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 as 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)
For more information:
It’s a busy time of year. Lighter evenings and consistent, mild weather means things are getting busy on farms and whether from the tractor cab, truck or on foot, I bet you’ve already seen some of our seasonal wildlife. Over the past couple of weeks swallows, brimstone butterflies and bumblebees have all made their presence known. But it’s the unmistakable purr of the first turtle dove of the year that I’m waiting in anticipation for. Any. Minute. Now...
A once common summer visitor, turtle doves used to be seen and heard across the breadth of the UK’s farmed land and could be seen in large flocks feeding and on migration. Those who can remember that time are always the most moved by the rapid disappearance of this beautiful looking and gentle sounding bird whose population in the UK plummeted by 88% between 1995 and 2012. They are now the most threatened bird in the UK and largely restricted to the east and south east of England.
Image 1: The Turtle Dove is the most threatened bird in the UK. Their survival in this country depends on research and urgent, targeted conservation action Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Admittedly, the outlook certainly appears bleak but the important thing to remember is that we still have enough time to turn things around for the turtle dove. And this is where Operation Turtle Dove comes in...
Operation Turtle Dove (OTD) is a partnership project between the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England, launched in May 2012 with the aim to reverse the species decline. By furthering research and knowledge about the species ecology both on breeding and wintering grounds we can use the information to identify the main drivers of the species decline and come up with practical solutions to try and prevent and reverse them.
As a migrant of several thousand miles travelling every spring and autumn to and from West Africa, turtle doves face a range of threats across their migratory route. These threats include loss of habitat on breeding and wintering grounds, disease, illegal killing and hunting. However the driving factor of the decline is that the birds are simply not producing as many chicks as they used to. They have gone from having up to three or four nesting attempts to having either only one, or sometimes none at all. The reason for this lack in nesting attempts in recent decades is being linked to the health of adult birds – they do not seem to be able to find enough suitable food in order to get into good enough health to produce young.
Image 2: Turtle Dove chicks in the nest. (Tony Morris)
So what’s the solution? Certainly as they breed in the UK, we must ensure there is sufficient suitable habitat for them to return to each year in order to raise their chicks. In 2014 OTD took on two dedicated turtle dove conservation advisers to provide free advice to farmers, land owners and managers in core breeding areas to maintain and establish targeted nesting and foraging habitat for turtle doves. So far, these advisers have delivered over 20,000ha of advice through advisory farm visits and are supporting people prioritising turtle dove in their Countryside Stewardship applications this year as well as organising farm walks and talks.
If nothing is done, turtle doves will be lost in the UK as a breeding species within the next few decades. Let’s not let that happen. By working together we can save this species and prove that a farmed environment can still provide areas for wildlife to thrive and, in fact save those we are at most risk of losing.
How to help save turtle doves down on the farm:
Establish the turtle dove bespoke nectar flower mix:
Early English common vetch – 25%
Birds foot trefoil- 20%
Early white clover-20%
Black medick- 20%
Early red clover- 10%
This mix can be used as part of environmental stewardship:
Image 3: Turtle dove seed mix (Samantha Lee)
Create cultivated margins or plots to encourage natural regeneration of arable plants.
Environmental Stewardship options:
Image 4: Developed hedgerows provide safe nesting habitat for Turtle Dove (Samantha Lee)
Successional scrub of hawthorn and blackthorn – species that turtle doves show a preference for.
Maintain areas of thick, dense scrub and manage on a three year rotation. Turtle doves breed in August so avoid management during this time.
ELS/ HLS options
EB3 Enhanced hedgerow management
HC15 Maintenance of successional areas and scrub
HC16 Restoration of successional areas and scrub
HC17 Creation of successional areas of scrub
HB11 Management of hedgerows of very high environmental value (both sides)
BE3 Management of hedgerows (£16/100m or £8/100m)
WD7 Management of successional areas and scrub (£74 p/ha)
WD8 creation of successional areas of scrub (£87 p/ha)
For more information, you can visit the project website www.operationturtledove.org.uk . Or to receive habitat advice or arrange a free farm advisory visit contact your local adviser:
East of England:
Tel: 07894 802267
South East England:
Tel: 07540 012 649
By Samantha Lee (Conservation Advisor)
With spring upon us and the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) juddering into action, Policy officer Tom Lancaster turns his focus to the new agri-environment scheme in England, Countryside Stewardship.
The application window for the new Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme is approaching, and we’re hopeful that many farmers are thinking about applying. With the window running from July to September, perfectly timed for harvest (!), thinking seriously now about your application, will pay dividends as the deadline looms. Whilst a lot of detail remains to be ironed out, Defra and Natural England have recently compiled all that does exist on their website, providing information about the new options, payment rates and other scheme details.
More focused than Environmental Stewardship, CS is a competitive scheme, using targeting to try and make sure that every penny counts. But this does not mean that farmers will be somehow ‘freezed out’ – everywhere will be a priority for something. For lowland farmers in particular, a key element of the scheme is the ‘Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package’, a collection of measures designed to be simple to deliver but effective for wildlife.
Image 1: Options available under the Farm Wildlife Package will include sown wild bird seed mixes. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com).
The Farm Wildlife Package includes options such as pollen and nectar mixes and wild bird seed mixes, and applicants to the so-called ‘middle-tier’ of the scheme will be expected to aim for 3-5% of their farmed land under these sorts of options. Although the coverage of the scheme will decline compared to Entry Level Stewardship (ELS), the hope is that focusing effort and resources will have a greater impact. For those in HLS under the current Farmland Bird Package, all of this will be very familiar territory, and a similar package of options has been developed for the ‘higher-tier’ of CS.
These packages are based on the best available evidence, and have been developed though a partnership approach, with Natural England working with NGO’s, the farming industry, farmers and national pollinator scientists to bring together the evidence, knowledge and practical experience to make it possible. A recent scientific paper by the RSPB and Natural England found that this package approach used in Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) led to positive impacts for a range of priority farmland birds. Across forty farms surveyed in 2008 and then again in 2011, monitoring found that lapwings, grey partridge, yellowhammers and more all benefitted from this sort of proactive management.
Image 2: A recent paper has shown that Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) benefits reed buntings, with a 7% increase on farms under HLS between 2008 and 2011, compared to a decline on control farms of 40% over the same period. The Countryside Stewardship Farm Wildlife Package replicates many of the options that benefit this species. (Mike Richards: rspb-images.com)
If Countryside Stewardship provides the tools, and this evidence the confidence that the Farm Wildlife Package could make a real difference, what we need now is farmers and land managers to be enthused and engaged with the new scheme.
We recognise that CAP fatigue has well and truly struck. IT breakdowns, new rules and a lack of information means that it’s a near full time job just keeping up to date with developments. But the time is now or never to recover farm wildlife, and although the new scheme will be more competitive than ELS, managing 3-5% of your farmed land through the Farm Wildlife Package should significantly boost an applicants chance of success.
If you’re a farmer, and interested in applying for Countryside Stewardship, one of our regional advisers may be on hand to provide advice and support, or come at see us at Cereals stand 434 for help putting together an application for your farm. We a running a series of free 1-2-1 advice sessions at Cereals, where advisors will use digital mapping to help explore how you can maximise the benefits of CS for wildlife on your farm. As the sessions are likely to be popular please email the following address for more information and/or to book: email@example.com
For further updates on Countryside Stewardship and or the RSPB's stand at Cereals please follow the farming blog or updates on @AgriODowd
By Tom Lancaster (Agricutural Policy Officer): firstname.lastname@example.org