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.
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.
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.
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.