Marginal benefits

5 February 2000

Marginal benefits

Go Wild competition winner Ian Ogilvie is shortly to come face to face with the wildlife of Africa, but at home he has plenty of wildlife too and many opportunities to increase it, as

Tom Allen-Stevens finds out.

WHAT would you do with enough grass and wildflower seed to sow 800m of 3m wide field margins? This is the quandary facing Scottish grower Ian Ogilvie. He is the winner of the Crops Go Wild competition, sponsored by Zeneca, the makers of Fusilade. As well as winning a safari trip to the game parks of Zimbabwe, Mr Ogilvie also receives a 5kg bag of field margin grass/wildflower mix. To help him decide how best to use it, help is at hand from local FWAG adviser Sophie Milner.

The first thing Miss Milner notices on arrival at Barns of Craig farm, near Montrose, is its natural assets. "There are some magnificent boundary trees on the edges of some of the fields – a great resource and worth looking after."

The farm also abuts Montrose basin, an SSSI and an area of tidal mudflats and saltmarsh teeming with tens of thousands of wetland birds. "These wetlands are recognised as being of international importance to migrating birds. This makes sensitive management of areas next to the basin all the more important," she points out.

The main Scottish scheme is the Countryside Premium Scheme, similar to the English Countryside Stewardship. In 2001 the scheme is likely to be replaced with one for the whole of Scotland, including ESAs, which are currently dealt with each under their own scheme.

Presently applications are assessed in accordance with locally agreed priorities. For Montrose growers, looking after wetlands and species-rich grassland or creating hedges and grass margins are likely to be high on the agenda in 2000. Margins next to watercourses to protect water quality and bankside vegetation have also been a priority in recent years.

The farm includes a couple of burns that feed the basin, and Miss Milner suggests these would be excellent locations for protective grass margins. "They would form a buffer strip, protecting the stream from agricultural inputs and also act as a refuge for crop pest predators."

This certainly attracts Mr Ogilvie to the idea: "I dont plant my seed potatoes next to the stream anyway because LERAP rules would prevent me from spraying them with aphicide. It would make sense to take the land out of cropping altogether." The margins would also provide a habitat for grey partridge and a foraging site for small mammals, such as voles. This, in turn, might even attract barn owls back to the area.

Miss Milner also points out it can be a good idea to plant native tree species next to watercourses. "Aim for dappled shade: not too thick to cut out the light, but enough to offer protection. Willow is often a good species. Its a good idea to plant on just one side so that you can still get access to the ditch for maintenance."

The lines of boundary trees also provide a good opportunity for grass margins. The trees and associated hedges offer a variety of habitats to a wide range of wildlife species. If there is a ditch, this will attract further species. All will benefit from the cover and foraging area provided by an adjacent grass margin.

Where trees have died, Miss Milner maintains that it can be well worth leaving it standing, provided it does not pose a hazard. "If it must be felled, its often beneficial to leave the dead wood on the ground – dont use it all up for firewood. They become a haven for fungi, for invertebrates and for the species that prey on them, such as woodpeckers and bats."

As well as the lines of trees, there are one or two copses on the farm. Barns of Craig contains an interesting variety of tree species – everything from oak and ash to yew and cherry. Mr Ogilvie believes he has inherited them from the grounds of Rossie Castle, once a fine, stately manor but now reduced to ruins, which can still just be made out on the edge of one copse. Miss Milner points out that the walls of the ruins are another useful wildlife habitat: "Wee beasties live in the cracks and crevices and bask on the bare stones when they heat up in summer. Theyre also a haven for mosses and lichens."

So copses can be valuable wildlife habitats, but often they are cut off from each other and from hedgerows by large areas of cropped land. Cropped areas can be valuable habitats in their own right, however, and Miss Milner endorses Mr Ogilvies rotation with its mixture of spring and winter crops.

"Stubbles kept over winter are an important foraging ground for many species. Birds such as oystercatcher and lapwing will nest in spring crops. Late ploughing and the retention of spring cropping will therefore be of enormous value," she reveals.

A good way to encourage migration into the farm and between habitats is through creating wildlife corridors. A grass margin can often be a very good start. "If there is a hedge next to the grass margin, the corridor will provide even greater benefit. The hedge provides cover while the margin serves as a feeding ground," explains Miss Milner. She suggests planting a new hedge with a field margin on an exposed ridge of poorer soil between two copses. "If its going on to stony or less productive land, it makes sense from an economic point of view as well."

Miss Milners visit appears to have encouraged Mr Ogilvie: "A lot of what we have seems to be quite satisfactory and we dont have to make major changes to create more wildlife corridors. Weve got the seed now, so I dont see why we shouldnt give it a go."

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