, night feeding roosts (for some bats) – these are all needed at different times of the year, and different bat species choose different structures for different activities.

Many bats hibernate underground, using caves, mines, cellars and tunnels that have a cool and constant temperature that bats need to hibernate. Many farms have these types of features, so it is important to be aware of their importance for bats. Some bats roost in a variety of different tree features; cracks, splits, woodpecker holes, loose bark – so it is important to retain trees that have ‘interesting’ features.

Grey long-eared bats are mostly associated with man-made roosts – usually the roof spaces of large, traditional, stone buildings with slate roofs. There are some records of them using caves and rock crevices, but no records of them using bat boxes in England.

Many buildings on farms can provide important roosts for grey long-eared bats, particularly large stone buildings with slate roofs and large, open roof voids. These can provide vital maternity roosts, temporary day and night roosts and opportunities for hibernation. As all bat species are protected, if you are planning to carry out any work that might impact bats or their roosts, the National Bat Helpline will point you in the right direction, please email enquiries@bats.org.uk

Foraging sites: As with roosts, different species of bats have different types of habitats that they favour for foraging. All UK bat species are insectivores, and depending on their size, flight habits and other physical adaptations, different species need different insect prey and therefore different habitats for foraging in. Greater horseshoe bats are large bats and so favour large prey, particularly around the maternity period. Cockchafers and dung beetles are their food of choice. Daubenton’s bats are often seen foraging over water, trawling insects from the surface of the water with their specially adapted, large hairy feet.

© Craig Dunton/www.bats.org.uk

Grey long-eared bats have a close association with unimproved lowland grassland and riparian (wet) habitats such as meadows and marshes.

Managing permanent pasture more extensively with very low or no inputs will benefit grey long-eared bat populations, offering more opportunities for invertebrates including the moths and craneflies that grey long-eared bats favour. Managing land to maintain or increase species diversity (more flowering plants) as well as structural diversity (a range in sward height), will give insects food and shelter resources. If possible, consider transitioning land back to hay meadow management as opposed to silage production, as this allows insects and plants to complete life cycles and thrive.

In terms of cultivated land, increase pollen and nectar plots and wildflower margins, and manage by cutting or grazing to maintain plant diversity. These areas alongside trees and tall hedgerows have proven benefits for some bat species. Minimise pesticide use and consider crops that contain lots of flowering plants such as herbal leys.  Within arable land, conservation headlands or low input cereals can be beneficial if management results in increased invertebrate numbers. These are all ways of increasing foraging opportunities on less productive areas of land for grey long-eared (and other) bats.

Farming organically has many advantages, including huge benefits to biodiversity, natural resource protection and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Following organic principles should be considered if aiming to encourage bats and other biodiversity.

Connectivity: For so much of our wildlife, good habitat connectivity is critically important. Linear features in the landscape such as hedgerows, watercourses and ditches, enable different species to flow freely through the landscape, enabling opportunities for feeding, interacting and breeding. For bats, good connectivity is vital, as many bats use linear features to navigate through the landscape, using their echolocation to move from roosting sites to foraging sites. When these features are well managed, they can also provide foraging opportunities as well as providing obvious features to allow free movement. Extensive hedgerow management (2-3 year cutting cycle) allows hedgerow plants to flower and fruit, providing vital resources for insects. Buffer strips along streams and rivers not only provides increased opportunities for foraging, but can also protect watercourses from nutrient and pesticide run off, protecting aquatic flora and fauna.

For more information on land management for grey long-eared bats contact Craig Dunton (Grey long-eared bat project officer) on cdunton@bats.org.uk