In some farm landscapes, hedgerows are important for not only providing wildlife habitats, but also for linking up habitats. Here, entomologist, Steven Falk, looks at how best to manage hedgerows for pollinators.

hedges for pollinators
Wild pears in a farmland hedgerow. Photo credit: S Falk

It’s easy to be dismissive of insects yet about one-third of all the food we consume has required a pollinator to put it there, and by pollinator, I don’t just mean Honey Bees. Nearly one-quarter of Britain’s 24,000 insect species visit flowers and wild bees, hoverflies and moths are especially important. Even the dungflies that sit on cowpats and the blowflies that develop in carrion pollinate flowers. In fact, some research has suggested that Honey Bees only do about one-third of Britain’s crop pollination.

Farmland provides a variety of broad habitats and more specialised microhabitats that support pollinators and help sustain pollinator abundance and diversity within the British countryside. Hedges and the many microhabitats that these support are especially important, so the way you manage them, or establish new ones, is crucial.

So how do pollinators use, or benefit from, a hedge system?

There are five broad ways:

  • As a source of blossoms and flowers for adult foraging.
  • As a source of many larval habitats.
  • As a windbreak that aid pollinator activity and movement.
  • As a source of shade and humidity, especially during droughts and heatwaves.
  • As a component of a larger, interacting, landscape-scale habitat mosaic.

Blossom sequence

hedges for pollinators
Bombus Hortorum Queen at the London Wetland Centre. Photo credit: S Falk

Hedge blossoms are crucially important in early and mid spring before other flowers have got going, and I’m always keen to promote the concept of a ‘good blossom sequence’. A simple blossom sequence might just entail Blackthorn (peaking mid April) and Hawthorn (peaking mid May). But if further blossoming species can be added to a hedge network, this can provide a longer and more continuous source of pollen and nectar. This could include Cherry Plum, Goat Willow and Common Gorse (which peak before Blackthorn), Field Maple and Crab Apple (which peak between Blackthorn and Hawthorn), and Guelder Rose, Dogwood and Elder (which peak after Hawthorn).

The choice can be shaped around location and soil type and can be arranged at a farm unit level – I’m not advocating all those species in one hedge! But bear in mind that an abundance of spring blossom will help ensure you see more bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies in summer.

Habitats for larvae

hedges for pollinators
Small Tortoiseshell on Cherry Plum blossom. Photo credit: S Falk

Blossoming hedge trees such as Sycamore, Wild Cherry, willows or outgrown Field Maples or Crab Apples can add to that blossom offer. Hedge trees of all sorts (including Ash and Oak) can also provide an important larval habitat for pollinators. The foliage can be a food source for herbivorous butterflies and moths. Heart rot and aerial rot holes are the breeding sites for various hoverflies, and any dead limbs or dead trunks in the sun can be a breeding site for a variety of solitary bees and wasps, including the Red Mason Bee – a fabulous pollinator of fruit trees.

It’s not just the hedge

hedges for pollinators
A floristic hedge margin on a Fair to Nature farm. Photo credit: B Hughes

Further crucial hedge microhabitats for pollinators are hedge banks, hedge ditches and hedge margins. Hedge banks (which can be very ancient) will often support large nesting aggregations of mining bees. These can be very important pollinators of fruit trees and Oilseed Rape. Abandoned mouse and vole burrows in banks are important nesting sites for bumblebees. Water-filled hedge ditches can be a breeding site for a variety of hoverflies and also double up as very flowery features, often supporting an abundance of Meadowsweet, Great Willowherb, Yellow Iris, etc. Even where no ditches are present, the margins of hedges can provide a useful source of flowers such as brambles, Cow Parsley, Hogweed, thistles, Hedge Woundwort, and White Dead-nettle. That becomes enhanced if you have a decent buffer strip between the hedge and any crop, or a fence that stops stock grazing right up to the hedge.

Hedges as windbreaks

The final benefit of hedges, which is all-too-often overlooked is their value as windbreaks. Pollinators don’t like strong breezes. Hedges help create pockets of calmer, warmer air that helps pollinator movement and activity. On a cool, breezy spring day of perhaps 10 °C, a sheltered, sunny edge of a field with Blackthorn blossom might be reaching 15 °C and supporting huge amounts for pollinator activity. Warm microclimates are also important for the development of herbivorous larvae such as caterpillars and the nesting activity of bees. Hedges play a crucial role in shaping microclimates and therefore pollinator activity.

So, what can you do?

There is so much – but if I had to recommend just three things they would be:

  • Enhance your hedge blossom sequences – check what is currently there and consider what extra things could be added that enhance the blossom sequence, especially prior to the Blackthorn peak (given that warm weather increasingly starts in late winter).
  • Cut your hedges on a 3-4 year rotation (i.e. one-third or one-quarter each year) because less frequently cut hedges produce more blossom, become structurally more diverse, and produce better microclimates (including valuable humid-shaded microclimates within them or on their shaded sides as well as the warm ones on their sunny sides).
  • Allow flowery hedge margins to develop – encourage those lovely shows of Cow Parsley, Hogweed, Teasel etc. and embrace some limited Bramble, thistles and ragworts. Don’t cut these areas whilst they are still flowery, and don’t feel you need to sow an artificial pollen and nectar mix here if nature is already producing a nice range of flowers.

This is a summary of a very big subject. But I hope it is useful.

Steven Falk is an independent ecologist specialising in invertebrates, and pollinators in particular – www.stevenfalk.co.uk

To read more about hedgerow management, have a look at our earlier blogs – Cutting (h)edge management and Managing hedgerows.

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FTN Blog
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/

FTN Blog
grass margins

Field margins are often the lowest yielding areas 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 that can help move your margins into the black and be alive with colour, says Fair to Nature Conservation Adviser, Kevin Rylands.

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.

grass margins
Farm pond with wildflower margin on a Fair to Nature farm. Image: Shelley Abbott

Existing grass margins can be improved by seeding with flowering plants such as knapweeds, yarrow, ox-eye daisy, bird’s foot trefoil and sainfoin. Soils with low fertility and Phosphorous are most suitable for this option, so any cuttings need to be removed, or used to create a habitat pile. Areas of high nutrient can also be beneficial, nettles for example are a key food plant for many species including butterflies and provide great nesting cover for partridges, but it is unlikely to be worth adding flowering plants in such locations.

Not just a feature of arable land

Whilst field margins are often thought of as a feature of arable land, this doesn’t have to be the case. Areas of intensive grassland can also have wildlife friendly margins, be that areas that are fenced off alongside watercourses or managed alongside the rest of the field.

grass margins
Corncrake habitat / early cover (nettles / iris / rumex). A clear-cut ‘habitat corridor’. Image: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

In fields that are managed solely for grazing, especially sheep, the challenge is to maintain areas  of flowering plants without shutting off the field, but although fencing margins may not be practical, it might be more convenient to fence off a field corner.  In cropped grass fields there are a number of options that can be considered.

The simplest and perhaps most cost effective is to stop fertilising the boundaries of these fields. This will remove some of the competitive advantage of the existing sward and allow other species to appear. These areas can then be left uncut when the remainder of the field is harvested, and aftermath grazing across the whole field can follow the last cut.

Once a grass ley has reached the end of its productive life and is due to be reseeded, this is the ideal time to consider your margins. Will the field perform better with a multi-species sward based on legumes that reduce the need for Nitrogen inputs and herbs that provide nutritional and health benefits for stock, soil and nature?

If not the whole field, you can also consider either putting a different seed mix in margins, allowing margin vegetation to re-establish naturally or not cultivating margins, saving energy and carbon by retaining the old sward. 

grass margins
Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) has anthelmintic properties. Image: Simon Tonkin

Lots of benefits

Chicory and sainfoin both provide anthelmintic benefits as well as being having drought resistant properties with deep tap roots allowing them to reach moisture whilst improving soil structure. Sainfoin also helps fix Nitrogen, as does bird’s-foot trefoil, which in addition to its health benefits for stock also helps reduce their methane emissions, all this whilst being fantastic for bees and butterflies and over 120 species of invertebrate.  A win-win for farming and nature.

These are lots of ways to provide more flowering plants for pollinators and other beneficial wildlife on livestock farms, whether infield or at the margins. For more information on managing grass margins please visit the Farmwildlife website.

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FTN Blog

Chris Corrigan, Policy Coordinator at Butterfly Conservation, is calling all wildlife-friendly farmers to join the 2020 Big Butterfly Count!

Big Butterfly Count
Common Blue ( Polyommatus icarus). Credit: Shelley Abbott/Fair to Nature

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.

Big Butterfly Count
Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris). Credit: Shelley Abbott/Fair to Nature

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.

Big Butterfly Count
Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) at RSPBs Winterbourne Downs Reserve. Credit: Patrick Cashman (rspb-images.com)

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!

Thank you!

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.

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FTN Blog

The 13th – 17th July is Bees Needs Week, a week devoted to promoting the needs of bees and other insects who act as essential pollinators of our food crops.

bees needs
White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum). Credit: Deb Rylands/Wild-Ideas.co.uk

This annual event is organised by Defra and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

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 garden

  1. 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.
bees needs
Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva). Credit: Deb Rylands/Wild-Ideas.co.uk
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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!
bees needs
Hoverflies. Credit: Shelley Abbott/Fair to Nature
FTN Blog
Curlew - Neal Warnock
Curlew (Numenius arquata). Neal Warnock

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.

Lost Generation

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.

Curlew Numenius arquata, adult female standing in field on upland farm. Credit: Ian Francis/rspb-images.com
Curlew Numenius arquata, adult female standing in field on upland farm. Credit: Ian Francis/rspb-images.com

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.

Curlew Chick - Neal Warnock
Curlew chick. Photo credit: Neal Warnock

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 challenge

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 their nests. 

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.

Curlew - Neal Warnock
Curlew in flight. Photo credit: Neal Warnock

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, and Katie Gibb, RSPB’s Conservation Officer for Antrim Plateau for this blog.

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FTN Blog

Fair to Nature Farm Conservation Adviser, Kevin Rylands, looks at how farmers and landowners can help the barn owl…

Gliding 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.

barn owl - Stanley Porter/rspb-images.com
Barn owl, perched at nest hole entrance in tree.
Image credit: Stanley Porter/rspb-images.com

However, 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. 

barn owl habitat
Grass and wildflower habitat on a Fair to Nature farm.
Image credit: Brin Hughes/Fair to Nature

Leaving wide (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.

Provision 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.

barn owl box

Contrary 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, .

If 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.

barn owl
Barn owl peering out of nestbox during licensed monitoring on a Fair to Nature farm.
Image credit: Nick Rowsell/Fair to Nature

As 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.

Other 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.

Whilst 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 bait containers.

For more information, including details on nest box design please visit the RSPB (www.rspb.org.uk) or Barn Owl Trust website (www.barnowltrust.org.uk).

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FTN Blog

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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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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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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