arable margins

Field margins are often the lowest yielding area of a field so inputs here may not be delivering positive results. But what about your financial margins? Are you chasing yields in these poorer areas? If so, your margins may well be in the red.

However, there are a number of nature friendly solutions, often funded through Environmental Stewardship, that can help move your arable margins into the black and be alive with colour, says our Conservation Adviser, Kevin Rylands.

Wildflowers margins as buffers

Wildflower margins can be used to buffer ponds, hedgerows and other sensitive habitats and also help provide natural corridors through the landscape. These provide shelter for a range of beneficial invertebrates as well as vital pollen and nectar resources, if the grass component doesn’t become too dense.

arable margins
Flower-rich buffer along ditch. Image: Peter Thompson

Cultivated margins

An alternative conservation option on arable ground are cultivated margins, these are designed and targeted to protect and encourage rare arable plants – the weeds that agricultural improvements, from to the invention of the seed drill in 1700 to modern herbicides, have removed from the cropped landscape.

Arable wildflowers represent an important part of our cultural heritage and the connection between these plants and traditional agriculture goes back many centuries. Cornflower used to be so plentiful it was reported to blunt the harvester’s scythe and Corncockle, the seed of which is grain sized, would often be unitentionally ground at the mill alongside wheat adding an unwanted bitter taste to bread. Both are now extremely rare in the wild but work to conserve them and other declining species such as Weasel’s-Snout, Corn Spurrey  or Corn Buttercup also provides key habitat for farmland birds and pollinators.

arable margins
A cultivated margin on a Fair to Nature farm containing Rough Poppy alongside Common Poppy. Image: Peter Thompson

What colour is in your arable margins?

Now is the ideal time to see what colour there may be in your margins, rarer species are often to be found in areas of thinner soil and turning areas where the drill or sprayer boom has missed a corner. Whilst rare species may not always be apparent other more familiar species such as Common Poppy, mayweeds or Scarlet Pimpernel could indicate where buried treasure could be recovered from the seedbank with careful management.

Field walks this time of year will also show where management for rare arable plants is unlikely to be suitable. If species such as sowthistles, Creeping Thistle or Onion Couch are dominant then the rarer arable plants will struggle as much as any crop to compete. It is the spectre of these species that often put farms off using cultivated margins but, with the correct advice and management, potential problems can be averted with management and location tailored to ensure productive land is not impacted.

arable margins
Wildflower margin on a Fair to Nature from in Hertfordshire, UK. Image: Brin Hughes

Need help with wildflower ID?

And if you don’t know your arable plants there is a Rare Arable Flowers app that can help with identification and conservation.

This app aims to help farmers conserve threatened arable plant species by recording their sightings around the UK. The app works without internet and contains detailed descriptions of more than 120 plant species, including illustrations, distribution maps and, importantly, advice on management.

Why not download this app and let it help you to see what species you may find around the farm? By recording your plants you may well add new records to the distribution maps, you can highlight how your management is having positive benefits for plants and wider farm wildlife and you will be aiding the conservation of an overlooked but often colourful area of British flora.

The rare arable plant app is available for free to download on iTunes or on Android.

You can download the app (Rare Arable Flowers) as follows:

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=uk.ac.ceh.raf&hl=en_GB

Apple Store: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/rare-arable-flowers/id1107601988

If you want to read more about the wildflowers that may populate field margins, have a read of Emily Swan’s blog on the Back from the Brink website: https://naturebftb.co.uk/2020/01/29/common-communities-or-scarce-species/

And for more info on getting colour into your grass margins, have a look at Kevin’s blog about grass margins: https://www.conservationgrade.org/2020/08/is-there-colour-in-your-grass-margins/