Case Study: Delivering for yellowhammers in Northern Ireland

Author: Robert Maxwell
Farm: Ballyhornan, Down

Aims:

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.

Management:

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.

Achievements:

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.

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

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 beans and oil seed rape. Because of my heavy soils we thought this combination would be ideal for using ground for two full cropping years, allowing me to follow it with another winter established crop and avoiding the need for trying to get a crop going in the spring. I worked with Niki Williamson of the RSPB, who gives free nature-friendly farming advice in the Fens area, to design the combination.

Management:

I plant a winter wheat crop as normal, leaving a headland as a conservation headland. This receives limited fertiliser, no insecticides after 15 March, and I apply limited fungicide (only when absolutely necessary to stop crop failure). This provides insect-rich habitat all summer, helping birds like grey partridges and corn buntings. The headland is left unharvested the following autumn, so provides winter seed food as well.

From 21 March, I cultivate the headland by ploughing or discing to form a cultivated margin. Problems with working the heavy soil at this time are not so important as I am trying to create a reasonably fine fallow, but not required to create a seedbed to establish a mix or a crop.

If there is blackgrass residue once I’ve cultivated I use a herbicide to control it. That needs doing as soon as cultivation is completed, to give as long a window as possible to allow the intended weeds to grow on the plot, forming cover and food sources for wildlife.

On my land there is no rare arable flora! But the plants that do grow will flower and set seed in time for turtle doves arriving back on the farm in late April, providing a much needed food source. It also provides a fallow, weedy area for other insects and birds to use during the summer months.

From 31 July I spray off the area to clean it up and cultivate it in time to follow it with autumn sowing.

In any one year there are two areas like this on the farm, one in each option. They are rotated around the farm to keep the weed burden in check.

Achievements:

This year we followed the cultivated margin with oil seed rape and I found that this was the best bit of rape in the field. It’s cleaner because of the seedbed preparation and it’s established better because there are less slugs where there are no stubbles.

On my soils blackgrass is an issue, and would normally make things like conservation headlands and summer fallows a no-no. However this management has not increased my weed burden any worse than the rest of the farmed field. There are two opportunities to cultivate the option and bury the blackgrass, one in March and one in July. There is also nearly 2 months across August and September that can be used to germinate weeds and spray them off to create stale seed beds before drilling, giving you plenty of opportunities to address blackgrass problems.

The seed from the unharvested headlands was being depleted by pigeons and crows really early, so I had to put out deterrents to make sure it lasted further into the winter for the smaller birds we were trying to target. In the end there were still big flocks of birds in it right up until March, finding something to eat. I also have other wild bird seed mixes on the farm, which are designed to retain seed through the winter months to make sure there’s a winter-long food source.

We noted that in shaded areas, wheat tended to stay in the ear and germinate there, making it inaccessible to birds. Although it’s clearly beneficial to site it near a hedge for birds to hop in and out, I think you need to avoid the north side of tall hedges or woodland s to avoid loss of seed in this way.

The plots are rotated around the farm, so this year it will be sited in a different place. The unharvested headland will be near woodland rather than hedge. Having observed it this winter, I now wonder if it will be as popular without the hedge for the birds to use as a base to feed from. Otherwise I am very happy with the option as it stands. It fits in well with our system and delivers what we wanted for wildlife.

I found the options very easy to manage. It needs an extra operation in March to create the cultivated margin but nothing onerous.

I do what it takes to make the margin work in terms of balancing wildlife benefits with weed control. Some years it takes more, sometimes less. Although I haven’t done the detailed costings, I’m confident it balances out overall and does not leave me out of pocket.

The hedge alongside the option was teeming with yellowhammers, corn buntings, reed buntings and sparrows for as long as there was seed left in the headland. There were still birds using it when I came to cultivate it in March. There are breeding turtle doves on the farm, which I hope would benefit from the early seed source the cultivated margin provides. I saw loads of starlings and blackbirds rummaging around in spring and summer, which must show how many insects there are in there.

You can also see areas where partridge have used the fallow as a sunbathing/dusting area.

It adds another feature to the farm that wouldn’t usually be there. It’s not common to find fallow areas on heavy land, so this adds to the diversity of our system.

It’s a simple straightforward combination option that has worked well for me in my farming system.

Case Study: A farmland bird package on limestone soils

Author: Jeff Platts
Farm: Hazelmere Farm, Creswell, Derbyshire

Aims:

To provide summer insect food and seed food over winter for seed-eating birds, particularly targeting grey partridges and tree sparrows, and to provide suitable nesting habitat for lapwings on the arable land.

Management:

Hazelmere farm (270 acres) has been in the family for over 75 years, and is leased from Chatsworth Estates. I took the decision to leave dairying five years ago, and now the business concentrates on arable, with a livery and rural skills school on site.

Wild bird seed mix plots

To provide winter food for the seed eating birds on his land, I have included several plots of wild bird seed mix which have done very well on the free-draining, limestone based soil. The mix includes phacelia, kale, quinoa, millet and triticale with a handful of sunflowers also thrown in. The wild bird seed mix is re-established every other year and the land is prepared and drilled as if it is a normal crop. I occasionally get an infestation of flea beetle on the kale so a pesticide is used. A small amount of fertiliser is added to maintain nitrogen levels. The plots where the wild bird seed mix have been established were chosen to complement the adjacent land use such as hedges and margins with recognised bird populations.

The wild bird seed mixes have worked so well, I’m looking at re-sowing only one of them this year with the possibility of adding perhaps an additional row of quinoa or millet alongside another of the plots. The kale is showing through in this second year along with a reasonable amount of fat-hen which will also provide a good seed source.

Fallow plots

I have also included rotational fallow plots - it has proved very successful in encouraging lapwings to breed on the farm and I estimate there are slightly more than 20 breeding pairs. I’ve also seen flocks of up to 80 lapwings using the plots in the late summer.

Across the farm there are 51ha left as over-wintered stubbles after a spring cereal and, on average, 10ha are then sprayed off at the end of March and left as fallow after running over them with a light disc to break up the surface.

In the autumn, as long as there is no major weed cover showing, a single run with the cultivator or a light set of discs creates a suitable till and the cereal is then drilled.

There have been some issues with sterile brome on the fallow plot. After discussion with Natural England, the plot was left fallow all year including over winter and then cleaned up with a stale seed bed with a supplementary treatment with Roundup before being sown with another spring cereal this year.

Flower-rich margins

I’m currently looking at adding some additional floristically enhanced margins for grey partridge around some fields to increase foraging and breeding habitat. This will also benefit a wide range of insects, and other birds on the farm which feed their chicks on insects.

Achievements

Collectively, the wild bird seed mixtures, floristically-enhanced margins and fallow plots will provide an ideal package for farmland birds, giving the key requirements of winter seed food, summer insect food and in-field nesting habitat for ground-nesting birds, respectively.

The birds on the farm were surveyed in 2009 as part of the RSPB’s Volunteer & Farmer Alliance scheme. The survey picked up nine red list species of high conservation concern, including grey partridges and lapwings, and thirteen bird species of medium conservation concern, including bullfinches and reed buntings.

Of these, the density of lapwings recorded on the farm during the summer and autumn are testament to the benefits of fallow plots to this species with the number of lapwings breeding on the farm having increased since the adoption of this measure. It also provides a winter food source for those lapwings which over-winter in the area.

A large flock of around thirty tree sparrows were seen feeding on one block of wild bird seed mix and two of the blocks were sheltering coveys of grey partridge last autumn.

The wild bird seed mix plots are also magnets for hundreds of invertebrates including bees and butterflies.

The floristically enhanced margins will plug the final gap in farmland bird requirements by ensuring that there are insect-rich foraging areas.