16 August 2002

Wildflower meadows give Bellamy a buzz

Botanist David Bellamy was

stunned when he visited a

wildflower meadow created

on an Oxfordshire farm.

Johann Tasker reports

RARE plants and wildlife are returning to the countryside after two men employed modern methods to recreate wildflower meadows that look like they are hundreds of years old. Ecologist Marek Nowakowski teamed up with farmer Andrew Ingram to reverse the decline in some of Britains most highly treasured wildlife habitats.

Andrews Oxfordshire farm is on thin chalk soil in the Chilterns. Because some fields were producing unacceptably low yields, he decided to put back the biodiversity in a way that was affordable and complimentary to his business. Marek jumped at the chance and has spent the past seven years helping create an 8ha (20 acre) meadow.

Eleven grasses and 20 different flowering species that once existed on the thin chalky soil were sown in autumn 1995. During the first few years, the field threw up the usual weeds associated with past cereal cropping. But a successful meadow was gradually created by mowing, grazing and spraying grasses that threatened to out-compete the sown mixture.

The culmination of the work can be seen in the Oxfordshire countryside this summer. Bill Meek, of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, recently carried out a detailed plant count and found 72 species. And Prof David Bellamy has described the meadow as the best example of its kind for the past 30 years.

&#42 Rarer plants

Rarer plants include spreading meadow grass, small scabious and clustered bellflower. English Nature provided local seed from the very rare Chiltern gentian which grows on a nearby nature reserve. This "Jewel in the Chilterns" has helped other rare flowers return to their former haunts. It has also attracted birds, bees and butterflies.

Prof Bellamy said: "I really am very excited by what I have seen. This could well be a turning point for farmland biodiversity. It is a goldmine for wildlife.

"The countryside has lost 97% of its ancient flower meadows and this shows us all what is possible when like-minded people get together and produce such valuable and striking habitats.

"It seems the best balance between feeding people and putting back the wildlife I once knew as a little boy. This could be done on a massive scale if Mareks skills were more widely known and used, and the appropriate payments were available to farmers."

Modern meadows cannot replace lost wildlife meadows that were created naturally over centuries. But Marek believes they are the next best thing and certainly better than eyesore set-aside which blights much of Britain and costs taxpayers £ millions in EU subsidies.

"To encourage farmers to sow flower meadows it has to make financial sense," he said. "If you spread the cost of wildflower seeds over 10 years and put the field into set-aside you get a net difference of £70/acre. This figure could always be debated but it is unlikely you would be worse off than growing a poor yield at todays prices and costs."

THE BUZZ PROJECT

The importance of creating new valuable farmland habitats is being researched within the Buzz Project, a three-year

initiative demonstrating

management techniques which boost biodiversity without reducing farm profitability.

Buzz is a network of six sites comparing six different sown farmland wildlife habitats on a range of soil types to find wildlife preferences to the sown mixture. Managed by the Farmed Environment Company and sponsored by Syngenta Crop Protection, Unilever and Birds Eye Walls, it is helping farmers develop new

management skills.

The site in Oxfordshire is owned by the Northmoor Trust who is working with the project to research the biodiversity benefits and agronomic

implications of enhancing farmed environments particularly in terms of field margin

creation and management. Also included is a within field plot providing winter food for

farmland birds.

The project is also raising public awareness and understanding of improved wildlife biodiversity on farms. The sites stretch from Buckinghamshire in the south to Yorkshire in the north. Scientists from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology monitor species including rare arable plants, bees, butterflies and birds.

"This is a unique practical project managed by farmers for farmers," says agronomist Marek Nowakowski. "The results will enable farmers to create targeted habitats that boost biodiversity with mimimal efect to farm profitability. We call this dial-a-habitat and see our approach as best value for DEFRA Countryside Stewardship money."

For more information,

contact the Farmed Environment Company on 01653-617352.