As the days continue to shorten, temperatures drop and the morning frosts start to appear, the value of autumnal vegetation for wildlife should not be underestimated.
In addition to creating the striking frost-bitten scenery in autumn and winter, allowing tussocky grass and wildflower seed heads to remain uncut through winter, in field margins, along tracks and roadside verges, and in gardens, will provide food and shelter for invertebrates and other wildlife.
The remaining seed heads of the summer flushes of wildflowers such as willow herbs, thistles and even dandelions supply food for goldfinches, linnets and other seed eating birds and shelter for invertebrates. Ladybirds and earwigs may shelter in large wildflowers seed heads.
Tall tussocky grass provides shelter for many overwintering invertebrates, and spiders construct their webs between long fronds that collect water droplets in the early morning mists. Grass tussocks may also hide ‘runs’ where mice and voles move from place to place protected by the dense vegetation above. Carder bee queens, emerging from hibernation, will search for nesting sites at the base of grass tussocks in spring.
Autumn is a great time to cut areas of long grass, including wildflowers meadows, and to remove the cuttings to help wildflowers to thrive the following year which in turn produce nectar and pollen to feed our valuable pollinators. But leaving leaving some patches of long tussocky grass and tall wildflower seed heads back then has now provided food and shelter in hardest months and nesting opportunities next spring.
Additional information on managing farmland for pollinators is available from:
Author: Nida Al-Fulaij, Grants Manager, People’s Trust for Endangered Species
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.