23 November 2001

BIODIVERSITY SCHEMES AN EYE OPENER

Farmers are giving wildlife and conservation a

boost thanks to a nationwide Farming and Wildlife

Advisory Group scheme. Tim Relf visits one Devon

farm to see how the initiative works

ITS opened my eyes to whats here, says Brian Brown of the Farm Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) undertaken on his 50ha (130 acre) farm at Fenny Bridges. "Ive always enjoyed the countryside – but now Im just so much more aware of what Ive actually got here."

The farm, which is on the eastern edge of the Devon Redlands Natural Area and is bordered by the River Otter, is two-thirds arable with free-range chicken production as the main enterprise.

And the Farm BAP is one of about 1000 FWAG is delivering to Sainsburys suppliers (Brian sells broilers to the supermarket through Lloyd Maunder).

According to FWAGs Anne Heeley, Farm BAPs aim to ensure a farms profitability while enhancing its landscape and conservation value. "They give a summary of wildlife habitats and species – and then help the farmer set priorities and guide resources. Some times, simply, its just a case of having a fresh pair of eyes look at the farm."

Farm BAPs determine which valuable habitats and species are present and worthy of enhancement or could be developed. "We find out what the farmer is interested in and concentrate on that," says Anne. "Its farmer-driven."

As she says of Brians situation: "Its not a picture-book farm. Its a real commercial farm. We are advising within that framework – not to the detriment of it."

The target species here are Kingfishers, Marsh Fritillary butterflies, otters and Yellow-hammers and the main recommendation and comments are:

&#42 Grassland

There is some unimproved pasture which is grazed occasionally. The sward is species rich and provides an ideal habitat for butterflies.

The aim should be "gentle" management, preventing poaching. This means summer grazing only and avoiding supplementary feeding.

Pesticide and fertilisers should be avoided on wet grassland and surrounding grass should not be reseeded.

"I used to call it a bit of wasteland," says Brian. "Ive lived here all my life – but never particularly been into botany. I wondered at one point if I should plant trees there because it was no good for anything. Now I know how valuable it is."

&#42 Hedges

Hedges are one of the most important interconnecting features across the farm and support a "vast wealth" of species, according to Charlotte Lamble of Devon FWAG. "While a trimmed hedge may appear tidy, it has reduced conservation value as it minimises the quantity of berries and flowers."

Currently, hedges on Brians farm are trimmed annually but ideally this should be done on a three-year rotation. Trimming them higher and wider creates good cover for nests. (Over-hanging or dangerous roadside hedges should be cut more frequently).

Trimming should be done in late winter after the berries have been eaten and before nesting begins.

Where practical, hedgerow trees should be encouraged and occasional trees planted in gaps (use a mixture of native shrubs and trees characteristic of the area).

A 1m strip of permanent vegetation should be kept alongside hedgerows to provide a buffer between the wildlife habitat and agricultural activities.

Old trees and dead wood should be retained for hole-nesting birds, insects, fungi, lichen and mosses.

&#42 Water

FWAG advise that an artificial holt be built in the wood for immediate use by otters which are known to be in the area.

Native shrubs and oak and ash should be planted on the river banks so their root systems can eventually provide places for otters to lie up in.

Areas of bank and field corners beside watercourses should be allowed to scrub up to provide cover and seclusion.

Indeed, avoiding over-tidyness can bring great wildlife and conservation benefits, says Anne Heeley.

"Farmers cant be too untidy in the farmyard or where animal health or crop storage, for example, is a consideration – but in other areas they can let a few thistles grow or cover develop," she says. "Similarly, dead wood is wonderful stuff whether its standing or fallen. Resist the temptation to chop it up and stick it on the fire."

Steep earth banks by the river should also be maintained for kingfishers to tunnel nests in. The birds can also be encouraged by preventing poaching and bankside erosion and so cattle should be kept away from banks using electric fencing.

Every precaution should, of course, also be taken to prevent pollution of watercourses by slurry and silage etc and open-field muck heaps should be kept at least 10m from watercourses.

FWAGConference

A FEW tickets are still available for FWAGs International Conference which takes place at Stoneleigh, Warks, next Thursday (Nov 29).

The event, titled Multifunctional Agriculture – A European Model, includes speakers RASE boss Mike Calvert and Country-side Chairman for Wales chairman John Lloyd Jones.

The cost is £95 plus VAT, but FWAG members get a 15% discount (024-7669 6699).