Crop and estate management
The brief hot spell at the end of July allowed the harvest to take place more rapidly than normal. We were expecting the rape and some of the wheat crops to be ready for harvest at that time.
The intense heat meant that the remaining wheat, expected to be ready for harvest later in August, was also ready. In this case, however, it was more sun-dried than sun-ripened, with the shortage of water meaning that the grains did not fill as much as we had hoped. On the other hand, the harvest was not interrupted by rain and the crops went into store without needing additional drying.
Almost as soon as the harvest was done, the fields were cultivated for the next crops. We are continuing the crop rotation of autumn sown wheat and oilseed rape. We do not intend that seed-eating birds should starve over the winter. We have stubbles from set-aside, a plot where we are regularly spreading wheat and oilseed rape seed and a wild bird cover crop.
The plans have been finalised for our next phase of trials in the wheat - more undrilled patches at different densities, wide spaced rows and reduced herbicide inputs to assess weed populations - we are after crop-friendly weeds!
Birds and biodiversity
The end of August marks the end of a summer recording season and we have begun to take stock of any changes. The numbers of most of the resident birds breeding birds have stayed the same over the last two years.
The linnet population has increased from six to eight territories and the reed bunting population from three to five territories in a year when the amount of fertiliser and pesticides used has not changed. This is most probably because the rotation placed the oilseed rape crop in fields bounded by bramble-edged ditches or low hedges of blackthorn, with bramble and dog rose growing through them.
These field edges suited these two species that are often associated with oilseed rape. The corn buntings successfully raised young on the farm this year while a young grey partridge was probably hatched on one of our neighbours' land.
Skylarks had a successful year but our trials did not. The total number of territories increased from 10 last year to 18 this year. This appears to be due to two factors.
Firstly, greater overwinter survival in the area (through the greater area of stubbles and fallows as a result of the wet autumn) leading to more birds around to establish territory.
Second, an overall increase in the area of land on the farm suitable for skylarks to nest in - nature's influence on our oilseed rape (poor establishment, waterlogging, slugs and woodpigeons) created bare and thin patches. The increase in skylark territories was not due to the undrilled patches that we had created in the wheat crops.
The skylarks took advantage of the patches in the oilseed rape. Normally skylarks avoid oilseed rape - last year we had only a single territory in rape, this year there were eight in a similar area. In the wheat the skylarks made use of the tramlines rather than our undrilled patches to enter the crop and nest.
This movement into the tramlines to nest indicated that they were finding difficulty finding suitable sites to nest in the bulk of the wheat crop. Individual nest success was good but we were very disappointed that the skylarks did not use the undrilled patches that we had devised for them.
This is, however, what experimentation is about and we have learnt from it. The wheat that will be drilled this autumn has a development of our ideas for creating more nesting sites for skylarks.
There was an increase in numbers of the nationally scarce broad-leaved spurge in one of the three fields where we found it last year. There were 167 seed producing plants in one field this year compared with 75 last year. The field grew oilseed rape and the type of herbicides used allowed this plant to survive.
In the two other fields (in which we grew oilseed rape last year) we found only a few very small plants, including some in the undrilled patches designed for skylarks. The herbicides used to keep the autumn sown wheat weed free do not favour the spurge.