The Nature Friendly Farming Network is a rapidly growing group of farmers who have come together to champion a way of farming that is sustainable and good for wildlife. Their aim is to raise awareness of nature friendly farming, share knowledge and input into better policies for food and farming. The Network is free to join and is open to farmers and members of the public alike.

Here, representatives from the NFFN tell us why nature is good for business…

Yellowhammer at Hope Farm - business
Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella, large flock returning to hedgerow after feeding on the ground, RSPB Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire, February

Nature is good for business and essential for our future. There is increasing recognition in financial investment and business communities that environmental production practices are essential for robust supply chains – in short, to ensure we have food on the table. The Nature Friendly Farmers Network believes that the farming industry has a moral responsibility to address the damage caused to the natural world by agriculture, and that only by adopting sustainable nature friendly practices can future productive capacity be secured.

Nature friendly farming is an umbrella term to describe farming systems and practices that enhance and protect biodiversity and contribute to tackling climate change alongside food production. Nature friendly farming is not only better for nature but also ensures that our land remains productive, ensuring we can go on producing food forever. Regenerating our soils, improving our air and water quality, and protecting the UK from flooding are essential for a sustainable and profitable farming sector and healthy society.

Many farmers are already playing an incredible role in helping wildlife flourish on their farms – we believe that they should be better supported and rewarded by the market for their good work.

Ecosystem resilience is economic resilience

A healthy farmland ecosystem means a healthy bottom line.

  • Restoring soils to fertility is vital for food production as well as nature and climate: without healthy productive soils, our food system will fail and with it many businesses.
  • Thriving populations of pollinators and beneficial insects mean that crops are more productive and natural pest management is at its most effective.
  • Natural flood management is essential to mitigate economic shocks to the food system and wider economy – good management of our uplands and watercourses by restoring natural processes means our landscapes can soak up and slow down the flow of water.
  • Functioning watercourses, wetlands and floodplains also provide drought resilience, allowing the landscape to naturally store water essential for nature and food production in dry periods.
  • Disease resilience is also a benefit of nature friendly farming – extensive, low density livestock who spend time roaming are healthier are less likely to spread disease compared to tightly packed factory systems.
Earthworms - business
Earthworms are an indicator of soil health

Business benefits of nature friendly systems

In addition to the resilience and decreased risk outlined above farm businesses can benefit economically by adopting more nature friendly production practices. For example:

  • Better business planning can reduce costs and boost nature and sustainability. A recent report found that reducing stocking levels on upland farms in line with the carrying capacity of the land can reduce overheads and allowing the business to take advantage of agri-environment funds resulting in an overall increased profitability.[1]
  • Diverse income streams – nature friendly farms can offer more products to consumers, through a diverse farmed landscape e.g. agroforestry products, legumes, and ecotourism experiences.
  • Premium, in-demand products – consumers are rapidly becoming aware of the climate and environmental impacts of the foods they buy. Demand for local, nature friendly products that consumers have confidence in will only increase.

Corporate social and environmental responsibility (CSER)

In response to the recognition of supply chain and reputational risk associated with poor practice in relation to the nature and climate emergencies, businesses are increasingly seeking ways to manage these risks and demonstrate good practice. This can be seen by the rapid uptake of Fairtrade products, growing base of ‘B Corps’, and other schemes such as Marks and Spencer’s Plan A.

Through robust certification and labelling schemes, the provision of reliably nature friendly produce can reassure consumers of high environmental standards, creating a loyal consumer base. These labels will foster trust and support resilient brands, consequently enabling profitable economic models into the future.

Membership of such schemes can provide a business advantage for producers, but this relies on eliminating unsustainable practices which may undercut them.

What are the NFFN recommending?

NFFN welcome the increased recognition of farmers’ role in tackling the ecological and climate crises. We ask the government to acknowledge the vital role that nature friendly farming has in a sustainable economy by:

  • Ensuring that there are sufficient funds to support farmers in their transition to nature friendly systems and continuing to reward public goods production.
  • Guaranteeing long-term funding and rewarding practices which go beyond the regulatory baseline.
  • Enforcing regulatory baselines to ensure responsible producers are not undermined by rogue operators.

[1] Hill Farm Profitability Report (2019) https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/news/new-report-shows-nature-friendly-hill-farms-can-be-more-profitable


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CG Blog

Farm Manager of the RSPB’s Hope Farm, Georgie Bray sees great benefits in encouraging a range of flower-rich habitats on farmland, particularly as they can help with natural pest control…

Flowers are a fundamental part of a sustainable farming system. Without flowers, the ability of biodiversity to thrive and in turn help us grow food is very limited. We need connected flower-rich habitats to help reverse the ongoing decline in biodiversity, and we need a stable ecosystem for our food security. Surely, though, we have seen declining biodiversity over the last 50 years, but consistently higher yields? Well, no. When you delve deeper, the system that has been manufactured to fight and control nature is starting to lose, and nature is losing too. This isn’t to say that all wildlife and highly productive farming systems can exist in the same space, nor that flowers are the silver bullet to the issue. However, wildlife and farming can be much more complementary than the current antagonistic state, and providing flowering resources is a fundamental cog in this change in approach.

Resistance is an increasing issue among farmers using insecticides, and non-target effects are a big issue for everyone. Short term, you can resort to agro-chemical pest control measures without nature’s help, but at the expense of removing the beneficial organisms that pollinate our crops, control the pests naturally and maintain our soils. Rather than using chemicals to control pests and diseases, we need to instead give our beneficial insects every opportunity to survive.

Ladybird larva, a vociferous devourer of aphids. Photo credit: Shelley Abbott

Thankfully, lots of farmers are already invested in this approach, looking after field boundaries and planting flowers to help biodiversity help ourselves. This means help both in terms of growing crops and the sheer joy of having a farm full of life. We aren’t expected to take land out of production, unpaid, to provide pollinator and beneficial insect resources throughout the farm. There are some good options in Countryside Stewardship Schemes that allow farmers to use the marginal areas of land in awkward corners or field boundaries. In this way, you create a network of pit-stops and fuel stations for the invertebrates that we want to feed on the farm. In future schemes, it’s a key aim for us to ensure that the provision of such habitats is supported in an even bigger way. There are a growing number of farmers out there, including us at Hope Farm, that use the invertebrates relying on these habitats for the entirety of the insect pest control. In many cases, whilst yields haven’t necessarily increased, they have not significantly declined, whilst costs of production have been reduced, and sustainable profits have gone up.

To put a wildflower margin on the farm takes a lot of preparation, but once in place, it does not take any more effort to maintain than a grassland meadow. Instead of being paid for the hay, though, the scheme pays farmers a guaranteed £539/ha/yr – that’s slightly more than your average hay meadow crop. A few more business savvy farmers have also been able to sell hay from these margins as a bonus. These areas provide a network of flowering resources that look after the hoverflies, butterflies, bees, and many others that help pollinate crops. These margins also provide for pest controlling insects like the beetles and wasps across the farm.

Wildlife corridor as part of ASSIST project with CEH and Rothamsted - flower power
Wildflower corridor in the ASSIST project at Hope Farm, building up the connectivity of pollinator areas throughout the field. Photo credit: Georgie Bray

Current research suggests that where you have more margins, you will have better natural pest control and better pollination too. At Hope Farm, we are taking part in a project called ASSIST, run by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology and Rothamsted. Here, we have a network of wildflower corridors, every 90m through the field, to fit with the sprayer boom. The aim is to see if we can get the benefits of this nature-boosting approach across the whole field, rather than just near the field boundary where traditional margins are planted.

Without planting margins up with flower mixes, across the whole farm, there are still lots of other ways we can increase the connectivity of our flower-rich habitats. Early season blackthorn flowers in our hedgerows are full of invertebrates in March and early April, when little else is in flower. In May time, the Hawthorn, Campions, Ground Ivy, and Yellow Rattle are species that stick in my mind as brightening the hedgerows. It was fantastic to see just how many hoverflies, wasps, and strange flying creatures that I hadn’t a hope in identifying were in a small patch of hawthorn this week – and to think, they are going to control my aphids trying to eat the beans next door! With a diversity of flowers comes a diversity of invertebrates that use them, and a more sustainable ecosystem. A well-managed and diverse hedge can go a long way towards providing flowering resources among all the other benefits for wildlife.

Blackthorn - flower power
Blackthorn in flower in March after leaving it uncut for two consecutive years. Flower buds form on older wood so annual trimming reduces flowering potential. Photo credit: Georgie Bray

Perhaps an unsung hero in the provision of flowering resources is just to see what is already waiting to germinate in the soil. Chalkland is well known to harbour some amazing seeds, ready to grow in cultivated bare ground. Even on our heavy clay soils of Cambridgeshire, though, we get some incredible results by cultivating an area and leaving it until the next year, and paid £532/ha for the privilege too. You do have to pick and choose these areas, with the knowledge that some parts of the farm would be the perfect place to grow bristly oxtongue and blackgrass and not much else. There are some areas though, that we’ve found are full of wild arable plants, and important resources, however common the plants are.

Annual cultivated natural regen - flower power
Cultivated area established for arable plants full of self-seeded flowering resources. Photo credit: Georgie Bray

Last year, a winter bird seed mix was cultivated in spring, and once drilled, came to next to nothing except for a few thistles. That was unfortunate, and we had to mow some parts to keep these thistles from setting seed. A silver lining to this is that those mown areas are now full of Red Dead Nettle, Forget-me-not, Shepherds’ Purse, amongst a few others in the picture above. We keep this option rotating around the farm where you can use it as a rest year between winter seed mixes. This allows any compaction to be cultivated out and weathered for a year, allowing the arable plants to grow, before bringing back into winter seed mix options. It’s also very low input option so long as you know the weedy areas to be careful of.

As we progress to summer and then autumn, flowering resources will continue to be important for wildlife on the farm. Hedgerows will carry on fulfilling their job with dog rose and other species coming into flower, followed by bramble late season and, last but not least, the much underrated ivy to feed queen bees before hibernation. By incorporating enough flowering plants like buckwheat and phacelia in our winter bird seed mixes, they help to keep pollinators well fed as well. A couple of years ago on the farm, we were seeing queen bumblebees and the late white butterfly species making the best use of this resource in October and even early November. Birdsfoot trefoil in flower margins is a great one too. Under the prescription for these margins in CSS, a mow mid-season helps to keep that half of the margin flowering well into September.

Birdsfoot Trefoil - flower power
Birdsfoot Trefoil

Flowers are a great thing for wildlife and connected habitats are important for nature as a whole. It still grates on the brain a little, though, when I hear that farmland can’t be perfect for both wildlife and profitable agriculture. The two are interdependent aside from the income directly from CSS, and the provision of habitats will be key to ensuring they work together. There are features on highly productive farmland landscapes that lend themselves so well to the provision of flower-rich resources, probably better than these marginal areas would serve to grow a questionably profitable crop. Farmland takes up three-quarters of the UK’s land use. If we are to forget the importance of all these habitats, we are missing big opportunities for restoring biodiversity on a massive scale, and also missing the opportunity to grow crops in a way that looks after our food security for the long term.

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CG Blog

Shelley Abbott, Fair to Nature Facilitator, is taking part in No Mow May….

It’s May! While many of us have had to put our normal lives on pause, the natural world is continuing to spring into life. Birds are nesting – some are even on their second brood, bees and butterflies are flitting around the blossom, fox cubs are playing in fields and gardens, and hedgehogs are keeping their babies hidden away.

I don’t know about you, but the natural world is really sustaining me at the moment. I’m extremely lucky to have a garden, only a small one, but it’s a little patch where I can do my best to provide food and shelter for the wildlife that visits.

I have a lawn and up until last year it would be cut fairly regularly throughout the growing season. There were small areas that were left to grow longer but much of the grass was quite short. Last year, though, I decided to give my mower a rest and take part in the wildflower charity, Plantlife’s, No Mow May. The mower didn’t see the light of day at all during May. It was very satisfying to see the flowers flourish. The lawn was covered in buttercups, daisies, dandelions, self-heal, and red and white clover. The bees, butterflies, and hoverflies loved it!

May came and went and the mower didn’t leave the shed. June passed by and still the mower sat idle. At the beginning of July, I cut a path through the now quite long grass so I could access the washing line without getting soaked shoes. The long patches of grass either side of that path linked to the flower beds and the apple tree, making little wildlife corridors.

My mower is going to stay in the shed again this May. The lawn has had a cut this year, but large patches of dandelions and daisies have been left. At the end of May, I will be taking part in Plantlife’s Every Flower Counts, a bit of citizen science, and counting the flowers in my lawn. Results from this study have shown that the most common flowers in lawns are daisies, clover and self-heal, although over 200 species were found to be flowering in unmown lawns. A nectar score from last years results showed that lawn flowers in the survey combined produced a colossal 23kg of nectar sugar per day, enough to support 2.1 million honeybees.

Daisies (Bellis perennis) are hardy flowers and will withstand mowing and trampling. It is a valuable food source for bumblebees, honeybees and hoverflies. The bright, cheerful flowers open up in the sun and stay closed on darker days.

A close up of a yellow flower

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Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinalis) are an important early source of pollen and nectar for pollinators and other invertebrates, when there is very little else flowering. Its name is derived from the French ‘dent de lion’ – tooth of lion – because the deeply serrated leaves were thought to resemble teeth in a lion’s jaw. Some species of moth, such as the Garden Tiger, use Dandelion as a caterpillar food plant.

Fair to Nature farmers help pollinators by sowing wildflower areas. Sometimes these are wide strips down the edges of fields. Sometimes they are large areas or whole fields. Different wildflower species are sown to appeal to as broad a range of wildlife as possible. Research has shown that encouraging certain invertebrates, like hoverflies and ladybirds, can be beneficial to the crops as they eat some crop pests. We can also benefit from this in our gardens!

Who will join me in #NoMowMay? We’d love to see photos of your lawn on our Fair to Nature Facebook page! #natureonmydoorstep

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CG Blog

Kirsty Brannan, Farm Conservation Adviser at Oakbank Game & Conservation considers the changes coming in farm wildlife conservation and how land managers can prepare.

At the time of writing, the world is rightly focused on urgent actions to minimise the terrible impact of COVID-19 on individuals, communities and nations. British farmers are emerging from one of wettest winters in recent memory, and the framework of laws and processes guiding how we care for land and produce safe food is in a state of political transition.

drilling spring barley - wildlife

What – then – should we focus on?

Consider…
We all have many roles in life. Whether you are part of the Food Army diligently feeding the nation, a custodian of the countryside, a parent, a child – each of us is first a human. So however you are feeling amid the current health emergency, whatever you need to do to look after yourself, your loved ones, and animals and plants in your care, do it well, and take whatever time is needed to do so. This is the first priority.

When that is in hand, we must then remember to consider the future, and set aside some time to develop long term goals and plans for the farm business.

As we know, the Government plans to reduce the Basic Payment Scheme from next year. The replacement payment scheme, the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is due to be launched from 2024, with payments made for ‘public goods’. Public goods are goods or services that benefit people, but for which there is currently no economic market. ELMS intends to pay for goods such as clean water, thriving wildlife, enhanced landscapes and measures to minimise the impact of climate change.

Wildflowers web slider - wildlife

You can’t provide public goods unless you first have natural capital – the ‘stuff’ that nature gives us for free, such as soil, water, air and species. ELMS is likely to take a natural capital approach to payments. At the moment, agri-environment schemes pay largely on the basis of income foregone; a natural capital-based payment arrangement could therefore look very different to schemes we’ve had so far.

Reach out…

Once you know what direction you want to take, think about the individuals or organisations who could be in a position to support you.

If ELMS payments are based on provision of public goods, do you already know what public goods your land is providing, where and possibly how much? Take some simple steps now to start to identify what natural capital you’ve got.
• Look up MAGIC maps online and check for key habitats.
• If you’ve got flower-rich grasslands or wetlands with breeding waders, document them and get them appropriately mapped by Natural England.
• Work with specialists (professional or volunteers) to identify some of the species your farm supports.

It’s important to note that recording wildlife habitats need not mean making that information available to the public. However, national inventories of Priority Habitat are already being used by national projects to make important decisions – and poor data definitely risks making very poor decisions!

wildlife
Lapwing. Image credit: Simon Tonkin

Step-wise progress…
You might not be in a position right away to progress the way you’d like to. But with innovative funding schemes emerging all the time, it’s a good idea to have a ready made ‘wish list’ of projects or equipment that you’d like to take forward if and when possible. Keep an eye out for ‘Payments for Ecosystem Services’ schemes by private businesses and ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ by Local Planning Authorities and evaluate them carefully.

Countryside Stewardship is available to new applicants until 2023. If you don’t already have a Stewardship agreement, it can be a useful stepping-stone towards ELMS, as well as supporting measures required by certification initiatives such as Fair to Nature. And those in Countryside Stewardship will be able to transfer directly into ELMS in future if they wish to.

You can use Countryside Stewardship to build your natural capital ahead of ELMS coming online. For example, restoring unimproved grasslands, wetlands and hedgerows. All the habitat components required by Fair to Nature are also supported – for example, buffer strips (e.g. SW1 at £353/ha) and grassland field corners (GS1 at £365/ha), flower-rich areas (AB8 at £539/ha) and herbal leys (GS4 at £309/ha), winter bird food (AB9 at £640/ha) and seed-set ryegrass (GS3 at £331/ha)

Wild Bird Food habitat and bee - wildlife

Winter cover crops can be a very effective way of improving the health of your soil, with associated benefits for water storage and drainage. Stewardship offers £114 per hectare for them. Struggling with blackgrass or need an alternative break to oilseed rape? It’s worth looking at the two-year sown legume fallow option which is worth £522 per hectare. There are also capital grants to fence livestock out of hedges, woods or watercourses, and – depending on where you are – you may be eligible for capital grants to resurface muddy gateways, provide hard-standing livestock troughs and even sprayer washdown areas and biofilters.

In a time of change, it can be easy to be swept away. Stay grounded and choose your own course. And remember that you never have to journey alone.


Kirsty Brannan is a Farm Conservation Advisor for Oakbank Game & Conservation – one of a team of experienced staff helping farms and estates develop and deliver wildlife habitat projects on farmland and woodland. They also specialise in the supply of seeds and plants for conservation, game, regenerative agriculture and woodland.

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CG Blog
Fallow land on upland farm
Fallow land on upland farm near Towie, Aberdeenshire. Photo credit: rspb-images.com

Fair to Nature farm conservation adviser, Kevin Rylands, sees the benefits to wildlife of Spring crops and Summer fallow…

The recent spell of drier weather has been warmly welcomed, especially by arable farm (although some rain wouldn’t go amiss! With many unable to access their fields since September the acreage of winter cereals sown this season is likely to be much lower than in recent years. Whilst this has frustrated many, the increased area of unintentional overwintered stubble will hopefully have benefited farmland wildlife from skylark to brown hare and more.

As the rush to get crops into the ground continues apace it will bring benefits but also threats to farmland wildlife. The increased area of spring cereals will benefit species such as lapwing and the rare stone-curlew, these ground nesting waders require areas of bare ground and the usual abundance of winter wheat limits their choice of locations.

However, their nests are at risk of farming operations; the lapwing is relatively easy to spot, the twisting and tumbling flight and alarm calls alerts us to it’s presence and the dark plumaged adults can often be seen running away from the nest trying to draw the threat elsewhere. The stone-curlew relies on camouflage and stealth to avoid predators and it takes a skilled tractor driver to notice them sneak away and then locate the nest. With both species, if you find a nest the birds will return to the eggs (four for lapwing, two for stone-curlew) if you can lift the plough to avoid a small area. If other operations are scheduled a couple of bamboo canes about 5m either side will help protect the nest; with the exception of hoeing or rolling other operations can carry on over the nest with no adverse effect.

Lapwing at the nest
Lapwing at the nest. Photo credit: T Nevard/Conservation Grade

Spring cereals also tend to be more open than winter varieties, require fewer chemical treatments and are harvested later in the year. This allows for species such as skylark, and especially the late nesting corn bunting, to produce several well fed broods of young. The late nest of corn buntings often get destroyed by increasingly early harvests, so 2020 may hopefully be a boom year for this species. To encourage them further, consider double drilling a small stretch alongside a field corner or beetle bank and placing a few bamboo canes in the crop to act a song posts for the males.

Corn Bunting singing - fallow
Corn Bunting. Photo credit: S Tonkin

If, after the wet winter, fields are being left to fallow this can also provide benefits and threats. To manage weeds many fallows are cultivated throughout the summer to help exhaust the seedbank, but this removes any wildlife that attempts to set up home in the field, is not ideal for soil structure and increases the risk of erosion. If using this approach, it is possible to target specific problem areas in a field to deal with for example black-grass, the remainder of the field can then support a wide range of wildlife including turtle dove, grey partridge and many pollinators and other beneficial invertebrates. Selective topping can then be used if you wish to manage any docks or thistles before they set seed.

Weedy fallow arable land in lowland Aberdeenshire, Scotland in June. Photo credit: rspb-images.com

Another option for any fallow ground this spring would be to sow a grass legume mix, this provides benefits to pollinators as well as preventing erosion and fixing nitrogen into the soil. It also provides competition with black-grass so can help in weed control, especially if kept in place for more than one summer. Targeted areas of black-grass can be managed by topping before any seed set and the mix can be ploughed back into the soil before the next crop to boost organic content.

You may be able to use any non-cropped fields as Ecological Focus Areas, if the EFA management requirements sit easily alongside day to day farming operations, then Stewardship schemes have similar options available if you wish to help farm wildlife in this way going forward, wet winter or otherwise.

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CG Blog

If we want to bring back farmland birds, restore a farmland pond, new research from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust shows.

Guest blog from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

Less than 70 years ago, ponds were a common feature of the farmland landscape, and were routinely managed just like hedgerows. Since the 1950s, many ponds have been filled in to reclaim more land for farming, however a large number have been left unmanaged, meaning they have become overgrown with trees and bushes, making them dark and inhabitable to many species.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) has been working with the Natural History Museum and University College London on research that shows reinstating traditional pond management methods, of tree and mud removal, can benefit not only pond species, but also farmland birds.

Ponds restored by the Norfolk Ponds Project, were compared to neighbouring unmanaged and overgrown ponds; restored ponds contained twice as many bird species and almost three times as many birds, as the overgrown ponds.

Comparison of bird species between restored and unrestored ponds on farmland

Bird species at the restored ponds included skylark, linnet, yellowhammer and starling, all species that are Red Listed in the UK because they have declined drastically in recent years.

There were 95 sightings of these four species in and around the restored ponds, which compared to just two sightings of yellowhammer and none of skylark, starling or linnet at the unrestored ponds.

Yellowhammer - 37 were spotted in and around restored ponds, whilst just two were spotted at unrestored ponds
Yellowhammer – 37 were spotted in and around restored ponds, whilst just two were spotted at unrestored ponds

As well as attracting threatened species, researchers found that the restored ponds attracted twice as many bird species – 36 compared to 18 at the unrestored ponds.

The total number of birds visiting was also greater at restored ponds with almost three times as many birds attracted to the restored ponds. This was shown to be linked to the abundant insect food resources emerging from restored ponds.

According to lead researcher, Jonathan Lewis-Phillips of UCL’s Pond Restoration Research Group:

Restored ponds are teeming with insects, and because different ponds have insect peaks on different days, birds can move from pond to pond, and get the food that they need. A network of high-quality ponds is therefore brilliant for birds in the breeding season.

Comparison of numbers of emerging insects at restored and unrestored ponds on farmland

With a network of restored ponds across the landscape, birds were able to move between insect emergence events, providing an ongoing insect food resource during the breeding season.

The research comes at a time when farmland birds are under huge threat, having declined by 55 per cent in the last 50 years, largely due to changes in agricultural management to increase food production, according to the recent State of Nature 2019 report.

As well as providing a beneficial habitat for woodland birds, farmland ponds also provide an important landscape feature, and act as stepping-stones for other wildlife including frogs and dragonflies.

Despite their importance, according to a report published by the RSPB, WWF and the Wildlife Trusts, there are no plans to protect them included in the new Agriculture Bill.

Our research shows how important it is to restore and manage ponds in farmland. In Gloucestershire, preliminary evidence suggests we have lost around two-thirds of our farmland ponds since 1900. That’s why we have been working with Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG South West) and local farmers to restore a number of ponds across different farms on the Severn Vale.

Even following long periods of dormancy, overgrown farmland ponds can quickly come back to life, with plants, amphibians and insects starting to colonise them in a matter of months. That is why this research could be an important pointer of where the UK’s environmental and agricultural policy should focus post Brexit.

Carl Sayer of University College London Pond Restoration Group said:

The research on birds was inspired by Norfolk farmer Richard Waddingham. His constant belief has always been that farming and wildlife can co-exist and with wildlife declining at an alarming rate, at no time in history do we need to make this work more than now. Restoring farmland ponds is clearly part of a positive way forward.

To find out more about the WWTs work on farmland pond restoration go to www.wwt.org.uk/our-work/projects/restoring-lost-farmland-ponds.

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CG Blog
One of the many hedgerows at Hope Farm. Image: Paul Cabrisy/RSPB

In this guest blog, Paul Cabrisy, research intern at RSPB Hope Farm, explains the importance of hedges and correctly managing them on a farm. Paul also tells us the outcome of a study carried by a masters student who looked at different preferences of farmland bird species to different frequencies of hedgerow management at Hope Farm.

The importance of hedgerows 

Hedgerows are highly important to farm wildlife as, in the UK, over 600 plants, 1500 insects, 65 birds and 20 mammals are known to live or feed in hedges. Hedgerows provide nesting habitats for many species of farmland birds that nest in field boundaries and other species like owls, starlings, etc. Hedges are a source of valuable food throughout the seasons, particularly over winter by providing berry fruits and seeds. Hedges can act as a fundamental wildlife corridor, to facilitate the movement of less mobile species across farmed landscape, between woodland blocks. Not only essential for birds, hedgerows are good for so much other wildlife. Hedgerows on a farm can become foraging sites for bats. They also provide a cover for small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Hedges produce pollen and nectar in late autumn as well as an abundance of invertebrates that feed chicks and other animals. In winter, hedgerows are important habitats to many invertebrates too. Another importance are the physical properties of the hedges as they can prevent soil erosion and store carbon. Having hedges on a farm can be good way to mitigate some of the greenhouse gases produced on farm.

Hedge management

A first key to a good hedge management is to allow natural variation and to let it get a bit messy! This is important in order to support greater diversity of wildlife and is mainly because animals like birds have different habitat preferences between species.

But why manage the field hedges in the first place? In fact, hedgerows need to be managed as the shrubs will eventually grow into trees and trimming is the easiest way to keep the structure of the hedge. The hedge’s response to being cut is to produce new shoots that will develop into branches and done correctly, can make the branches become denser overtime.

Whilst management is essential, it is worth noting that intensive management of hedgerows can be detrimental to wildlife by reducing their foraging and breeding success. Gappy or leggy base hedges, from repeated cutting to the same point in the hedge, or through neglect, will have less wildlife value as its base it will be more accessible to predators. You really want to cut to reduce gaps and have denser growth close to the ground.

Overall, to support more wildlife it is best to manage hedges for different sizes and shapes where you can. The diversity of birds using hedgerows will depend on the length, width and height, as well as plant species, because birds can have distinct preferences in terms of structure.

Having wider and taller hedges (about 4m tall and 4m wide) on a farm can provide rich habitats with food for many invertebrates and support nesting birds, such as bullfinches, turtle doves etc. Wider hedges offer better coverage for bad weather conditions and protection against natural predators. This kind of structure can be obtained by letting the plants grow for a longer time without trimming. Tall hedges are better located on wooded areas of the farmland and not in places used by ground nesting birds like lapwings.  

Smaller hedges (around 2m tall) on the other hand have a thicker vegetation at the base than taller hedges and are better suited for ground nesting species like grey partridges, yellowhammers, song thrushes & whitethroats, to name a few. This type of hedge can be managed more often to keep suckers from spreading. However, before trimming it is important to considering the health of the plant with its long-term survival, as over-trimmed hedges can become gappy and die.

Lastly, it is best to not cut the hedges annually to increase the flowers and fruits for birds and pollinators. Trimming will remove the fruit-bearing stems of the plant and can also damage the flowers. When thinking about the best time of year for trimming, winter is better than autumn as it is less likely to cause stress to the plant. By cutting the leaves in autumn the hedge will lose the ability to regrow its leaves before the winter and will be deprived from feeding efficiently. Also, this will avoid the destruction of bird nests present from March to August.

Having a hedge plan

One of the best ways to manage hedges on a farmland is to make a plan of maintenancecreation and restoration. For this, it is ideal to map your farm’s hedges, noting where there are gaps, taller hedges (greater than 4m) and small smaller hedges (less than 4m).

Maintenance – Having a variety of hedge plants of different ages is important and better for the farms’ wildlife. Old hedges tend to have a better structure with more diverse plant life. Older hedges are also likely to hold more wildlife than recent plantings. Therefore, it is essential to preserve existing hedges on a farm and enhance their value as a priority over the creation of new hedges.

Creation – To support a wider range of wildlife a farmer can increase the type of hedges on its field boundaries, such as incorporating new hedge plants (preferably species native to the area) to existing hedgerows. New hedges can also be established to link up other existing ones to create more hedgerows and strengthen the connectivity of habitats on the farm.

Restoration – Young and developing hedges need to be protected from browsing and grazing animals e.g. rabbits. There are many ways to protect and restore hedges. Laying (cutting stems part way through and laying them along the hedge line) and coppicing (cutting the stems at ground level) are two techniques that can be used to restore hedgerows. However, depending the hedges’ state it is better to obtain advice from a specialist and old hedges may require specific management techniques. It is also possible to research hedge restoration methods that are available online and on Local Biodiversity Action Plans of your area.

Hope Farm

At Hope Farm, our hedgerows are managed to provide essential habitats for many bird species. We have around 5 miles of hedgerows across 450 acres. Other features can be found along the hedgerows such as grass margins, flower margins, ditches and patches of woodland. We manage our hedgerows to improve their value for birds by providing suitable nesting and foraging habitats. Hedges are cut once every three years and on a rotation between fields. This allows the hedge plants to produce more food berries than those cut annually. Having this rotational cutting also avoids putting undue stress and keeps the hedges healthier for longer.

Thanks to the help from the local Cambridge Conservation Volunteers, we also lay about 50m of hedge each year which does a fantastic job of keeping vegetation thick at the bottom of the hedge. You can see where they have been hard at work all along our footpaths so keep an eye out.

With our hedgerow management and other conservation work on the farm, our farmland breeding bird index is now 185% above baseline with populations that have been stable over the past 10 years.

Credit: Flock of Grey Partridge coming out a hedgerow at RSPB Hope Farm. Photo by Paul Cabrisy.

Megan Tresise’s research

Megan is a masters student from the University of Leeds who carried a research at Hope Farm, looking at how our hedge management affected bird territories. She focuses her research on four bird species that use hedgerows on farmland, but which have all declined in the UK due to a reduction in available habitat: common whitethroats, yellowhammers, linnets and greenfinches. Megan found that the territory density of yellowhammers and linnets were higher when hedges were left unmanaged for one year whilst whitethroats held higher territory density with hedges left two years without managing (fig. 1).

When grouping bird species altogether, Megan found that the birds selected hedges for their territories when managed with a one year or two years between cutting rather than those left unmanaged for a greater length of time (fig. 2). Common whitethroats, yellowhammers and linnets also preferred to nest in shorter hedges with more scrub, rather than trees. Megan also found that the greenfinches at Hope Farm chose to hold territories where no management was undertaken (fig. 2). This could be explained as greenfinches prefer to nest in trees rather than shrubs, and so will benefit from leaving these habitats unmanaged to leave the hedges to grow into trees. 

Figure 2: Mean territory density per 100m (±1SE) for yellowhammers, linnets and whitethroats (left) and greenfinches (right). No mgmt. = no management, Mgmt = managed that year, +1 year = 1 year unmanaged , +2 = 2 years unmanagement, +3 years = 3 years unmanaged, 4 years = 4 years unmanaged. Significant differences between groups (Dunn-Bonferroni; p<0.05) are indicated by different letters above each bar.

Acknowledgement:

We would like to thank Megan Tresise for her time collecting and analysing important data gathered over the years at the farm and that was able to show, once again, the positive outcome of our wildlife friendly farming.

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How did farmland birds fare in 2019 on RSPB’s Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire? In this blog, Farm Manager Georgie Bray tells us.

A key part of the work we do at Hope Farm is to demonstrate wildlife friendly farming, in terms of its practicalities on the ground. What sets Hope Farm apart is our ability to monitor the changes to farmland bird populations to quantify the difference of taking a wildlife-friendly farming approach. This year has once again shown what a difference the provision of the right habitat can make to survival and breeding success of farmland birds, here and inferably other wildlife-friendly farms, whilst growing profitable, sustainable crops in the process.

Scores on the Doors

Monitoring for farmland birds is undertaken using the Common Bird Census. Here, surveys are walked across the farm to identify the number and distribution of territories on the farm.

Hope Farm birds graph 2019

This graph shows the increase in the Hope Farm index by 185%, having maintained the index at the same high level for over a decade now. This year has also seen a bounce back after a decline in 2018, that potentially resulted from the severe weather events of that season. This sits against a background decline of England’s farmland bird index since 2000 by 20%.

Below, are the changes in territory numbers between 2000, when we took on management of the farm, and 2019. Yellow wagtail and corn bunting have returned to the farm after an absence in 2018. Goldfinch numbers have continued to increase this year, whilst reed bunting, yellow hammer, linnet and starling territory numbers are similar to previous years. Surprisingly, grey partridge has been scarce in terms of territories on the farm, although this autumn has witnessed a couple of large coveys remaining on the farm.

  Number of Territories in 2000 Number of Territories in 2019   Number of Territories in 2000 Number of Territories in 2019
Kestrel 0 1 Jackdaw 0 4
Grey Partridge 0 3 Starling 3 12
Lapwing 0 4 Greenfinch 18 4
Stock Dove 2 6 Goldfinch 3 19
Woodpigeon 33 61 Linnet 6 19
Turtle Dove 0 0 Yellowhammer 14 27
Skylark 10 32 Reed Bunting 3 13
Yellow Wagtail 0 2 Corn Bunting 0 1
Whitethroat 25 34      

 

So what management has made the difference at Hope Farm?

Hedgerow management

It is always rewarding to see the difference that can be made for farmland birds, through provision of summer food, winter food, and nesting habitat. We have continued to manage hedgerows in a way that creates a diversity of hedge structures, and this helps to cater for a diversity of hedge nesting species. Some are maintained as shorter 2m high and at least 2m wide structures, whilst encouraging long vegetation growth at the bottom most suited to yellowhammers and grey partridge. Other taller scrubby hedges should be better suited to turtle doves should they return, or greenfinch, with the adequate feeding habitat in nearby areas.

A few hedges have been earmarked to flail back already this autumn, where the hedges have become very tall, and have spread so far out that they come to a hard border with a track rather than having a softer border for ground nesting birds. The decline in use of these hedgerows by yellowhammers and whitethroats could well reflect this change in structure. With over 12km of hedgerows on the farm, management of 3km will still leave plenty of berries and pollinator resources in full swing for the winter and following spring next year.

In field management

Farmland birds at Hope Fram

Newly hatched lapwing chicks in an insecticide-free bean crop at Hope Farm. Photo: Georgie Bray/RSPB

Out in the field, we have managed skylark plots, lapwing plots and a corn bunting plot, funded within the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS), to keep our ground nesting farmland birds as safe as we can from mammalian predators. 25 skylark plots across the farm, girda.net in every field with a winter cereal, help to maintain accessible and safe nesting habitat all the way through the breeding season. The lapwing fallow plot has also been a great success, with lapwings using the 2ha fallowed plot and surrounding areas to host 4 lapwing territories within a bean crop and on a spring barley field following a cover crop.

Summer food availability

On the farm, we do our best to make sure that birds can find food nearby suitable nesting areas. We grow 4.4ha of wildflower margins, and 4.3ha of leguminous pollen and nectar rich areas, to ensure plenty of flower rich resources on farm. These areas are a fantastic resource for hayamix.com pollinators and natural enemies to insect pests in the crop, helping us to farm, but also resulting in more chick food! Seed resources are important for species like linnet using the oilseed rape in the rotation, but also for turtle doves where we grow and spread some seed through the summer, ready for their hopeful return.

Insecticide-free harvest

All of these practices, mostly funded through CSS, have been practised for many years at the farm. One key additional change to management this year has been the ceasing of insecticide use. Up until September last year, insecticides were not used as a rule throughout the bird breeding season, to prevent the destruction of key bird food resources or a natural enemy army to help with in crop pest control. This year we have taken this one step further by removing insecticide use altogether. So far, our crops are looking as good as ever, and the farm is full of insect life.

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Today (5th December) is World Soil Day, a time to appreciate the importance of soil to our everyday lives. It has been estimated that soil contains 25% of global biodiversity! As R. Neil Sampson said in his book ‘Farmland or Wasteland: A Time to Choose’, ‘We stand, in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire planet depends’.

In 2010, soil degradation was estimated to cost £1.2 billion every year. Natural England research suggests that over half of the soil carbon in England is contained within the top 30cm of the soil. UK soils currently store about 10 billion tonnes of carbon, roughly equal to 80 years of annual UK greenhouse gas emissions!

Soil health is critical to an efficient and biodiverse farm. Only when we start thinking of soil as a living organism, rather than just a medium, do we start treating it with the respect it deserves. Like other living organisms, soils breathe and require adequate nutrition and water, not just inputs from a bag. A healthy soil should be 25% air, 25% water, 45% minerals and 5% organic matter.

What is organic matter?

Organic matter derives from living things. It is essential for the physical, chemical and biological function of soil, and fundamental for soil structure. Organic matter acts like a sponge and can hold up to 20 times its weight in water, making soil more resistant to erosion and drought. It is a key indicator of soil health. The organic matter off soils can be enriched by adding crop residues, farmyard manures, sewage sludge, compost, and by growing cover crops.

The role of cover crops

A cover crop is a non-cash crop that is grown with the purpose of protecting soil from erosion once the main crop has been removed and enriching the soil with organic matter. Cover crops aid the structure of the soil, enabling it to hold water and allowing the circulation of nutrients. Not only this, but a cover crop also provides useful habitat for wildlife.

How do Fair to Nature farmers look after their soils?

Fair to Nature farmers pay attention to the soils on their farms. Some of them have adopted min-till or no-till techniques when sowing their crops. This limits nutrient leaching and soil erosion and means the beneficial organisms in the topsoil are hardly disturbed. Farms are also using cover crops to prevent erosion and as a way of adding organic matter to their soils. Compost is also used in some areas, such as the RSPB’s Hope Farm, where trials into the value of spreading compost are taking place.

Qinoea as a cover crop - soils soil

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Hainey Farm butterfly surveyEcologist, John Day, from the RSPB, undertook a butterfly survey at the Fair to Nature accredited Hainey Farm, in Cambridgeshire at the end of July. The survey is a snap-shot of the butterflies that make use of the wonderful variety of wildlife habitats on the farm.

Hainey Farm is farmed by Cambs Farms Growers and became Fair to Nature accredited in early 2017. It is also a LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) demonstration farm, hosting a very successful Open Farm Sunday event in June every year, and is in Countryside Stewardship. Cambs Farms Growers have established a wide range of wildlife habitats on over 10% of the farm, including wild bird food seed mixes to feed farmland birds over the lean late winter/early spring months, wild flower meadows to provide food for pollinators, wet grasslands, and reedbeds for breeding waders. The crops produced include celery, onions, lettuce as well as wheat and sugar beet.

Hainey Farm butterfly survey - meadow brownMr Day recorded 13 species of butterfly during his 3.5 hour visit on a bright sunny day in July. The predominant species observed was the large white (Pieris brassicae), with over 100 individuals counted. Other species that were seen in large numbers were the gatekeeper (Pyronia Tithonus), the meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) and the the peacock (Aglais io).

Although this was a butterfly survey, 5 species of dragonfly and damselfly were counted and 29 species of birds were recorded by sight and/or sound, including 9 kestrels. A pair of brown hares topped off the visit.

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