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.
In this guest blog, Paul Cabrisy, research intern at RSPB Hope Farm, explains the importance of hedges and correctly managing them on a farm. Paul also tells us the outcome of a study carried by a masters student who looked at different preferences of farmland bird species to different frequencies of hedgerow management at Hope Farm.
The importance of hedgerows
Hedgerows are highly important to farm wildlife as, in the UK, over 600 plants, 1500 insects, 65 birds and 20 mammals are known to live or feed in hedges. Hedgerows provide nesting habitats for many species of farmland birds that nest in field boundaries and other species like owls, starlings, etc. Hedges are a source of valuable food throughout the seasons, particularly over winter by providing berry fruits and seeds. Hedges can act as a fundamental wildlife corridor, to facilitate the movement of less mobile species across farmed landscape, between woodland blocks. Not only essential for birds, hedgerows are good for so much other wildlife. Hedgerows on a farm can become foraging sites for bats. They also provide a cover for small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Hedges produce pollen and nectar in late autumn as well as an abundance of invertebrates that feed chicks and other animals. In winter, hedgerows are important habitats to many invertebrates too. Another importance are the physical properties of the hedges as they can prevent soil erosion and store carbon. Having hedges on a farm can be good way to mitigate some of the greenhouse gases produced on farm.
A first key to a good hedge management is to allow natural variation and to let it get a bit messy! This is important in order to support greater diversity of wildlife and is mainly because animals like birds have different habitat preferences between species.
But why manage the field hedges in the first place? In fact, hedgerows need to be managed as the shrubs will eventually grow into trees and trimming is the easiest way to keep the structure of the hedge. The hedge’s response to being cut is to produce new shoots that will develop into branches and done correctly, can make the branches become denser overtime.
Whilst management is essential, it is worth noting that intensive management of hedgerows can be detrimental to wildlife by reducing their foraging and breeding success. Gappy or leggy base hedges, from repeated cutting to the same point in the hedge, or through neglect, will have less wildlife value as its base it will be more accessible to predators. You really want to cut to reduce gaps and have denser growth close to the ground.
Overall, to support more wildlife it is best to manage hedges for different sizes and shapes where you can. The diversity of birds using hedgerows will depend on the length, width and height, as well as plant species, because birds can have distinct preferences in terms of structure.
Having wider and taller hedges (about 4m tall and 4m wide) on a farm can provide rich habitats with food for many invertebrates and support nesting birds, such as bullfinches, turtle doves etc. Wider hedges offer better coverage for bad weather conditions and protection against natural predators. This kind of structure can be obtained by letting the plants grow for a longer time without trimming. Tall hedges are better located on wooded areas of the farmland and not in places used by ground nesting birds like lapwings.
Smaller hedges (around 2m tall) on the other hand have a thicker vegetation at the base than taller hedges and are better suited for ground nesting species like grey partridges, yellowhammers, song thrushes & whitethroats, to name a few. This type of hedge can be managed more often to keep suckers from spreading. However, before trimming it is important to considering the health of the plant with its long-term survival, as over-trimmed hedges can become gappy and die.
Lastly, it is best to not cut the hedges annually to increase the flowers and fruits for birds and pollinators. Trimming will remove the fruit-bearing stems of the plant and can also damage the flowers. When thinking about the best time of year for trimming, winter is better than autumn as it is less likely to cause stress to the plant. By cutting the leaves in autumn the hedge will lose the ability to regrow its leaves before the winter and will be deprived from feeding efficiently. Also, this will avoid the destruction of bird nests present from March to August.
Having a hedge plan
One of the best ways to manage hedges on a farmland is to make a plan of maintenance, creation and restoration. For this, it is ideal to map your farm’s hedges, noting where there are gaps, taller hedges (greater than 4m) and small smaller hedges (less than 4m).
Maintenance – Having a variety of hedge plants of different ages is important and better for the farms’ wildlife. Old hedges tend to have a better structure with more diverse plant life. Older hedges are also likely to hold more wildlife than recent plantings. Therefore, it is essential to preserve existing hedges on a farm and enhance their value as a priority over the creation of new hedges.
Creation – To support a wider range of wildlife a farmer can increase the type of hedges on its field boundaries, such as incorporating new hedge plants (preferably species native to the area) to existing hedgerows. New hedges can also be established to link up other existing ones to create more hedgerows and strengthen the connectivity of habitats on the farm.
Restoration – Young and developing hedges need to be protected from browsing and grazing animals e.g. rabbits. There are many ways to protect and restore hedges. Laying (cutting stems part way through and laying them along the hedge line) and coppicing (cutting the stems at ground level) are two techniques that can be used to restore hedgerows. However, depending the hedges’ state it is better to obtain advice from a specialist and old hedges may require specific management techniques. It is also possible to research hedge restoration methods that are available online and on Local Biodiversity Action Plans of your area.
At Hope Farm, our hedgerows are managed to provide essential habitats for many bird species. We have around 5 miles of hedgerows across 450 acres. Other features can be found along the hedgerows such as grass margins, flower margins, ditches and patches of woodland. We manage our hedgerows to improve their value for birds by providing suitable nesting and foraging habitats. Hedges are cut once every three years and on a rotation between fields. This allows the hedge plants to produce more food berries than those cut annually. Having this rotational cutting also avoids putting undue stress and keeps the hedges healthier for longer.
Thanks to the help from the local Cambridge Conservation Volunteers, we also lay about 50m of hedge each year which does a fantastic job of keeping vegetation thick at the bottom of the hedge. You can see where they have been hard at work all along our footpaths so keep an eye out.
With our hedgerow management and other conservation work on the farm, our farmland breeding bird index is now 185% above baseline with populations that have been stable over the past 10 years.
Credit: Flock of Grey Partridge coming out a hedgerow at RSPB Hope Farm. Photo by Paul Cabrisy.
Megan Tresise’s research
Megan is a masters student from the University of Leeds who carried a research at Hope Farm, looking at how our hedge management affected bird territories. She focuses her research on four bird species that use hedgerows on farmland, but which have all declined in the UK due to a reduction in available habitat: common whitethroats, yellowhammers, linnets and greenfinches. Megan found that the territory density of yellowhammers and linnets were higher when hedges were left unmanaged for one year whilst whitethroats held higher territory density with hedges left two years without managing (fig. 1).
When grouping bird species altogether, Megan found that the birds selected hedges for their territories when managed with a one year or two years between cutting rather than those left unmanaged for a greater length of time (fig. 2). Common whitethroats, yellowhammers and linnets also preferred to nest in shorter hedges with more scrub, rather than trees. Megan also found that the greenfinches at Hope Farm chose to hold territories where no management was undertaken (fig. 2). This could be explained as greenfinches prefer to nest in trees rather than shrubs, and so will benefit from leaving these habitats unmanaged to leave the hedges to grow into trees.
Figure 2: Mean territory density per 100m (±1SE) for yellowhammers, linnets and whitethroats (left) and greenfinches (right). No mgmt. = no management, Mgmt = managed that year, +1 year = 1 year unmanaged , +2 = 2 years unmanagement, +3 years = 3 years unmanaged, 4 years = 4 years unmanaged. Significant differences between groups (Dunn-Bonferroni; p<0.05) are indicated by different letters above each bar.
We would like to thank Megan Tresise for her time collecting and analysing important data gathered over the years at the farm and that was able to show, once again, the positive outcome of our wildlife friendly farming.
How did farmland birds fare in 2019 on RSPB’s Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire? In this blog, Farm Manager Georgie Bray tells us.
A key part of the work we do at Hope Farm is to demonstrate wildlife friendly farming, in terms of its practicalities on the ground. What sets Hope Farm apart is our ability to monitor the changes to farmland bird populations to quantify the difference of taking a wildlife-friendly farming approach. This year has once again shown what a difference the provision of the right habitat can make to survival and breeding success of farmland birds, here and inferably other wildlife-friendly farms, whilst growing profitable, sustainable crops in the process.
Scores on the Doors
Monitoring for farmland birds is undertaken using the Common Bird Census. Here, surveys are walked across the farm to identify the number and distribution of territories on the farm.
This graph shows the increase in the Hope Farm index by 185%, having maintained the index at the same high level for over a decade now. This year has also seen a bounce back after a decline in 2018, that potentially resulted from the severe weather events of that season. This sits against a background decline of England’s farmland bird index since 2000 by 20%.
Below, are the changes in territory numbers between 2000, when we took on management of the farm, and 2019. Yellow wagtail and corn bunting have returned to the farm after an absence in 2018. Goldfinch numbers have continued to increase this year, whilst reed bunting, yellow hammer, linnet and starling territory numbers are similar to previous years. Surprisingly, grey partridge has been scarce in terms of territories on the farm, although this autumn has witnessed a couple of large coveys remaining on the farm.
Number of Territories in 2000
Number of Territories in 2019
Number of Territories in 2000
Number of Territories in 2019
So what management has made the difference at Hope Farm?
It is always rewarding to see the difference that can be made for farmland birds, through provision of summer food, winter food, and nesting habitat. We have continued to manage hedgerows in a way that creates a diversity of hedge structures, and this helps to cater for a diversity of hedge nesting species. Some are maintained as shorter 2m high and at least 2m wide structures, whilst encouraging long vegetation growth at the bottom most suited to yellowhammers and grey partridge. Other taller scrubby hedges should be better suited to turtle doves should they return, or greenfinch, with the adequate feeding habitat in nearby areas.
A few hedges have been earmarked to flail back already this autumn, where the hedges have become very tall, and have spread so far out that they come to a hard border with a track rather than having a softer border for ground nesting birds. The decline in use of these hedgerows by yellowhammers and whitethroats could well reflect this change in structure. With over 12km of hedgerows on the farm, management of 3km will still leave plenty of berries and pollinator resources in full swing for the winter and following spring next year.
In field management
Newly hatched lapwing chicks in an insecticide-free bean crop at Hope Farm. Photo: Georgie Bray/RSPB
Out in the field, we have managed skylark plots, lapwing plots and a corn bunting plot, funded within the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS), to keep our ground nesting farmland birds as safe as we can from mammalian predators. 25 skylark plots across the farm, girda.net in every field with a winter cereal, help to maintain accessible and safe nesting habitat all the way through the breeding season. The lapwing fallow plot has also been a great success, with lapwings using the 2ha fallowed plot and surrounding areas to host 4 lapwing territories within a bean crop and on a spring barley field following a cover crop.
Summer food availability
On the farm, we do our best to make sure that birds can find food nearby suitable nesting areas. We grow 4.4ha of wildflower margins, and 4.3ha of leguminous pollen and nectar rich areas, to ensure plenty of flower rich resources on farm. These areas are a fantastic resource for hayamix.com pollinators and natural enemies to insect pests in the crop, helping us to farm, but also resulting in more chick food! Seed resources are important for species like linnet using the oilseed rape in the rotation, but also for turtle doves where we grow and spread some seed through the summer, ready for their hopeful return.
All of these practices, mostly funded through CSS, have been practised for many years at the farm. One key additional change to management this year has been the ceasing of insecticide use. Up until September last year, insecticides were not used as a rule throughout the bird breeding season, to prevent the destruction of key bird food resources or a natural enemy army to help with in crop pest control. This year we have taken this one step further by removing insecticide use altogether. So far, our crops are looking as good as ever, and the farm is full of insect life.
Today (5th December) is World Soil Day, a time to appreciate the importance of soil to our everyday lives. It has been estimated that soil contains 25% of global biodiversity! As R. Neil Sampson said in his book ‘Farmland or Wasteland: A Time to Choose’, ‘We stand, in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire planet depends’.
In 2010, soil degradation was estimated to cost £1.2 billion every year. Natural England research suggests that over half of the soil carbon in England is contained within the top 30cm of the soil. UK soils currently store about 10 billion tonnes of carbon, roughly equal to 80 years of annual UK greenhouse gas emissions!
Soil health is critical to an efficient and biodiverse farm. Only when we start thinking of soil as a living organism, rather than just a medium, do we start treating it with the respect it deserves. Like other living organisms, soils breathe and require adequate nutrition and water, not just inputs from a bag. A healthy soil should be 25% air, 25% water, 45% minerals and 5% organic matter.
What is organic matter?
Organic matter derives from living things. It is essential for the physical, chemical and biological function of soil, and fundamental for soil structure. Organic matter acts like a sponge and can hold up to 20 times its weight in water, making soil more resistant to erosion and drought. It is a key indicator of soil health. The organic matter off soils can be enriched by adding crop residues, farmyard manures, sewage sludge, compost, and by growing cover crops.
The role of cover crops
A cover crop is a non-cash crop that is grown with the purpose of protecting soil from erosion once the main crop has been removed and enriching the soil with organic matter. Cover crops aid the structure of the soil, enabling it to hold water and allowing the circulation of nutrients. Not only this, but a cover crop also provides useful habitat for wildlife.
How do Fair to Nature farmers look after their soils?
Fair to Nature farmers pay attention to the soils on their farms. Some of them have adopted min-till or no-till techniques when sowing their crops. This limits nutrient leaching and soil erosion and means the beneficial organisms in the topsoil are hardly disturbed. Farms are also using cover crops to prevent erosion and as a way of adding organic matter to their soils. Compost is also used in some areas, such as the RSPB’s Hope Farm, where trials into the value of spreading compost are taking place.
Ecologist, John Day, from the RSPB, undertook a butterfly survey at the Fair to Nature accredited Hainey Farm, in Cambridgeshire at the end of July. The survey is a snap-shot of the butterflies that make use of the wonderful variety of wildlife habitats on the farm.
Hainey Farm is farmed by Cambs Farms Growers and became Fair to Nature accredited in early 2017. It is also a LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) demonstration farm, hosting a very successful Open Farm Sunday event in June every year, and is in Countryside Stewardship. Cambs Farms Growers have established a wide range of wildlife habitats on over 10% of the farm, including wild bird food seed mixes to feed farmland birds over the lean late winter/early spring months, wild flower meadows to provide food for pollinators, wet grasslands, and reedbeds for breeding waders. The crops produced include celery, onions, lettuce as well as wheat and sugar beet.
Mr Day recorded 13 species of butterfly during his 3.5 hour visit on a bright sunny day in July. The predominant species observed was the large white (Pieris brassicae), with over 100 individuals counted. Other species that were seen in large numbers were the gatekeeper (Pyronia Tithonus), the meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) and the the peacock (Aglais io).
Although this was a butterfly survey, 5 species of dragonfly and damselfly were counted and 29 species of birds were recorded by sight and/or sound, including 9 kestrels. A pair of brown hares topped off the visit.
Ringing a Barn Owl at May Farm. Photo: Steve Mumford
2019 has been a successful year for Barn Owls on the Fair to Nature accredited May Farm, near Ely, Cambridgeshire. May Farm is the site of Littleport Mushrooms, which is part of the G’s Group and grows mushrooms for major supermarkets. The farm joined the Fair to Nature scheme in 2017 and their biodiversity manager, Steve Mumford, has created a diverse range of wildlife habitats around the mushroom tunnels, including a wetland scrape and turtle dove habitat.
Three Barn Owl pairs have nested on the farm this year. One pair were unsuccessful in raising a brood, but Steve thinks they may be young birds. Of the other two pairs, one has raised one chick and the other has raised three chicks.
Barn Owls lay clutches of 4 to 7 white eggs which are laid at two-day intervals, the female begins incubating the eggs after the first egg is laid. Only the female carries out the incubation which takes 32 to 34 days. At this time, she is fed by the male. After hatching the chicks are fed by both parents and Barn Owls can often be seen hunting in the day in suitable weather.
The chicks grow rapidly on a diet of Short-Tailed Field Voles, Bank Voles and Wood Mouse which thrive in abundance in the wildlife habitats at May Farm. After around 60 days in the nest box the young owls will start to fly. They will be cared for by the parents until they become independent at around 10 weeks old.
We know, from research that Barn Owl chicks disperse up to 12-15km after they gain independence. Hopefully the May Farm birds will disperse and populate other G’s farms in the area and begin their own families in the years to come!
A Barn Owl family at May Farm. Photo: Steve Mumford
Barn Owl peeping out of Nestbox during ringing by licensed professional. Photo credit: N Rowsell
As you may be already aware, it’s National Nestbox Week this week (14-21 Feb). First established in 1997 by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and birdcare supplier Jacobi Jayne, National Nestbox Week aims to encourage everyone to provide extra homes for birds. Traditionally nestboxes have been put up in early Spring, ready for the nesting season, although many birds are already looking around for the perfect nesting site. Boxes put up in the Autumn can provide cosy roosting sites, so the advice is to put up boxes whenever they are ready!
There are plenty of places to buy nestboxes but it can be very satisfying to make one yourself. Organisations such as the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have online instructions for building a simple nestbox. There are some links at the bottom of this post. It’s a great activity to do with groups of children. They can hone their carpentry skills, while learning about the different bird species and the importance of providing a safe place for birds to roost and nest.
The populations of many of our wild bird species are in decline and a major factor in that decline is the lack of suitable habitat for the birds to feed and nest. More land is being built on, and gardens and green spaces are getting tidier, pushing the birds out.
Nestboxes come in many shapes and sizes. Different bird species have different housing requirements. Birds like Tree Sparrows like to nest in colonies so favour many single nestboxes close together, or a terrace type nestbox – just like terrace housing! Tree Creeper boxes are wedge shaped, with a hole in the side of the box near where it attaches to the tree. Swift boxes are an oblong box with a narrow slit entrance. On the subject of Swifts, the RSPB has been working with house builders to get Swift bricks incorporated into new buildings and renovations. They are aiming to get another 1000 Swift nestboxes put up before the birds arrive back in the UK in April. You can find out more about the project on the Swifts page of the RSPB website.
The siting of nestboxes depends on the birds you are trying to attract. For most nestboxes the trunks of trees are ideal but if you don’t have trees in your garden, the side of your house or a shed will do. Swift boxes need to be sited under the eaves of a building. Swallows prefer nooks and crannies in outbuildings. Open fronted boxes will need to be protected by a covering of foliage. All boxes should be sited out of reach of cats, with the entrance hole facing in a northerly direction, if possible, away from the prevailing wind and rain.
Today (Monday 14th January 2019) the UK Government launched the new Clean Air Strategy 2019. The strategy sets an ambitious, long-term target to reduce people’s exposure to particulate matter (PM), which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified to be the most damaging air pollutant. The major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water.
So how does this affect farmers?
UK agriculture is responsible for 88% of ammonia emissions. In 2016, one quarter of those emissions came from fertiliser use. The rest comes from livestock farming via the use of high-protein food, much of which can be traced back to fertiliser use. Ammonia reacts with nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide to form secondary particulate matter.
How does the UK Government plan to tackle ammonia emissions from agriculture?
The Clean Air Strategy sets out three main measures by which the Government will encourage the reduction of ammonia emissions from agricultural practises:
Support farmers to invest in infrastructure and equipment to reduce emissions.
Introduce regulations to require farmers to use low emission farming techniques.
Introduce regulations to minimise pollution from fertiliser use.
In September 2018 the Government launched a new £3 million programme through the Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) partnership to fund a team of specialists to work with farmers and landowners in priority areas to provide support and advice.
The Government also proposes that funding from future Agricultural Policy should go towards targeted action to protect habitats from pollution.
Turtle Dove habitat on a Fair to Nature farm. Photo credit: S Abbott/RSPB
This autumn saw the publication of the first new UK Agriculture Bill for 70 years. It was published alongside a policy statement and together they reaffirm the government’s commitment to public money for public goods. This really is a step change for farming in the UK. By recognising the importance of environmental protection and enhancement the approach is in tune with all Fair to Nature is seeking to achieve!
A key plank of the new policy in England will be the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. Although very much under development, this will supersede the current agri-environment schemes. The ambition is for it to be more results based, simpler to access and allow efficient farming and improving the environment to go hand in hand. A Tests and Trials Advisory Group has been convened to co-design the scheme.
In addition to support for public goods and ELM, the policy also refers to the need to maintain regulatory protections and improve transparency in the supply chain – both really important elements of a more sustainable farming system.
Although these are all positive developments, as always, the devil is in the detail and if this new agriculture policy is going to deliver for people and wildlife there are still crucial details which need to be pinned down.
The Bill provides a framework through which the ambitions of the policy can be delivered but none of this is guaranteed. There are some fairly sizeable holes which will need filling to ensure the new approach does not sink without trace. These include: secure long-term funding; a clear and ambitious purpose to improve the environment and a duty to have an environmental land management scheme to ensure its not lost on the whim of a future government.