19 September 1998

WINNING WAYS WITH WARBLERS

TWO driving passions are in evidence at Vine House Farm, Deeping St Nicholas, near Spalding. The first, and arguably the dominant one, is a fierce enthusiasm for bird life. The second is the need to make the commercial farm earn its keep.

Nicholas Watts has married the two on 640ha (1,580 acres) of fen which casual observers might dismiss as flat, bleak, tree-less and ecologically barren.

Fen landscape is an acquired taste. Although not chocolate-box pretty, the Vine House Farm site is anything but a sterile wasteland. Mr Watts should know – meticulous records exist of bird species sighted on the farm since the 1950s. But the wildlife is suffering now. He has charted the impact of changing farm practices on bird populations with considerable sadness.

In his opinion, the switch from winter barley is partly responsible for a dramatic decline in numbers of corn buntings. "Between 1982-92 numbers decreased by 90%, from 10 singing males to just one. Skylarks also declined 60% during this period."

Mr Watts thinks the intensification of wheat growing, and the use of growth regulators, which promote thick crops, has eliminated many of the gaps within crops which skylarks use for foraging and to get to their nesting spaces. Better weed control has exacerbated this effect.

Of all the fenland birds, the tiny reed warbler is one of the most vulnerable. Such species rely on water margin habitats. But most of the small ditches which criss-crossed the Fens have been filled in over the years as fields were amalgamated. The major dykes remain, but on the banks, over-enthusiastic mowing and ditch management has taken a toll on the fragile ecology.

For the reed warbler, the ideal dyke is one mown every two or three years. The tiny nest is suspended in the reeds, and the bulk of it is made from last years seed head. Reed warblers are insectivorous, and will venture out into fields bordering the dyke in search of a meal.

Magpies are a serious threat to reed warblers. "Three-quarters of reed warbler nests will fail where magpies are present," says Mr Watts.

He is trying to tip the odds in favour of reed warblers, and other native fenland species. This is where the Cyanamid/Crops/FWAG Conservation Competition can help. His plan is to recreate an area of marshy land on his farm, and to stock it with native plants and shrubs, which will attract the insects and birds that were a familiar sight when his grandfather was farming the same area.

Thanks to his £5,000 award, the diggers start excavations this month on a set-aside strip that has been in place for four years. The 20m wide, 0.5ha (1.2-acre) wetland site will be kept wet with the help of a weir and bund linked with the dyke.

Mr Watts aims to build a mosaic of varying depths of water, mud, marsh and scrub – the typical fen habitat before efficient drainage systems arrived. All vegetation, apart from sown grass, will be sourced locally. Trees are ruled out as inappropriate for this type of habitat.

Jonathan Brunyee and Roger Wardle of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) have given advice. Bird species such as the reed warbler will not be tempted back unless insect populations are encouraged, comments Mr Wardle. That has implications for spray management on the whole of the farm – and not just for the new wetland area.

With the help of his agronomist, Neville Woolley, Mr Watts already operates a careful spray policy over his cereal/roots rotation. "We can live with a few more weeds in surrounding crops," says Mr Woolley. "Most of them will not be that competitive."

Conservation headlands have been created to encourage weed and insect rich areas at field margins under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. Mr Watts is converting some land to organic potato production which could also improve the farms biodiversity.

A big success has been seen with careful mowing management of set-aside, boosting the skylark population. "Contrary to popular belief, mowing can help skylarks – the nests are safe in hollows below the cutter," explains Mr Watts.

Each morning in the summer, he is out before breakfast monitoring birds that are breeding on the farm. He hopes the new wetland site will attract reed and sedge warblers, tufted duck, mallard, reed bunting, and yellow wagtail, with linnets, blackcaps, turtle doves and whitethroats taking advantage of the scrub which will eventually surround the water. It all goes to show how a bird enthusiast can live with his passion without sacrificing his profits.

The winner of our conservation competition proves that biodiversity doesnt just mean pretty countryside. Gilly Johnson takes a trip into bird country – the heart of the Fens.

HEDGES NO LONGER LAIR OF HIGHWAYMEN

IT TAKES just 10 minutes to walk from the Boot and Shoe coaching house on the A1 to the field on the hill at Manor House Farm. But that journey was one highwaymans last, writes Sarah Henly.

He was caught red-handed, cowering in what is now named Highwaymans Hedge – the only beech hedge on the 150ha (370-acre) farm in South Milford, near Leeds, managed by Chris Woodall and his father, Ralph.

It was the Woodalls interest in hedges that persuaded the judges to award them runner-up status. The prize money will help complete their hedge planting scheme on the rented farm, which supports mainly winter wheat, winter and spring barley, and potatoes.

"We have established many hawthorn and blackthorn hedges over the past few years, but they dont yet form a wildlife corridor for the rabbits, mice and voles in the area," says Chris Woodall. "I now want to use hedges to join up the woodlands to achieve that."

He intends to plant using a novel technique suggested by West Riding FWAG adviser, Caroline Ashton. He will use glyphosate (Roundup) then go through with the subsoiler set at a depth of 300mm (12in) to make a channel for bare rooted whitethorn, dog rose and hazel plants. Someone walking behind the machine can pop the plants in then flatten the soil with their feet.

"I hope to plant about half-a-mile of new hedgerow a day with the subsoiler. That will free up some of my time to restore some of the overgrown ones," explains Mr Woodall.

That will be a challenge since the farm is run as two separate units, each from its own yard. While the mainstay is arable cropping, there is some permanent and rotational grassland. The Woodalls had a small beef herd before the BSE scare, and are waiting to see if profits rise again before deciding to replace the grass.

Milling wheat averages 8-9.26t/ha (3.75t/acre) and malting barley varieties achieve about 5.56-6.18t/ha (2.25-2.5t/acre) on the grade two medium loam soil over magnesium limestone. With the help of agronomist Roger Beaumont from AIS Yorkshire, part of the Brown Butlin group, Mr Woodall is able to keep them confined mainly to headlands and hedge bottoms with selective herbicides and hand roguing. He gives hedges a wide berth when spraying and uses a hedge back disc on the fertiliser spreader to improve the value of the hedgebacks for beneficial insects and birds.

Those techniques will also be employed on the old searchlight road, bordering two wheat fields, where Mr Woodall hopes to create a true beetle bank. The concrete-based road, on a steep hill, was used during World War II as a look-out for enemy planes. Its top growth is now better suited to insects than soldiers.

As for the land in set-aside, Mr Woodall plans to sow the purple flowering cover crop, phacelia. It should grow well for several years on the droughty soil and provide food for butterflies and other insects.

He may also take up an additional area of voluntary set-aside to develop a 20m strip of land to encourage wildlife from an adjacent SSSI. That would not only separate nearby crops from rabbit habitats, but it would complete the wildlife corridor across Manor House Farm, making it a idyll for all.