Chris Corrigan, Policy Coordinator at Butterfly Conservation, is calling all wildlife-friendly farmers to join the 2020 Big Butterfly Count!
Butterflies are one of the most obvious and well-loved sights of the spring and summer months. Not only are they beautiful to see, they are also excellent biodiversity indicators because they respond so quickly to changes in their environment.
In the fine weather we have had so far this spring and summer we have experienced the earliest average emergence of butterflies for the last 20 years. As more and more people have taken a greater interest in the wildlife in their garden and local area during lockdown, we have received thousands of extra enquiries about these unusual butterfly and moth sightings from increasingly enthusiastic members of the public.
Over many years, Butterfly Conservation working with an army of volunteers, has built up a comprehensive data set of millions of records which provides both short and long term trends in numbers. Overall, the picture is one of alarming overall decline with 76% of butterfly species having declined in abundance or distribution since the mid-1970s. However, there have been good examples of many successful species recovery projects involving BC staff working alongside enthusiastic farmers and landowners. Examples include All the Moor Butterflies in South West England, which has helped boost numbers of five rare species of fritillary, and Saving the Northern Brown Argus in the Scottish Borders, which aims to protect one of our threatened northern specialists.
Not all farmers are lucky enough to have rare butterflies like a Northern Brown Argus or Marsh Fritillary on their land. However, all farmers can help with the monitoring by taking part in the Big Butterfly Count 2020, which takes place from Friday 17 July to Sunday 9 August. This will add to the invaluable body of knowledge which helps us identify trends in species and plan how best to prioritise and protect our butterflies, as well as understand the wider impacts of issues such as climate change on wildlife.
The Big Butterfly Count is a UK-wide survey which was launched in 2009 and has rapidly become the world’s biggest butterfly survey! Over 113,000 people took part in 2019 and this year we are hoping more people than ever will join in to help give us an even better picture of the status of our butterflies (and some day-flying moths which can be counted too). Of course, most of the UK’s butterflies are found on land managed by farmers and other landowners, so adding more counts from parts of the wider landscape could add real value.
So it would be wonderful if you could contribute counts from your own farms. It is very easy to do and is a great family activity. Each count takes only 15 minutes and if you enjoy taking part you can repeat the survey as many times as you like.
If you would like to take part, please go to www.bigbutterflycount.org or download our Big Butterfly Count app on iOS and Android to get counting and submit your sightings. Every single count helps!
Chris Corrigan, Butterfly Conservation
Thank you to Chris from us at Fair to Nature. We hope as many of our nature-friendly farmers as possible take part in the Big Butterfly Count.
Pollination is an essential ecosystem service provided by
bees and other insects such as hoverflies, butterflies, moths and beetles. Without
the work they do we would struggle to grow some of our food crops.
According to the wild plants charity, Plantlife, 7.5 million acres of
wildflower meadows and species-rich grassland have been lost in less than 100
years because of changing farming practices, building, and inadequate
protection of these habitats.
Here are 5 things we can do to help pollinators in your
Grow more flowers, shrubs and trees – different insects prefer different flowers so make sure you have a nice variety of plants in your garden. In the UK, the Garden Bumblebee has the longest tongue and can feed on the nectar of tubular flowers, like foxglove and lavender, that other bumblebees can’t reach. Short-tongued bumblebee species seek out more open flowers like those from the daisy family, and raspberries and bramble. A range of flowering plants also lengthens the flowering period, making sure pollen and nectar are available throughout the year. Visit Bumblebee Conservation’s gardening for bumblebees pages to find some ideas about what to grow.
Let your garden grow wild – what about turning part of your garden into a wildflower meadow. It doesn’t have to be a big area and could even be in a pot or window box. Visit Fair to Nature gardening with wildflowers for information on creating a wildflower meadow.
Cut your grass less often – try letting your lawn grow a little longer. You may be surprised at the flowers that pop up. Dandelions are excellent early nectar sources for queen bumblebees, just emerged from hibernation. Flowers like clover, daisies and self-heal will tolerate mowing if the mower height is raised a bit. Taking part in Plantlife’s #NoMowMay and #EveryFlowerCounts is an interesting experiment to see what plant species are in your lawn.
Don’t disturb insect nest and hibernation spots – take care when mowing, strimming and digging in the garden. Piles of dead wood, logs, leaf litter and dead vegetation are very popular with hibernating and breeding insects, beetles, wood lice and ladybirds so try not to tidy the garden up too much.
Think carefully about whether to use pesticides – by encouraging lots of different insects and other invertebrates into your garden you can keep some of the pesky ones at bay. The larvae of ladybirds will feast on aphids, as do hoverfly larvae. Stripy Leopard slugs will leave your green, healthy plants alone and feed on dead plant matter and even other slugs!
The curlew is probably one of the most recognisable UK birds, certainly away from those that share our gardens. Even if you have not been fortunate enough to encounter this wader, or even if the image of the impossibly long down-curved bill is not familiar, then their calls will form part of your consciousness.
The haunting, mournful ‘curlee’ appears through literature and
films, a sound that captures the remote, open and at times bleak essence of our
estuaries and moorlands. The novels of the Bronte sisters and the poetry of
Dylan Thomas, WB Yeats and many others would have been written with curlew as part
of their soundscape.
But the mournful ‘curlee’ is only part of the curlew’s
repertoire, their bubbling rising song, heralds the end of winter and rebirth
of the uplands, with the fullness of spring still in anticipation. This bubbling
was once commonplace over our meadows and grasslands but curlews have seen
dramatic population declines within living memory.
To be blunt the curlew is in serious trouble. There are now many
parts of the UK and Ireland that no longer hear their call. The numbers of
breeding Curlew across the UK have dropped by half in a generation, those that
remain are largely in the uplands with fewer than 300 pairs remaining in
southern England. Across the Irish Sea the situation is even worse with fewer than
150 pairs remaining in the Republic of Ireland, a catastrophic decline of 96%
in just 30 years.
Many of the remaining birds struggle to breed successfully and
in these areas are at real risk of imminent extinction, their calls and song
instead a symbol of living ghosts. Declines are not just restricted to these
areas, UK and Irish farms are home to over a quarter of the world’s breeding
population, global extinction is a real possibility.
This may seem far-fetched but of the eight curlew species worldwide, two, the Eskimo Curlew and the Slender-billed Curlew, both disappeared at the end of the 20th Century and are considered extinct, our Curlew is one of three others of this clan on the same path. We simply cannot lose the call of the curlew.
What is driving the decline?
Curlew are long-lived, over 30 years in some cases, and should be able to maintain stable numbers if each pair raises one chick every couple of years. Unfortunately, in many areas breeding success is much lower, meaning once older birds die others are not there to continue the line.
The loss of suitable habitat has been a main cause of this poor breeding success with increases in forestry, drainage and the move to intensive silage rather than traditional late hay cut particularly damaging. These land use changes have also helped boost predator numbers, especially foxes and crows, leaving nature unbalanced in today’s heavily modified landscapes.
The plaintive cry of the Curlew has been answered across the UK and Ireland, a new impetus has brought people together to make a difference and improve the prospects for this iconic bird. One such place is Glenwherry in Northern Ireland
Here, as elsewhere, curlews return to their breeding sites in early
March, remaining faithful to valleys and even fields where they’ve bred before.
Preferred nesting sites are rough pasture and moorland, habitats which provide
a mix of both open areas to feed and dense bits of vegetation in which to hide
Glenwherry is in the southern Antrim Hills, and regular RSPB
monitoring has recorded around 50 breeding pairs. This is around 10% of
Northern Ireland’s remaining curlew; as recently as the 1980s there were 5,000 pairs
in the country.
The area is a mosaic of habitats, including pristine blanket bog, dry and wet heath, unimproved grasslands, rushy pastures and improved grasslands – all of which help support farming and nature. This was an ideal site to set up a landscape partnership to halt and reverse the decline of this iconic species. Currently over 30 farmers manage an area of over 3,500 hectares for curlews and other breeding waders. With support and advice, the members can ensure their farming operations support breeding success, through delayed mowing, suitable grazing and, if required, creating improved habitats.
These landscape scale initiatives rely not only on the support and enthusiasm of the farmers but the local community and being able to sell quality produce to the market at a fair price. This approach combined with suitable agri-environment funding that supports farmers to manage their land for food and wildlife will hopefully ensure that Glenwherry’s curlew population is still bubbling away to inspire future generations.
Thank you to Kevin Rylands, Fair to Nature Conservation Adviser, andKatie Gibb, RSPB’s Conservation Officer for Antrim Plateaufor this blog.
Fair to Nature Farm Conservation Adviser, Kevin Rylands, looks at how farmers and landowners can help the barn owl…
silently across pastures at dusk, barn owls are one of the most iconic sights
in our countryside. You never forget the first time you see one quartering a
field hunting for small mammals, or perched on a fence post looking straight at
you. Yet sadly barn owls have had a tough few years, the combination of prolonged
snow cover or periods of relentless rain meant they had difficulty accessing
their prey and many starved. Hard winters also have a knock-on effect in the
breeding season with many birds not nesting due to a lack of condition and
those young that did fledge struggling to survive.
much like livestock, there are
management options that can help ensure that, weather permitting, they can
remain in good breeding condition and produce healthy offspring.
So, what can be done to help them?
Barn owls mainly hunt small mammals such as mice and voles, and they hunt over rough pastures and grassland, roosting and nesting in large tree holes, in barns and in boxes. The provision of nestboxes will only be successful if good feeding habitat is also available and vice versa.
(6-12m) strips of rough grassland around fields and alongside watercourses, as
well as areas of rough pasture or field corners will provide habitat for the
barn owls’ main food, voles. Allowing a layer of thatch to develop is
important, and so the use of tussocky grasses such as Yorkshire fog and
Cocksfoot in some field margins is helpful. The grass and thatch layer combined
should be around 20–30 cm (8–12 in) tall. This habitat will also provide
suitable wintering habitat for numerous beneficial insects and spiders.
Although these tussocky margins are ideal for barn owls, a variety of margin
habitat should ideally be available across a holding to benefit a wider range
of plants and animals.
of nesting habitat is equally important. Luckily, barn owls readily use
nestboxes so this can be done relatively easily by placing boxes in open sided
barns, in prominent isolated trees, or even on a pole along a fence line. The
entrance opening and nestbox should be at least 3 m (10 ft) above ground level.
to popular belief, barn owls don’t need an isolated quiet site. Provided that
there is somewhere for them to hide at high level, they will roost and nest in
busy farm buildings, the roof space of occupied houses, and even in rural
industrial units. Almost any type of rural building is suitable for a nestbox. As
well as providing a nest place, nestboxes give the birds somewhere to hide,
enabling them to live with all kinds of regular activity. They do however find
it difficult to tolerate irregular disturbances, especially when in the process
of choosing a nest site, .
natural holes are limited then several boxes should be sited on the farm as male
barn owl roosts separately to the female, especially when there are young in
the nest. They also use a variety of different roost sites in winter.
you read this barn owls are probably already nesting and feeding young, however
if they are not on your farm putting up boxes now and planning where best to
locate feeding habitat may encourage dispersing young from elsewhere to remain on
your farm and establish their own territory.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If your site is within 1 km of a motorway, dual carriageway, or similar main trunk road please DO NOT provide nestboxes. Barn owls that attempt to live close to modern trunk roads generally don’t survive long.
external risks to barn owls include drinking troughs, owls often drown in
uncovered troughs but this risk is easily remedied with by floating a plank or
tray in the water, or having a mesh cover that is pushed down by livestock when
drinking but is not displaced by the weight of an owl.
owls provide a pest control service, you may feel the need to lay bait for rats
around the farmyard. New ‘second generation’ rodenticides are much more toxic
to wildlife such as owls and other birds of prey than warfarin so must be used
with care by qualified personnel. Always follow best-practice guidelines by preventing
access to bait by non-target wildlife and regularly searching for rodent bodies
for safe disposal. After treatment, be sure to remove all remaining bait and
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…
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
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
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
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.
Business benefits of nature friendly
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Kirsty Brannan, Farm Conservation Adviser at Oakbank Game & Conservation considersthe 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.
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.
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.
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!
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.