Crop and estate management
The rape as well as looking patchy has increasingly looked very weedy with sowthistle coming through above the crop. In contrast, the wheat crops are virtually immaculate, that is weed-free. Since we are still in our baseline, full commercial practice period, the wheat is as planned. Inputs to the rape have finished but the wheat has had a last combined fungicide and growth regulator.
Unplanned but not unexpected (forecasting systems are relatively good for some pests now) was an outbreak of orange wheat blossom midge. The larvae of this tiny little fly can cause both yield and quality loss of wheat by eating into the developing grain.
It has a very sporadic occurrence, both between years and within an area. It requires crop walking on warm evenings in June to detect and if a specific threshold of midge numbers is passed, the weather is right for egg-laying and the wheat ears just emerged then the answer is that most damaging of pesticide applications - a summer applied broad spectrum insecticide.
Our wheat crops were walked and the threshold was passed one evening. We were all prepared to spray (remember it is a full commercial treatment year) but the weather changed next day with a drop in temperature, stronger winds and rain showers. Such conditions are unsuitable for egg-laying. By the time it warmed up again the wheat had grown beyond its vulnerable stage.
A spray was not necessary. We had received good advice from our agronomist and had not panicked. We saved money and avoided a major wipe-out of insects at the time when many of the nesting birds had chicks needing a good supply of insects.
Whilst we had not panicked, how many farmers had? The quality of grain at harvest will show if our decision was right and that very few midge eggs were laid on the ears over the day or two before the weather changed.
As part of our work to provide a source of seeds for birds over the coming winter a wild bird cover crop has been sown on the set-aside. This was a mix of spring wheat, mustard and kale which satisfies set-aside rules. This is a mix that is cheap to obtain and popular with a range of seedeating birds according to recent BTO/Game Conservancy studies.
It went in very late due to having to wait for the soil to dry after the very wet winter. Spring cropping is a VERY risky exercise on this heavy soil since it is so dependent on suitable soil conditions for cultivation. Time will tell if the wheat is able to produce a head before autumn sets in.
Birds and biodiversity
Intensive effort is going into following the fortunes of our skylarks in order to determine how effective are the undrilled patches that we have provided in two of the wheat fields. Our first nest found was on 7 May.
The real test comes in late June and July when skylarks are raising their second broods - will they be pushed out of the ever thickening crops and into the patches? So far second nesting attempts have been found along the tramlines but not in the patches. The jury is still out.
Very exciting has been the appearance of corn bunting, first a singing male which eventually attracted two females who settled down to nest. Turtle dove and spotted flycatcher eventually arrived to set up territory around the farmhouse.
We have also heard grey partridge calling on warm evenings in June from a neighbour's land. This was from a field which he attempted to cultivate in the autumn but abandoned due to the wet weather.
An attempt was made again in the spring but this was also abandoned, again due to wet soil, leaving a bare fallow that grew a few grass weeds. Unless this was entered into set-aside under the wet weather derogation it will be a major loss of income for our neighbour.
Regular moth trapping has led to many new species being added to the site list each time. The most eyecatching have been puss moth and four species of hawkmoth - elephant, lime, poplar and privet. The broad-leaved spurge, our rare arable weed, has now emerged above the rape (along with assorted other weeds). It has extended its distribution in one field. Currently there are no signs of it in the wheat fields where it occurred last year when they were cropped with rape. The herbicides probably put paid to it.
One field edge containing the spurge will come into our weed assessment work next season. This will have specific herbicides removed so we should be able to identify what the spurge is able to tolerate and what knocks it out. A single flowering spike of bee orchid was located at a place where records date back 15 years.