Georgie Bray, Assistant Manager at Hope Farm, shares some top tips on creating and managing flower-rich margins and some of the benefits they provide
At Hope Farm we nurture wildflower margins to help wildlife thrive, as do many other farmers within the agri-environment schemes. Our margins are just coming to the end of their flowering period for 2017, and they will be cut in September, but in general they have looked fantastic all season. Different plants have provided resources for pollinators and birds, and this is partly due to the careful selection of plants and management to support a good field margin. Here is a brief over very of some species in our margins, how they benefit wildlife, and how we try to keep them in good order.
When starting off a floristic margin, it is important to begin with the right conditions. Treat the drilling and maintenance thereafter with as much care as a food-producing crop for a good chance of success. Creating a stale seedbed is paramount to give the new seedlings a chance to establish against anything that had been in the soil previously. Similarly to any other crop, it is then important to wait for the right conditions before drilling, before following the stewardship guidance. In general, repeated mowing in the first year helps the flowering plants to establish whilst knocking back the grasses and removing the cuttings in September. Also, each mix will differ slightly, so it is important to listen to the seed merchant you have bought the seed from.
Knapweed is one of the most common, hardiest and easy to manage wildflowers that you can find in both our floristic margins, and across the country.
Painted lady on knapweed. Image: Georgie Bray
(Andy Hay - knapweed)
Knapweed mainly serves as a beneficiary to pollinators from June until September. It also provides seed food for many birds after flowering. In a study undertaken by the Game Wildlife Conservation Trust, over half of visits from bumblebees to floristic margin flowers were to a knapweed, demonstrating their importance in any floristic margin mix.
A lot of the time, you can find knapweed self-seeding around the farm, so where it is established and is not detrimental to crops it is best left to look after the pollinators who need it.
Birdsfoot trefoil is a flowering perennial legume that can be tolerant to poor drainage, drought, and acidic, infertile soils. Because of this, birdsfood trefoil does particularly well on our clay loam soils. Birdsfoot trefoil has a weak seedling emergence and is slow to establish, needing a good seedbed before good results will be seen from this species. However, once established it is a pretty hardy and competitive plant, providing more benefits than just those to wildlife.
Birdfsoot trefoil. Image: Georgie Bray
This plant provides food for pollinators and birds alike, flowering from May right through until September with good quality nectar for long-tongued and solitary bees. It has also been occur in the diet of turtle doves, which are in serious decline and need more of this kind of food around to avoid extinction.
On Hope Farm, we grow birdsfoot trefoil throughout many of our floristic margins as it is a long living legume, meaning good value for money if maintained well.
Common Vetch is another leguminous plant that can provide similar benefits to that of birdsfoot trefoil in terms of pollination and nitrogen fixation, all of these being part of the clover family. On other farms, common vetch, red clover, birdsfoot trefoil and other clovers can be used as part of a short-term ley for its nitrogen fixing and grazing benefits for ruminants, whilst providing better resources for wildlife than grasses alone.
Lucerne, birdsfoot trefoil and common vetch. Image: Georgie Bray
Teasel in flower. Image: Georgie Bray
Teasels are a self seeding plant that flowers from July to August in their second year, but thinking that this plant only provides a benefit to wildlife in that time would be a huge mistake.
A teasel plant is beneficial to wildlife at all stages in its life. As the leaves develop, the waterproof thick upper surface combined with tiny spikes form a water trap after rainfall. In the drying months, these could provide a resource for birds, invertebrates, and other small animals. As the plant flowers, its nectar is used by long-tongued pollinators, particularly peacock butterflies, and as this progresses to the seeding stage in autumn, goldfinches in particular will target this plant to help them through winter. Once the teasel has been exploited for all the food it can offer, the dead stalks provide a good place for hibernating insects.
Teasel management is relatively simple, as with most self seeding plants that aren’t too virulent. Just being aware of any fertiliser or herbicide drift that may kill off hedgerow and margin species is often enough to promote wildflowers that are beneficial to wildlife.
Although areas of bare soil with the odd self-seeded weed may seem like the least desirable area of a field, this is actually a really important habitat to maintain in areas of the farm with poor soil quality for a number of reasons.
Without these areas a lot of endangered species that need to land to feed become very limited in the places that they can find food. In our margins, some areas are maintained as sparse and patchy areas to provide more foraging opportunities for species like yellowhammers and turtle doves.
As an added bonus, this allows plants that need bare soil to establish and thrive as well, like the scarce broad leaved spurge found on the farm this summer.
For more information on how best to look after a floristic margin on your farm, visit www.farmwildlife.info
Thanks for pointing that out Ralph - I've amended the images
That's more Lucerne in the photo captioned Common Vetch.