Wildbird cover (also known as wildlife seed mixtures) is recognised as a valuable habitat for wintering seed-eating birds. The availability of this habitat through the new Environmental Stewardship Scheme is expected to increase the area of this habitat in future.
However, as with many agri-environment prescriptions, we should never stop trying to improve their environmental delivery whilst devising new ideas.
For this reason, we have begun a scientific trial that will take place in the winters of 2006-07 and 2007-08. Grown for their seed production to provide a vital winter food source, we want to test what the impact of varying the levels of fertiliser on these 'conservation crops'.
More fertiliser may mean more seed - so more food, but these habitats are often grown adjacent to sensitive habitats like hedgerows and/or watercourses. Apply too much fertiliser and instead of the plants benefiting, it could simply end up in these habitats causing environmental damage. Three treatments: the standard rate (100kg/ha according to seed-providers recommendation), a zero rate, and a half rate will test this.
We will be comparing bird usage and seed production of WM1 (the standard wildbird seed mixture of kale, quinoa and triticale - popular with many farmers) with a specially-designed 'Hope Farm' mix more suited to our farm (and thus relevant to the 40% of arable area on similar soils). This consists of winter linseed, winter triticale, drilled on 12" rows, which has established well. The space between the rows leaves us the area to drill the phacelia, quinoa and kale in the spring.
Flocking to the farm
Winter is the time when many farmland birds flock together in search of food. As we enter a quiet period for our farming operations, the machinery unlikely to return until February next year, our winter feeding habitats are a hive of activity.
Flocks of linnets, chaffinches, yellowhammers and reed buntings have all been frequenting the wild bird cover we drilled in April. We have seen up to 240 linnets feasting on the linseed and millet in one of our mixtures and over 100 yellowhammers an almost permanent fixture thus far in our kale, quinoa and triticale margin.
In addition, our hedgerow-cutting regime is paying dividends. Cutting only every third year and in the late winter, rather than annually and post-harvest in the autumn, we have been building up our berry crop. We have seen the number of berries provided by cutting our hedges in this way provide FOURTEEN times the number of berries than annual cutting. This has attracted, amongst others, over 200 fieldfares.
All drilled up
Post-harvest activity has seen us oversee the drilling the majority of next year's crops. With just 30 ha of beans to go in next spring, all our wheat (84 ha) was all drilled by early October and has developed well, whilst for the second consecutive year, our oilseed rape (38 ha) was established using an autocast system.
In accordance with the new cross-compliance rules which came in this year we have ensured that we have left two metres from the centre of a hedgerow and one metre from the top of our ditches. These rules consist of existing law and new requirements that we believe are good farming practice.
Compliance is obligatory in order to receive our subsidy payment, so not only does compliance protect an important income stream but also protects these important farmland habitats from potentially damaging farm operations.
The reduced establishment costs of the autocast system for rape (see Diary September 2005) and the environmental benefits we believe achieved by retaining the winter stubble were again the key factors behind the decision.
Whilst not as wet as 2004, the damp, mild conditions helped provide the moisture required for germination. However, such conditions also favoured the slug and snail pests which led to damage. Protection of the crop during this crucial growth stage means we now have established the crop.