Much has been written about the growing disconnect between the increasingly urbanised population of the UK, where its food comes from and the wildlife in the countryside. For conservationists this is worrying. Wildlife may become less valued and the importance of protecting it may not be fully realised. Likewise the consequences of food production on wildlife may not be wholly appreciated.
The disconnect is worrying for farmers too. An increasing proportion of the population genuinely does not know where many items of food come from, or how they are grown. This may lead to the farming sector being underappreciated and undervalued as a crucial industry.
Image 1: The wheat harvest at Hope Farm in August 2012. Open Farm Sunday is a key opportunity to help the public re-connect with where their food comes from. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
Open Farm Sunday on 7th June, which has been organized by LEAF since 2006, provides a great opportunity for farmers to open their gates and invite the public on to the farm, to see how crops are grown, how livestock are managed and how a farm is run.
Open Farm Sunday has developed into a major annual event with 207,000 people visiting 375 farms across the UK during the 2014 event. This varied from farms showing 10’s of people around, through to almost mini country shows attracting many thousands of visitors.
Here at Hope Farm in Knapwell, near Cambridge (CB23 4NR), we will also be taking part in Open farm Sunday. This is a fantastic chance to visit our farm, to see how we manage for wildlife alongside growing crops. There will be guided walks, bird ringing demonstration, small-scale sheep, pony and poultry demonstration, children’s activities including face painting, barbeque and generally a chance to see round a great wildlife friendly farm.
Image 2: Visitors to Hope Farm on Open Farm Sunday will be able to find out how the needs of farmland wildlife are combined with a profitable farm business (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
We will be open from 10:00 to 14:00, so please come along and visit us, or if you are too far away to do that consider visiting another farm on that weekend. Details of the other farms that are open on Open Farm Sunday can be found here, but do ask them what they are doing to protect and encourage wildlife on their farms!
By Ian Dillon (Hope Farm Manager)
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For the past four years, I have had the privilege of spending my summers carrying out breeding wader surveys in the Glenwherry area of the Antrim Hills. Our uplands often fail to get a mention when conservationists talk about ‘wetlands’ but that is exactly what they are and a wide range of wildlife depends upon these wet, rush covered pastures. It may come as a surprise that one of the factors restricting breeding wader productivity in Glenwherry (and in general) is a lack of easy access to wet muddy drains and pools, where birds such as lapwing forage for invertebrates. Come the late breeding season, fields can become dry and wader chicks may have to travel large distances in search of food, reducing their chances of survival.
Step forward Glenwherry farmers, who in the past four years have installed over 30 new scrapes to benefit breeding waders (with no financial incentive I might add). These have proved a resounding success not only for breeding waders but a surprising range of other species.
Wader scrapes are small (often no larger than 20m2) shallow scrapes in the ground which are intended to hold water long into the summer months. They are created using a digger to scrape off the surface layer of grass to expose the mud underneath, creating a shallow basin. This fills with water over winter and gradually recedes as the year progresses leaving wet muddy margins for wader chicks to feed in.
Image 1: Taken in October, this newly created wader scrape is deepest in the centre, ensuring it will remain wet well into the year. Scrapes are most successful when combined with habitat management such as rush control, as can be seen in the background. (Neal Warnock)
Image 2: Taken in early March, this scrape shows ideal water levels, with some muddy margins beginning to appear - much to liking of snipe. You can see their footprints in the mud. (Neal Warnock)
Image 3: Taken in early July. Even in the driest of summers, wader scrapes remain wet providing a vital lifeline to chicks in the late breeding season. This particular scrape was heavily used by a late brood of lapwing. (Neal Warnock).
Three sites which installed wader scrapes in autumn 2011 have seen the combined number of pairs increase from 10 that year, to 24 pairs in 2014. Snipe have been the main benefactor accounting for this increase. Furthermore, these scrapes are also a great attraction to overwintering snipe, with up to 40 birds recorded using a single scrape. The occasional jack snipe has also been noted.
Aside from breeding waders what else has been seen using the scrapes?
Each spring many scrapes burst into life with a chorus of croaking frogs and masses of frogspawn and by late April house martins can be seen collecting mud from their margins. In fact the first time I recorded this, I looked around and could not even see a suitable nesting building; these house martins were flying a considerable distance to and from their nest site, thus confirming my assertion that there was a lack of mud in the area!
Image 4: Common frogs can be found using scrapes for mating and spawning. (Neal Warnock).
Image 5: Masses of frogspawn can be found around scrape margins. (Neal Warnock).
Image 6: House martins require access to soft mud to build their nests. (Tom Marshall: rspb-images.com)
Another unexpected benefit has been to meadow pipits and skylarks that make use of the spoil from newly created scrapes which is spread out nearby creating small temporary plots of bare earth. This creates excellent feeding opportunities for these threatened farmland birds which thankfully are still plentiful in Glenwherry.
Moving away from birds, last summer I recorded my first damselflies in Glenwherry at a well established scrape. The species involved were blue-tailed damselfly and common blue damselfly. Could these and other species start colonising other scrapes, or could I possibly dream of recording a County Antrim rarity such as the variable damselfly?
Image 7: Common blue damselfly is an unexpected benefactor of newly created scrapes. (Neal Warnock).
Perhaps in a few years time I will be in the position to write another blog about the different kinds of surface dwelling invertebrates I see scuttling across the surface of the water, but at the moment I don’t a have a clue what they are! But I do know that creating a wader scrape is a simple, cost effective measure which enhances the opportunities for a wide range of upland species.
By Neal Warnock (RSPB Conservation Advisor, Northern Ireland).
When was the last time you walked past an arable field and saw weasel’s snout, corn spurrey, common poppy, sharp leaved flullen or the unmistakable vibrant blue of the cornflower? Maybe you are fortunate to live in an area abundant with arable flora, but for many of us these sightings are rare and becoming rarer.
Image 1: Cornflower in spring barley, an increasingly rare sight in arable farmland. (Cath Jeffs, RSPB)
In a recent publication:(http://www.plantlife.org.uk/publications/england_farmland_report) Plantlife confirm that arable flora is becoming “... Britain’s fastest declining suite of plants”. They have identified just 5 sites left in England which are Internationally Important Plant Areas (IPAs), noted for their arable plant assemblage, but how has this colour been allowed to fade from our countryside?
Since the post-war era the policy driver for more food production has changed the farming landscape in the UK. In an arable context, the ambition for greater yields has seen an increase in the use of chemicals to control ‘weeds’ and pests, seed cleaning, a switch from spring-sown to autumn-sown cereals, the increase in commercial varieties of seeds leading to the loss of local varieties (reducing genetic diversity and resilience to disease) and since 2007 there has been a dramatic loss of compulsory set-aside/summer fallow.
Image 2: Weasel's snout among a spring barley crop on RSPB's Labrador Bay reserve. Spring barley is grown in plots on the reserve and provides idea conditions for the germination of arable flora. (Cath Jeffs, RSPB)
Many of the 150 wild flowers associated with Britain’s arable fields are annuals requiring regular cultivation to allow them to germinate and set seed. Some germinate in spring others in autumn, whilst the soil type, topography and aspect all have an influence on their location. In order for these plants to thrive they need little competition from the crop and little to nil application of herbicides. This sounds simple enough, so how can we put this colour back into our arable fields?
One example where targeted conservation management advice for one threatened species has been beneficial for arable plants is the Cirl Bunting Species Recovery Project. Cirl buntings are a rare farmland bird found in south Devon and more recently south Cornwall. Over the past 25 years, the RSPB has worked alongside farmers across the Cirl bunting range to encourage the retention of spring sown barley in their mixed farming systems, and most importantly ensuring stubbles are left over-winter to provide vital bird food throughout the winter months. Cirl buntings will forage on the ground for small, oil-rich arable plant seeds such as chickweed and fat hen.
Image 3: The seeds of arable flora which remain among the stubbles provide an important source of winter food for Cirl bunting (Andy Hay: rspb-images)
These spring-sown cereals have also provided the ideal conditions for spring germinating arable plants to thrive as they are managed as a low input cereal creating little competition from the crop. Uncropped, cultivated margins, wild bird seed mixtures, conservation headlands (areas of cereal left unsprayed) and summer fallow are also important arable management options which support many arable plant species. These management options are just a few of the arable options that have been available to farmers through England’s Agri-Environment (AE) schemes since 1991 to retain and enhance farmland biodiversity. Many of our cirl bunting farmers manage their land sympathetically with the support of these schemes, in return they have saved the Cirl bunting from the brink of extinction, and as a consequence of this management for Cirls, have helped stem the severe loss of arable flora from the south Devon countryside.
Image 4: Poppies with intensive arable in background (Cath Jeffs, RSPB)
Natural England estimate there is currently around 1,000ha of arable crops managed for Cirl bunting through Higher Level Stewardship. In most of the AE spring barley fields in south Devon you expect to see a selection of the commoner arable plant species such as field madder, field pansy, scarlet pimpernel, chickweed, Shepherd’s purse, plus rarer species such common ramping fumitory, corn spurrey, weasel’s snout, corn marigold and field woundwort. However, the broad-fruited cornsalad, a predominately arable species in the UK, is only regularly found on 8 arable fields and a few cliff and quarry sites. Two of the arable sites are in south Devon and one was discovered during a cirl bunting site visit. As a result, management was put in place to safeguard the species and it continues to flourish alongside Cirls.
Last year the Cirl bunting project worked with botanists from the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI) to trial a simple arable plant survey across a small number of Cirl bunting farms in south Devon. The surveys were undertaken on the spring barley stubble fields and wild bird seed mixtures. Of the 12 farms visited, 25% were deemed to be of ‘County importance’ for arable plants, and 16% of ‘National importance’ using Plantlife’s criteria for identifying important arable plant sites.
(http://www.plantlife.org.uk/publications/front_cover_of_important_arable_plant_areas_important_arable_plant_are.). Many of the farmers were unaware of the variety of arable plants in their fields and were pleased to discover how important their management is for conserving arable flora. We are hoping to undertake more arable plant surveys this year on a greater number of farms working with BSBI.
Image 5: Poppies (Deborah Deveney, RSPB)
Opportunities exist in the new Countryside Stewardship scheme, which starts in January 2016, to support arable plants through arable options available in both Mid and Higher Tier agreements. The RSPB will continue to work closely with partners such as Plantlife and BSBI to ensure that low-input arable remains visible in our farmed landscape – to secure the long term future for farmland birds, mammals such as brown hare and rare arable plants that depend on these arable habitats for survival; ensuring the countryside remains full of colour and wildlife.
By Deborah Deveney (Cirl bunting project officer)
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