February, 2014

Farming

Farming
Welcome to this group for all farmers and anyone with an interest in farming. Read our blog to see how we're working with farmers and to find out where you can meet us at events.

Farming

Find out more about how we're working with farmers and others to provide space for farmland nature in the landscape. Join in the discussion on farming issues and share tips for wildlife-friendly farming.
  • A bountiful year for butterflies?

    Farmland butterflies benefited from the best summer weather for seven years, a survey has revealed. 

    The Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey (WCBS), which assesses the fortunes of common and widespread species, found that many farmland butterflies flourished as a result of long periods of warm, sunny weather last summer. 

    Typical farmland species such as the Brimstone, Common Blue, Small Copper, Small Skipper, Large Skipper and Small Tortoiseshell all fared better in 2013 after experiencing a crash in numbers during 2012. 

    Read the results in more detail here

  • A new GM crop in Europe - the first of many?

    Remember when anything to do with Genetically Modified food (aka GM) guaranteed front page newspaper coverage?  It seems those days are well and truly past. Last week the EU approved GM "Maize 1507", the first new commercial GM crop to be grown in the EU since 1998, with the mainstream media hardly noticing.  What does this decision mean?

    Maize is an important crop for the EU, covering 13 million hectares of European farmland.  It provides animal feed, industrial starch, bioenergy and food for people.  Like all crops, it comes under attack from pests – species that take advantage of the vast monocultures humans have created to eat and multiply.  Maize is a favourite food for moth caterpillars of various species such as the European Corn Borer.

    European farmers use a variety of pest management tools, including crop rotations to stop pests building up, good husbandry to produce healthy plants that can withstand pests, and pesticides. Maize 1507 has been genetically engineered to produce a pesticide within its tissues (known as Bt toxin) to kill pests that eat the crop.  The RSPB isn't against GM in principle, but we have to ask: is a particular GM crop safe for people, wildlife and the environment?  And is it the best solution to the problem at hand?

    Maize 1507 was assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).  Although they approved the application, EFSA highlighted certain risks to wildlife that would need to be managed if the crop was grown commercially.  Bt is a potent poison: during studies in the Camargue Bt spraying knocked back insect populations to such an extent that house martin breeding success was affected. As well as killing the target pests, the Bt in the maize could also kill sensitive species like the Diamondback Moth, the Mediterranean Brocade and the Ni Moth.  The possibility of sub-lethal effects on non-pests (e.g. affecting their breeding or growth) wasn't even considered.  The RSPB believes we need rigorous field trials to assess these concerns - and others - before we consider commercial release of this crop.   

    A moth called ‘Ni’ – at risk from GM maize.  Photo by Bettaman

    So the answer to the first question – is it safe – is "maybe not".  But I think there is an even bigger point at stake, about the direction we want farming to take.  It is interesting to read EFSA’s risk assessment, which states that the GM maize doesn't pose risks that are significantly greater than conventional maize (where the pests are controlled with insecticide sprays).  But the damage caused by these intensive farming systems is well-known: loss of wildlife, degradation of soil, contamination of water.  EFSA is effectively saying Maize 1507 is OK because it is no worse than the existing, unsustainable farming system.  Shouldn’t new technology be aiming higher than this?  Maize 1507 does not address any of the issues with intensive maize cultivation, but perpetuates an approach of chemical eradication of pests and weeds.  The RSPB, along with many progressive farmers, believes we should be looking to proven wildlife-friendly methods like Integrated Pest Management and organic farming, before we take a risk on new technologies like Maize 1507.

    After literally years of wrangling, Member State representatives were asked to state their positions on Maize 1507 at a meeting on 11th February. 19 countries were against authorising the maize, with only five supporting it.  However, because of complications which I won’t bore you with, this was not enough to block authorisation: the European Commission therefore have to approve the maize.  So the first new GM crop to be approved since 1998 will get through not because it’s better than previous GM crops, scientific understanding has progressed or public opinion has changed, but because of a glitch in the bureaucratic process.

    I should say that this particular crop is unlikely to be grown in the UK.  However, it’s a sign that the longstanding EU deadlock on GM is ending.  RSPB will be watching developments closely and urging our government to make decisions based on sound evidence, with the protection of our health and our wildlife as the top priority.

  • The plot thickens...

    February. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who still has a carpet, you’re soaked, it’s dark, and there’s still nearly a year to wait for Christmas. If it’s not the storms that are surging, then it’s the fog that’s freezing, and there’s no sign of any let-up in the near constant downpours.

    Hardly seems the time to be thinking about summer flowers.

    But for our migrant birds like Turtle doves, currently sunning themselves in the Sahel, the pull of the Northern hemisphere will already be starting to make itself felt. Their treacherous journey home is now only a few weeks away.

    When they arrive back here in spring, exhausted and emaciated from their extraordinary flight, they will need food, in the form of seeds from broadleaved plants such as Fumitory, Chickweed and Fat hen. They will not be able to raise a family until they have regained their health and put on enough weight to produce an egg.

    If you follow the farming blog you will have read a lot about the Turtle dove – our most threatened farmland bird - in the last year or two. You’ll know that we’ve been working hard with partners as part of Operation Turtle Dove to find solutions to the challenges they face.

    One approach has been to develop a flower mix that farmers can grow, that supplies the early season seed food the birds so desperately need to reach breeding weight and sustain their numbers.

    Because of this, the folk at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) would argue it’s the perfect time to be thinking about summer flowers!

    Operations and Marketing Manager Claire Pumfrey has provided a demonstration plot for us at NIAB Innovation Farm in Cambridgeshire, so farmers and visitors can go and see this mix for themselves. Claire and her colleagues are growing it as part of their exhibit on sustainable resources, alongside other crops designed to promote biodiversity and protect our soil, water and wildlife.

    They planted the mix last autumn. The pictures here show it as it emerged in November, and again as it looks now – not bad progress for the four coldest months of the year. It contains early-flowering clovers and vetches as well as Black medick, Birdsfoot trefoil and Fumitory (and the odd interloper!).  Soon it will be a riot of colourful flowers, and great for pollinating insects, too.

    The mix will be seen by over 1,000 farmers, scientists and commercial visitors during the 2014 season. Last year there were also Turtle doves present on the neighbouring NIAB farm so who knows, if we get it right the plot may even have some summer visitors of the feathered variety.

    Isn’t that a warming thought?

    If you are a Stewardship farmer in a Turtle dove area, you could use Turtle dove mix in your agreement as a ‘nectar flower mix’ option. Contact us to find out how.