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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