RSPB Geltsdale’s site manager Steve Westerberg talks about how farming on the reserve is helping to provide homes for nature.
Tarnhouse Farm is part of RSPB Geltsdale and is farmed by the RSPB’s tenant Ian Bell who has his own farm adjacent to the reserve. Tarnhouse is a large hill farm and is about 2000ha, the majority of which is moorland. Ian has been farming here for 18 months and has 80 suckler cows and 360 ewes along with a stockperson, Kelly, who is working full time on the farm.
Farmer Ian Bell at Geltsdale. Image: Steve Westerberg
Ian has a good understanding of the work we are doing at Geltsdale and is working with us create a variety of habitats for the range of species on the reserve. Most of his cattle are Sim-Luing cross, which are put to a Charolais bull to produce good quality beef. The majority of the calving takes place here in the spring. At the moment, Ian is about three quarters of the way through calving.
The cows and calves are put out to graze once they have calved, which is an important part of the nature conservation of the farm. Cattle are quite selective about what grass they eat so when they graze, they leave patchy areas of grass, which benefit many birds, particularly black grouse and curlews.
To prevent damaging this habitat, most of the cattle then spend the winter in a large shed, which was constructed in 2015.
Cows in shed at Geltsdale. Image: Ian Ryding
Lambing is now just about over and, after dosing for worms, the flock is going onto the fell ground. Sheep can live on these higher parts of the farm and their close grazing, which keeps the grass short, is good for breeding golden plovers. In July, the flock will be gathered off the hill temporarily for clipping, contract shearers will be here for the day, a busy time with everyone involved in making sure the shearers are as efficient as possible.
All the stock are off the hayfields now, which are now full of flowers. One hayfield even has large numbers of northern marsh orchids. There are also wading birds nesting in them. These hayfields will be cut in late July/August, giving time for the waders to fledge their young and leave.
Most of Ian’s time at the moment is spent checking the health of his sheep and cattle. As the stock are spread out over the whole farm, there is a great deal of ground for him to cover and lots of places for stock to hide in. It’s hard work but he clearly loves it.
He says: “It’s a pleasure working on the reserve on a daily basis, seeing the huge variety of birds and fabulous scenery.”
The summer months are a natural time for people to head outside to enjoy the British countryside and its wildlife. Given that around three quarters of land in the UK is used for farming, the chances are that if you are enjoying wildlife outside of a nature reserve, it will be on farmland.
Luckily there are farmers making great efforts to give nature a home on their farms, often with the help of RSPB and other advisors.
As well as being a great time to look for wildlife on farms, June is also when the annual Open Farm Sunday event takes place. Organised by LEAF, this is an opportunity for farmers across the country to invite the public onto their farm and give an idea of what they do there.
What to look out for
Many of our most treasured and iconic native species, from skylarks, turtle doves and curlews to hares, cornflowers and many insects, tend to live on farmland.
Late spring will see our countryside bursting with life. Wildflower meadows and field margins, with plants like birdsfoot trefoil, knapweed and cornflowers, are in full bloom. Farmland provides important habitat for these plants, which in turn support the insects that are vital for pollinating the crop and providing food for hungry birds and bats. Some, including hoverflies, also provide natural pest control. Look out for bumblebees including the common carder bee, and butterflies such as the gatekeeper and brimstone.
Wildflowers on farmland. Image: www.rspb-images.com
Hedgerows offer a wealth of wildlife, from plants such as hawthorn and elder, to nesting birds and small mammals. Many farms also have features that are not directly related to agriculture, such as ponds or patches of woodland. Maintaining these habitats will help to boost the amount of wildlife on the farm too.
While the birds are in the midst of the breeding season, their main focus is on finding food to feed their young. To see them through the winter and into the next breeding season, many birds need a helping hand from farmers to find the seed food they rely on during the winter and early spring. By leaving stubbles after harvest or even providing dedicated areas of the farm planted with seed-bearing plants, farmers can help birds such as yellowhammers, linnets and corn buntings to survive until the plentiful summer period. They may well be rewarded with impressive flocks, as many birds move onto farmland from urban areas or garden feeding in the summer to take advantage of the food available.
Yellowhammer eating seed on farmland. Image: www.rspb-images.com
Grazing animals can also help to maintain important habitats for a variety of wildlife. By managing the density of the livestock grazing, the farmer can help to provide a diversity of grasses which in turn provides a variety of structures and habitats within the grassland which will appeal to a greater range of wildlife. In the uplands, the mix of wet and dry habitats, different vegetation heights and structure provide important habitat for a number of species of high conservation importance which have been lost from many other parts of the UK (golden plovers and curlews for example). Many rarer invertebrates are also found in these habitats including the large heath and marsh fritillary butterflies, the golden-ringed dragonfly, bilberry bumblebees and the tormentil mining bee.
You can find out more about the importance of farming to wildlife, as well as how RSPB is helping farmers to help nature, by visiting our website.
Get out on 11 June to support Open Farm Sunday
The RSPB is getting involved in Open Farm Sunday in various places and in various ways, from events at our own reserves, many of which include farmed areas, to volunteers and staff helping visitors to spot the wildlife at local farms.
Ian Dillon, farm manager at RSPB’s own Hope Farm says, “This is a great chance for people to visit working farms near them. For farmers, this is a chance for us to show people how our food is produced and our countryside managed. It can make the link between the food we eat, the farming that produces it and the nature on which farming depends. Farms can be a rich source of wildlife and this is a chance for me to show this off to the local community.”
Visitors to Hope Farm on Open Farm Sunday. Image: Ellie Crane
To find out if there is a farm near you taking part, see www.farmsunday.org (or www.openfarmweekend.com in Northern Ireland). As well as learning about the farming operations, why not look out for nature on the farm or ask the farmer how they help attract wildlife onto their farm?
For arable farmers, one of the biggest events of the year takes place every June - Cereals. This technical event attracts more than 20,000 visitors over two days. As usual, amidst the shiny new tractors, new varieties of cereal crops and demonstrations, agricultural staff from across the RSPB will be on-hand to provide advice on managing farmland for biodiversity as well as food production. This year we will be showcasing the work we have undertaken at Hope Farm over the last 15 years, and our plans for the future.
RSPB Hope Farm: Image: www.rspb-images.com
Since we bought the farm in 2000, we have seen the abundance of wildlife soar as a result of our approach:
These results have all been achieved whilst still running a productive and profitable arable enterprise, and the farm has been a powerful demonstration that wildlife conservation and food production can successfully go hand-in-hand.
As well as continuing to provide important habitat for farmland wildlife, Hope Farm is also taking on a new challenge. Over the coming years we will be taking a more experimental approach to test and develop innovate ideas for tackling some of the biggest challenges for arable farming - soil degradation, inorganic fertiliser use and blackgrass infestation.
If you're planning to attend the Cereals event, come and have a chat with us to find out more You can find us on Stand 411.
Staff talking to visitors to the RSPB stand at Cereals 2016. Image: Anna Broszkiewicz
Please come and chat to the RSPB at various shows taking place throughout the Spring and Summer. You can find us at:
Balmoral - 10 - 13 May, Belfast
Cereals - 14-15 June, Lincs
Royal Highland Show - 22-25 June, Edinburgh
Royal Welsh Show - 24-27 July, Builth Wells