More spring crops to bring
INCENTIVES for growing more spring cereals to encourage farmland birds could be on the way.
Changes to the Countryside Stewardship scheme to stimulate more spring sowings could come when MAFF takes over administration from the Countryside Commission next year, visitors to an Oxon FWAG demonstration heard last week.
Held at Clacks Farm, Wallingford, run by former FARMERS WEEKLY barometer grower Philip Chamberlain, the meeting highlighted dramatic declines in the numbers of six key species previously common on many farms.
Encouraging spring drilling would allow more stubbles to remain untouched over winter and provide a more diverse habitat for birds and other wildlife, explained FWAGs David West.
There are signs that set-aside has helped halt the slide, particularly for linnets and possibly corn bunting and grey partridge, said the RSPBs George Dodds. "Set-aside has been a big success." But reversing the trend will be a "slow process", with no guarantee that set-aside is here to stay.
Naturally regenerated set-aside, in effect over-wintered stubble, is a dual-benefit "oasis" for birds, especially the skylark, said Dr Jeremy Wilson of Oxford University. "The skylarks fortune may be being reversed by set-aside."
Stubbles provide spilled grain and weed seeds as over-winter feed and offer "excellent" spring cover for ground-nesting species. A spin-off is that they also benefit birds nesting elsewhere, he said. By comparison, winter cereals are sterile deserts resounded by an "eerie silence".
Dr Wilson referred to a study in Oxon last year. Of 26 bird species examined about 12 clearly preferred stubbles. Nineteen actively avoided winter cereals. Only the blackbird shunned stubbles. "In virtually every case stubbles were favoured."
However, set-aside needs managing properly to get the best out of it for birds. "The best thing to do is leave it alone until, say, mid-August." But he acknowledged the need to control weeds and prepare land for sowing.
Herbicide treatment is the "least of the evils" as it allows cover and insects to remain. Next worst is cutting. "It may not destroy the nests, but it exposes them to predators, and the parents lose their landmarks. Ploughing is the worst of all because it destroys everything."
Whatever the choice, Dr Wilson advised farmers to "leave it as late as possible". "Most birds have finished nesting by early July."
Grassy field margins, just 2m (6.5ft) wide, sown with the correct species, can do much to encourage birds without costing the earth in terms of lost yield or increased weed burdens, according to FWAGs David West.
FWAGs Countryside Stewardship plan for the mainly open 1400ha (3500 acres) run intensively by Mr Chamberlain with large modern machinery includes five miles of such margins. "Its not a large area – less than 2ha," comments Mr West.
In return the farm will get a grant of £15/100m each year for the next 10 years, he explains. There are restrictions on the species used – in this case "tussocky" cocksfoot and Yorkshire fog are the main choices.
Grass margins, without an accompanying sterile strip and properly managed, help prevent weeds like cleavers from seeding into crops from adjoining hedges, explains FWAGs Alison Smyth.
Mr West believes such margins should be included within overall field sizes for assessing area aid. "They represent good farming practice." Indeed, he claims some regional MAFF offices have interpreted them as such.
• Plant 1 mile of new hedge.
• Sow 5 miles of grass margin.
• Create new green lane.
• Coppice and gap hedges.
• Sow wildflowers into chalk grassland.
• Pollard riverside willows.
Population decline of breeding birds on UK
farms since 1969
Bringing back the birdsong with set-aside, hedges and grassy verges. Dr Jeremy Wilson (left) and Philip Chamberlain hope the Countryside Stewardship plan will revive species like the skylark.