I like this short adage – it sums up what many detailed actions for helping wildlife are ultimately about, not just on farmland, but everywhere we care to manage – from our gardens to parks and verges. It also gets across that helping wildlife is mostly about attitude.... that deliberately not doing something can be as much of an action for wildlife as doing something.
However, being less neat and tidy can be a brave step for all of us. In our garden, we leave patches of grass uncut through the summer. A lot of the time, especially when it’s wet and miserable, it can look a bit of a mess and we threaten to ‘sort it out’ the next dry weekend. But we usually hold our nerve, and when the sun does eventually come out we remember exactly why we did it and resolve to do it again next year. The transformation can seem magical when the garden comes alive with butterflies – nothing particularly rare.....just lots and lots of ‘browns’ like ringlets, meadow browns and gatekeepers that have only reached this advanced stage of their lifecycle because we left their ‘food plants’ unmanaged for long enough. The old boy who regularly strims our local churchyard has even taken to deliberately missing areas between cuts. This is a really brave step for a used churchyard, but the fleeting show of flowering ox-eye daisies, yarrow, scabious and other plants in this old grassland is stunning and there doesn't seem to be any sensitivity to the reduced neatness.
Many farmers are doing their bit to help wildlife by deliberately having some ‘less tidy’ bits where it doesn’t affect the bottom line. Farmers who do this deserve a lot of credit. Their ‘scruffier bits’ are not hidden behind a garden fence, but laid out bare for neighbours and passers by to view. We all care a bit about what our peers think of us, and sometimes in farming ‘neat and tidy’ is seen as synonymous with ‘good farming'. Luckily, many extremely good farmers are changing this attitude. I recently visited a farm that exemplifies what can be achieved with this attitude. Tim Price and his brother Chris farm a very well run dairy enterprise in south Warwickshire. It’s not a huge farm and they don’t feel they can give up a lot of land for deliberate conservation measures. But they have a real passion for wildlife and try to make the absolute most out of the areas they can help wildlife with. Tall thick hedges abutted by rough grassland, wide unkempt ditch margins, awkward corners of flower rich grass and weedy areas around the farm buildings – even some gaps in the stonework of farm buildings have been deliberately left cement free to benefit their sparrows. So keen are the Prices to promote wildlife friendly farming that for years they have been running a competition with their local NFU to recognise farmers in their area who are stepping up to help wildlife.
As you drive through the countryside, you can often notice where this attitude has spread in farmland, and where it hasn’t reached yet. Though taller, thicker, hedges make it harder for nosey parkers like me to get a good look....another reason for being a bit less ‘neat & tidy’ perhaps.
By Nick Tomalin, Wessex Farmland Projects Manager
Image courtesy of RSPB Images. Spreading hedge parsley.
As an enthusiastic nine year old I was always looking up. Partly this was down to a cheery disposition, partly because I was shorter than everyone else at that age, and partly it was due to my new found interest in birds, the majority of which were found above my eye level. Of course there were a few ground dwelling birds that caught my eye, but I trained myself to pick out movements in the tops of trees, to spot a distant raptor soaring in the clouds, and to follow the agile twists and turns of swallows and swifts. So it came as something of a surprise to me when I realised that the following twenty years have been spent trying to bring myself, and my gaze, back down to earth.
My previous job trained me to pick out hedge-dwelling and ground-feeding birds, and now I work with stone-curlews, a species that barely ever breaks the horizon. But the final realisation came last week when I spent the day with a colleague from Plantlife. During the day I found myself not only peering down, but also hunching, squatting and kneeling in a variety of increasingly uncomfortable positions as we delved into the hidden world of arable plants.
Image courtesy of Cath Shellswell, Plantlife. Red Hemp-nettle.
Plants have always been something of a challenge to me. The sheer number is daunting for a start. And the perceived similarities between small and intricate species make identification seem considerably more difficult than with birds. I know this is a poor excuse for my ignorance, and that with some effort I could unravel the complexities of plants. The joint visit with Plantlife was a good starting point. We were at Cholderton Estate, a 1000ha organic farm in Wiltshire, run by Henry Edmunds. For over thirty years Henry has worked to maintain productive farming whilst also benefitting the environment, an achievement that now sees him nominated as one of the finalists in the RSPB Nature of Farming Award. It’s not just birds that have benefitted from this work. Apart from an increase in farmland bird numbers on the site, rare bumblebees, moths and butterflies have been recorded, brown hares thrive, and a plethora of plant species proliferate, as I was about to discover!
Image courtesy of Kevin Rylands, RSPB. Sharp-leaved fluellen.
Henry manages an area of chalk grassland with numerous species, but it was the arable plants found in the cultivated margins and fallow plots that we concentrated on. These species are often overlooked as ‘weeds’, but they are now the UK’s most threatened group of wild plants. Species like Spreading hedge-parsley, Corn chamomile and Small-flowered catchfly were once widespread but are now endangered. Henry has managed to encourage arable species through sympathetic management. On the areas we looked at, we found the national rarities Fine-leaved and Dense-flowered fumitory, Corn gromwell, and Red hemp-nettle to name a few. These grew alongside more familiar but still declining species with such evocative names as Venus’s-looking-glass, Weasel's-snout and sharp-leaved fluellen.
Image courtesy of Kevin Rylands, RSPB. Weasel's-snout.
All arable plants depend on regular soil disturbance to germinate. They are all annuals; germinating, flowering and setting seed within one season. There are options available under Environment Stewardship that will encourage suitable management for these species: unfertilised conservation headlands and uncropped cultivated margins on field edges are the most effective, as this is where remnant populations have survived in the soil seed bank. They can also thrive on fallow plots for ground-nesting birds, as we discovered when looking on a stone-curlew plot at Cholderton. Having uncropped (fallow) land reduces competition, and farming organically like Cholderton, or applying minimal herbicide, allow arable flora to thrive. Since these areas are not part of the commercial farm operation, the plants do not get into the crop and are well placed as a food source for pollinators using the flowers in summer and seed eating invertebrates and farmland birds during the winter. On conservation headlands, a reduction in chemical inputs increases biodiversity within the crop, both for arable plants and insects. These options can be rotated where plants like black grass, couch and wild oats become a problem. Since different species germinate, flower and set seed at different times of year, rotation also increases the variety of species.
Many of the arable plants have a strong historic and cultural significance, but they are also important food species for farmland birds and insects. Managing land for arable plants will have a knock on effect on wider farm biodiversity. As with everything else, a healthy population of one supports the other, and our management must be aimed at creating a balanced system, not just for birds but for all the other bits that I didn’t bother to learn about as a nine-year old. Keeping your head up is important, but its not so bad being grounded either.
To find out more about the plants on your farm go to www.plantlife.org.uk. To find out more about the Nature of Farming Award visit www.rspb.org.uk/farmvote.
I spent the past weekend at Birdfair, where every year thousands of wildlife enthusiasts from around the world come to hear fascinating talks, book a wonderful wildlife holiday, find great bargains on gear, art and much more.
I was on the RSPB stand, in a positively sweltering marquee, encouraging people to vote in the Nature of Farming Award. What struck me particularly this year was how people behaved in that sticky heat – many were too hot and bothered to stop for the chance to win a luxury break, but they did often stop to find out what they could do to help our work with wildlife-friendly farmers.
I found this very encouraging. They were clearly showing that supporting wildlife friendly farmers is worth more to them than the chance to win something for themselves.
Farming can get a bad press at times – as NFU President Peter Kendall said at Cereals earlier this year, some aspects of modern farming do harm the countryside. A sensational story often gets more attention than a well balanced view, and this can entrench extreme opinions. But at Birdfair, the people I spoke to were sympathetic to the challenges that farmers face today, they recognised that we all have a role to play as consumers, and knew that many farmers are already going great things for wildlife.
That’s the purpose of the public vote in the Nature of Farming Award – to spread the word about the good stuff that farmers do, whilst still putting food on all our plates.
If you haven’t voted yet…. why not? To help make up your mind who to vote for, take a listen to this month’s podcast to hear from our four fabulous finalists in this year’s competition. And vote today at www.rspb.org.uk/farmvote