Act now to maximise field margin biodiversity and help the Campaign for the Farmed Environment succeed.
Farming is well into its six-month extension to meet the biodiversity targets set by the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. Fail to hit those targets voluntarily and policymakers could implement compulsory set-aside. So what can be done?
Admittedly, this autumn is set to be extremely busy. But a few simple actions could bring big biodiversity improvements. Allocating poor-performing areas and managing them for maximum wildlife output, just like any other crop, is key - and herbicides could help.
Years of trials on two high-yielding demonstration farms, one on intensely fertile flatlands in East Yorkshire and the other on heavier ground in Northamptonshire, have pinpointed clear strategies to ensure wildflower and bird food margins become wildlife assets - not ugly weed patches.
The 600ha farm on Hanslope series chalky boulder clay grows a wheat, wheat, rape rotation and has just 2.9% allocated to wildlife areas, all on lower producing field edges.
Wild bird strips have been spectacularly successful, with breeding pairs of 87 species soaring from 214 in 2009, to 389 in 2010 and 457 in 2011.
"That is two breeding pairs per acre," says Andrew. "Quite an achievement on intensively farmed arable land." But atrocious spring weather means this year's counts are expected to be down, so good establishment of seed mixes for the coming winter is critical.
Harnessing skills and technologies farmers are familiar with in conventional crop production is key to success, says Graham Hartwell, demonstration farm project manager for BASF.
"The practices we have put in place are simple and easy for any farmer to implement using conventional husbandry skills and farm equipment. Essentially, we have worked to establish year-round food supplies for birds and insects, as well as roosting/nesting sites."
So consider the species to be encouraged, the best seed mix to do that and the weed burden that might compete. "It's the same as you would do for wheat. You don't want to waste money invested in seed, which could be anything from £40-45/ha."
At Rawcliffe Bridge, near Goole in East Yorkshire, the Hinchliffe family's 140ha farm on highly fertile warp land is intensively managed to produce maximum yields of high-quality wheat seed on flat land. More than 10 years of work have attracted 110 wild bird species, with tree sparrow numbers up from five to 59 pairs, following the introduction of co-located 'bed and breakfast' nest boxes and feeding stations, for example. Corn buntings number three times the lowland average; yellow wagtails a whopping 47 times higher; grey partridge six times higher; meadow pipits two and a half times higher; and 25 skylark territories are twice the lowland average.
Rawcliffe Bridge has 154 plant species on field boundaries, 165 species of moths, 22 species of butterflies and eight species of dragonfly - spectacular figures by any reckoning, and all the more so given the farm's intensive crop management.
The key has been creating wildlife specific habitats. "It is effectively building biodiversity by design," says Mr Hartwell. Farmers need to do the same, using their farm knowledge to identify which birds, flowers and insects are present and worth encouraging, and which may have been there once, maybe remembered from childhood, and could be encouraged back.
Autumn sowing has a key role to play, not only ensuring good establishment in soil conditions that are usually better than the spring, but also providing food in time for birds when they start breeding in early spring.
"Successful autumn establishment, delivering a quality plant stand quickly, provides food for bees, butterflies and birds, creating more biodiversity, so less area is required overall," notes BASF colleague Ian Ford.
But while spring-sown mixes flowering in June may be too late to support early fledglings, they can help support later broods, and establish winter feed. So sowing at both timings is ideal.
Mr Hinchliffe has drilled in the autumn since 2003, and lost just one crop in the cold 2010 winter. Autumn sowing also avoids intense competition from polygonum weeds, particularly fat hen, which often hits spring sowings, he notes.
"If your combinable crops are best drilled in the autumn, wildlife crops probably are too," agrees Mr Pitts. Cut slug pressure by sowing into a firm, fine seedbed, and adjust seed rate, he adds. "You are allowed a certain amount of nitrogen on strips too. It's better to use all the tools available to get good establishment, than to have to go back to replace the strip later."
Grass/flower mixes often contain species very sensitive to competition, particularly from arable weeds and volunteers, so remove those early. "Stale seedbeds are absolutely key to wildlife crops being a big success," urges Mr Pitts.
Selective herbicides, like Stomp Aqua, can help too, adds Mr Hartwell. Demo farm work to highlight the specific wildlife benefits of over 30 seed mix components has also pinpointed their interactions with herbicides, so the best combinations can be chosen for specific field situations.
"On heavy land sites we use a kale/mustard/fodder radish mix so we can use Laser to hit grassweeds hard," explains Mr Pitts. "The strip then becomes a useful weed control tool instead of an unsightly weedy mess beside the hedge."
For thistles, a brassica mix allows pre-em metazachlor or post-em clopyralid, the latter being favoured by Mr Hinchliffe. "If you don't look after these wildlife crops you're not going to get so much from them, so it is worth making sure you are using all the options available."
Extension of authorisation of minor use approval (formerly SOLAs) are easily found on company websites, if needed, Mr Pitts notes.
Avoiding autumn and summer insecticide sprays also helps. "We routinely use a seed dressing [insecticide] because of its targeted approach," says Mr Pitts. "This enables us to not spray for BYDV in the autumn, or for flea beetle on oilseed rape. Orange blossom midge resistant wheat also avoids the need for summer insecticides."
Supplementary feeding of songbirds in late winter and early spring has been so successful that it is now approved in stewardship schemes, following a visit by farm minister Jim Paice and DEFRA officials last autumn. Legal predator control, for foxes, crows, magpies, weasels and stoats, is also essential, notes Mr Pitts.
BASF's demo farms are used for farmer training and to show farming's green credentials to food buyers, processors, retailers, policymakers and conservation organisations, including LEAF, GWCT and RSPB. Eight further sites across Europe are planned for late 2012.
With the right commitment to wildlife areas this autumn, wildlife could really benefit, helping CFE fend off compulsory set-aside and all the extra bureaucracy and costs that would bring. As Mr Pitts says: "Our strategy is to give the same attention to detail to countryside management as to business management. It is simple, but it works."
- Which species have declined on your farm?
- How could you benefit them?
- Select an appropriate seed mix
- Stagger sowing for year-round food
- Consider selective herbicides
- Keep on top of mowing
- Feed tail corn/screenings over winter
- Install nest boxes near feeding sites
- Avoid foliar insecticides
- Get more information from BASF
- Learn more about the Campaign for the Farmed Environment