Guest blog by David Hirst, Natural England
A farming duo is giving wildlife in Essex a vital helping hand by creating their own version of ‘Noah’s Ark’ on their farm. Thanks to their conservation work, lapwings, lizards, snakes, bumblebees, corn buntings and turtle doves are now to be found alongside the more traditional farm animals on Moverons Farm near Brightlingsea.
Lesley Orrock and Payne Gunfield signed up to join Natural England’s Environmental Stewardship scheme - which pays farmers to use environmentally friendly farming methods on their land - and the couple are now reaping the benefits with a rich harvest of wildlife.
Since helping Lesley and Payne enter the stewardship scheme, Natural England wildlife adviser Sarah Brockless has noticed a big difference in the amount of wildlife around the farm. Lapwing now successfully nest on uncropped areas in fields; wild flower corridors have been established along the edges of fields to provide pollen and nectar for rare Carder bumblebees and other crop pollinators; and the network of farm hedgerows has been re-established through new planting and coppicing. A family of adders has moved into the farm’s specially-designed ‘reptile refuge’, known as a hibernacula, which has been constructed from recycled concrete rubble.
Last winter, Lesley and Payne were rewarded with the sight of a flock of more than 160 corn buntings and yellowhammers feeding on the farm. A specially formulated seed mixture crop is provided every winter to help the birds survive the ‘hungry gap’ between January and spring, when natural seeds can be scarce in the countryside. In addition, Lesley and Payne put out a mixture of oil seed rape, wheat, millet and canary seed across the farm throughout the winter months.
Lesley says: "We are privileged to live and work in such a fantastic place. We love the wonderful variety of wildlife we have on the farm but we wanted to do more to help secure the future of the wildlife we have and to increase the biodiversity whilst still maintaining a commercially viable business. With the combined help of David Sunnucks who farms the land and Sarah Brockless at Natural England, who helped us set up the Environmental Stewardship agreement, we feel we are well on the way towards achieving our aim."
Nationally declining farmland bird species that nest on the farm, such as turtle doves and yellow wagtails, will also benefit from the creation of new wildlife habitats providing sites for feeding and breeding. Turtle doves, which are now rare summer visitors to the UK, nest within the area known as ‘Noah’s Ark’, a large scrub area on the farm. The doves feed on the abundance of flower seeds that grow wild on the farm and also in crops, such as clover, that have been specially sown on the land.
The kind of wildlife habitat creation work underway at Morevons Farm is essential for securing a future for turtle doves in England. A steep decline in the birds’ population has led to the setting up of Operation Turtle Dove (www.operationturtledove.org), a three-year collaborative project between the RSPB, Conservation Grade and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, supported by Natural England.
Natural England’s Sarah Brockless added: “The knowledge, enthusiasm and hard work of Lesley and Payne have lead to outstanding progress during the establishment of the scheme. There is a true balance between a viable farm business, good practical farming and great nature conservation on Moverons Farm. It is through the hard work of farmers like Lesley and Payne and their participating in environmental stewardship schemes that we can make a real difference to our land, conserve wildlife and protect natural resources.”
By re-planting and coppicing the farm’s old elm hedgerows, a series of wildlife corridors will be created across the farm and rotational cutting will provide a source of berries for the birds and field mice to feed on during the autumn and winter months. A patch of Hogs Fennel has also recently been created on the farm to attract the Fisher’s Estuarine moth, one of Britain’s rarest and most highly threatened species of insect.
The next chapter in the farm’s success story will see the gradual re-introduction of traditional sheep grazing which will greatly enhance the importance of the farm’s sea wall for wildlife. Unlike cutting, which creates a uniform habitat, extensive grazing will create a variety of habitats for wildlife.
As well as rare bumblebee species, the farm’s sea wall supports populations of grasshoppers and crickets, such as the short-winged conehead and great green bush-cricket, which are now almost entirely restricted to the Essex coast sea walls and scrub areas such as Noah’s Ark. Sharp-eyed walkers may also notice common lizards and slow worms on warm days. Interesting plants to look out for are shrubby seablite, golden samphire and the nationally scarce dittander.
The farmland is visible from the well-walked sea wall footpath coming out of Brightlingsea.
This week we’re returning to a showpiece event for beef farmers. We have attended this event a few times in the past to get across the important role that cattle farming plays in shaping our countryside and the opportunities available to wildlife. See here and here.
At this year’s event, we will be focussing on Higher Nature Value farming systems. Cattle are often integral to such systems, and we’ll be asking the farmers visiting our stand to tell us how important the wider outputs of farming are to their farms. Things like providing habitats for wildlife, clean water, carbon storage and valued landscapes.
Despite the horsemeat scandal and the abysmal weather of the last year, I expect to find the beef industry in a reasonably good spirits. Cattle prices are very healthy (up more than 10% on the year), hardly taking a dent from the horsemeat scandal – indeed, it may well have helped UK producers as consumers seek greater assurance on the provenance of their meat, and also shone a light on the issue of unclear labelling. Spring also seems to have arrived at last with grass growing, hedges well in leaf and swallows returned to their favourite barns on farms around the UK.
It is always interesting being at these industry events. They are very much for the farmer, unlike the agricultural shows which also attract large numbers of the general public. We will probably be the only stand focussed on wildlife, nestled amongst stands selling machinery, feed and every other conceivable thing that a beef farmer might need to run their business. Some understand exactly why a wildlife charity would want to attend such an event – they will recount stories about wildlife on their farms and discuss the work they are doing to help wildlife. Others will be less sure that we are relevant to them, but hopefully just being present helps establish the idea that wildlife and other environmental outputs from farmland are just as much a part of a livestock farming business.
Read the latest about our views on CAP reform on Martin's blog here
Many farmers across the East and South East are working hard to give turtle doves a home as they return from their wintering grounds in Africa. But still, as numbers are ever dwindling and their breeding range consistently retracting, many will never have been lucky enough to ever see a turtle dove.
If you are in North Norfolk this Saturday, why not drop into the 'Wild About The Wensum' event at Pensthorpe, where you can see turtle doves in the wader enclosure, and learn more about the plight of these highly threatened birds? Pensthorpe Conservation Trust are one of our lovely partners in Operation Turtle Dove. This year the Wild About The Wensum event is raising money for Operation Turtle Dove - so by visiting you can have fun, learn about wildlife, and support vital work that will help future generations see turtle doves where they belong - in our fields and gardens across a much bigger range than they currently occupy.
Full details below:
Hywel Maggs, Conservation Officer for North East Scotland, tells us about one of the fabulous farmers he has been working with to help corn buntings
John Moir has recently been nominated for the Species Champion category in the Nature of Scotland Awards by Scottish Agricultural College Consulting.
It's an accolade that is richly deserved. The Moirs have successfully integrated a host of conservation measures targeting corn buntings into their commercial farm business situated on the northeast coast of Aberdeenshire. Running a herd of Aberdeen Angus and Hereford cattle, Scotch Mule ewes and growing organic spring cereals at Old Rattray and Cairness Home Farm, the Moir’s have supplied organic beef to Marks & Spencer and Tesco, whilst their organic oats go to Waitrose and livestock fodder to other Scottish organic farmers.
At the same time, in response to careful management, the corn bunting population has increased by 157% between 2006 and 2012 at Old Rattray, and has been the focus of targeted research into recovery work for the species.
Conservation measures have been adopted through participation in Government funded agri-environmental schemes and voluntary partnership initiatives which have benefitted birds, butterflies and other wildlife. The Moirs state that they have achieved this through a gradual process of integration, allowing the farm business to adjust and react positively whilst boosting the population of a threatened species.
John is a great advocate for corn buntings in Scotland, he has been prepared to speak out for wildlife on his farm and how this should be safeguarded as part of agricultural support programmes.
The purpose of the initiative
Corn buntings were once described as abundant though patchily distributed throughout most of Britain and Ireland. Large declines since the 1970s led to extinction in Ireland, and an end to regular breeding in Wales. In England and Scotland their range has also contracted and declines continue. A study in eastern Scotland revealed an 83% decline in singing males on study sites between 1989 and 2007. The Scottish population now could be as low as 800 singing males with the remaining stronghold being in the North East.
Loss of winter grain and weed seeds, destruction of nests by harvesting, and indirect effects of pesticides on the abundance of invertebrate food for nestlings may all have contributed to declines. Consequently, the species is on the ‘Red List’ of Birds of Conservation Concern and a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. It is also a species of unfavourable conservation status at a European scale having declined in 22 of the 34 countries.
Corn bunting recovery work began in East Scotland in 2002, with the Moir’s directly involved each year since 2005. Targeted implementation of appropriate agri-environment measures is urgently needed to halt and reverse such declines, a challenge made all the greater by rising grain prices, delays to the introduction of new measures, and abolition of EU ‘set-aside’ as a means for providing food and nesting habitat.
The initiative aimed to halt and reverse corn bunting declines in their remaining stronghold, through partnership working with farmers and their agents, conservationists and policy makers. The work aimed to identify causes of decline, develop a recovery ‘toolkit’ backed by robust research findings, and incorporate into Government policy. An ongoing aim is to ensure this ‘toolkit’ is targeted at an appropriate proportion of population.
Funding has come through entry into Government agri-environment schemes and voluntary participation in an initiative funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
Since 2005, work has involved trialling and monitoring options for corn buntings and integrating them into commercial operations. These trials have not always been immediately successful, but with tweaks and further work, solutions have been found to deliver for corn buntings whilst being practical for the farmer. John has experimented with innovative techniques to deliver sustainable habitats for corn buntings. This has involved management such as on-site composting of grass to provide suitable grazing in the early spring, whilst creating dense corn bunting nesting habitat in summer. Management of organic cropping trials has offered both nesting and winter foraging habitats for corn buntings and an insight into what might make suitable low input arable silage as part of commercial livestock operations. John has played a valuable role in the formulation of corn bunting agri-environmental options by ensuring an agronomic perspective is built in.
Work at John’s farm has been used to highlight successful recovery work for corn buntings to a wide audience. Various corn bunting focused demonstration events have been held at Old Rattray and work here has featured on both television and radio. A wide range of partners have been involved including SAC Consulting, SNH, RSPB, Scottish Government, Scottish Organic Producers Association, Welch’s Seed Merchants and neighboring farmers.
We hope to continue this work and feed in to the development of future Rural Development support schemes.
A key area of conservation that John has helped develop has been delivering safe nesting habitat in grassland which is usually mown during the breeding season. Research work at Old Rattray and other farms in eastern Scotland revealed that one third of early summer nests are within grass fields usually mown during mid summer. Detailed research monitoring has shown that by delaying grass cutting in these fields, corn buntings are eight times more likely to fledge broods. To maintain a stable population, 10% of the grass would need to be late cut. John is currently late cutting approximately 47% of his commercially mown grassland for corn buntings.
This work has led to the development of an option that has been included in the current Government agri-environment scheme and is being deployed on land managed by John and in the wider area by neighbouring farmers.
In addition to nesting habitat, John’s unharvested crops have attracted flocks of up to 150 corn buntings in recent hard winters, along with 1000s of other farmland seed eaters, such as yellowhammers, linnets and reed buntings. Research into the use of these seed bearing crops on John’s farm has helped to tailor mixes to suit corn bunting requirements across a wider area. Such unharvested crop mixes are now commercially available and advocated through a local seed merchant, being sold as a corn bunting specific mix. John has provided seed from his own cereal crops free of charge to locals. This seed supply has been used at various other sites for direct winter feeding and spring sowing.
Numbers of corn buntings at Old Rattray have increased from seven singing males in 2006 to 18 in 2012.
Research findings at Old Rattray have fed into a paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology in 2011 entitled ‘Adaptive management and targeting of agri-environment schemes does benefit biodiversity: a case study of the corn bunting Emberiza calandra’. This paper demonstrated how work carried out by the Moir’s and other farmers has been benefitting corn buntings. It reported that where targeted management was being deployed with a strong advisory element corn bunting numbers increased by 5.6% per annum between 2003 and 2009. In contrast, numbers showed no significant change on farms in non targeted schemes, and declined by 14.5% per annum on farms outside both schemes. The paper also highlighted that in 2009, only a quarter of the population was targeted with appropriate recovery effort. Provision to the required level will need 500-600 hectares under appropriate management, at a cost of approximately £120 000 per annum.