14 June 2002

Trials to make sure wildlifes gain isnt the producers loss

MAKING sure wildlife conservation does not lead to big cash losses for farmers is the aim of trials been carried out by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The national conservation group is using its East Anglia farm to devise wildlife-friendly measures which would not involve extra cost or could attract "profits forgone" compensation under future agri-environment schemes.

The charity has bought a 181ha (448-acre) arable farm in the parish of Knapwell, Cambridgeshire, to develop and trial farming techniques that can produce food cost effectively and benefit wildlife.

It is testing ideas that farmers cannot yet pursue because of economic or technical constraints – including ways of making cereal fields more accommodating for ground nesting birds and of sustaining "beneficial" seed-bearing weeds which do not threaten crop yields or quality.

Grange Farm, Knapwell, comprises a calcareous clay loam of the Hanslope series – typical of the land within about 40% of lowland arable farms.

The cropping is in line with many other arable farms in East Anglia – a rotation of winter-sown wheat, oilseed rape and set-aside.

One of the ideas being tried is leaving undrilled patches about 4m by 6m in dimension in wheat fields for the nesting of skylarks.

These birds have been in decline for many years and much of the blame has been directed at changes in farming practices, including the move to winter-sown crops which are too dense and high by nesting time.

Roger Buisson, project manager for the RSPB, said the trials were at an early stage and results would be analysed at a later date.

"We need to increase seed availability over the winter and insect numbers in the spring and summer. Changing the way that we use herbicides is central to this and it is what we will be investigating in the next few years," he said.

Dr Buisson said if mistakes were made in the management of crops at Grange Farm, the cost would be under-written by the RSPB until the right formula was found. "We cannot expect commercial farmers to pay for such mistakes. We want to get ideas to a tried and tested state before they are used elsewhere." &#42