March 3, 2017
Planning to better balance farming and wildlife
Farmers across the country need to prepare for a future in which a better balance between farming and wildlife is an increasingly important element of UK agricultural policy, urges farmed wildlife authority, Marek Nowakowski. And they should do so in a well-planned way over the next few seasons to put themselves in the best possible position after Brexit.
“The shape of the UK’s post-CAP agricultural support regime remains a matter for considerable debate and lobbying from all sides,” he stressed at the 2017 series of environmental training days run for growers across the country by Agrii with the support of Natural England and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH).
“However, the direction of travel towards greater environmental improvements alongside food production is crystal clear. Under these circumstances, a much wider and better understanding of how to achieve the most productive balance between farming and wildlife is crucial across our industry.
“More than anything else, this means appreciating four essential realities,” he explained. “First, that worthwhile improvements in farmland wildlife depend upon quality habitat creation. Second, that appropriate training is essential for farmers and administrators alike. Third, that like any other crop, wildlife habitats require the right agronomy to deliver the goods. And finally, that managing habitats for wildlife need not be at the expense of profitable farming. We may be seeing a glimpse of the future in that a three year pilot scheme is testing Habitat payment by results. The better the habitats the more you are paid.
“Field studies with which I’ve been involved over many years show that putting some of the least productive areas of a farm into quality wildlife habitats could quite rapidly halt the national decline in farmland birds and pollinators which 30 years of agri-environment schemes have conspicuously failed to do,” observed Marek.
“Indeed, top quality habitats on as little as 2.5% of a farm would go a long way to meeting many of today’s environmental targets.
“What’s more, managed correctly, these habitats can make a major contribution to tackling serious cropping challenges like black-grass, as well as improving overall farm profitability.” Examples of this environmental black grass control can be seen at Stow Longa.
Developed over a lifetime of practical experience, Marek Nowakowski’s proven recipe for quality habitat creation is based around the environmental fundamentals of vegetation succession, heterogeneity and stability.
Natural vegetation succession means habitats need to be managed if the aggressiveness of annual weeds under the relatively high fertility conditions of most arable land is not to result in poor habitats for wildlife and extra headaches for cropping from the likes of brome, cleavers and thistles.
Equally, the different needs of different insects and birds mean that sufficient heterogeneity, differing habitats, is vital if habitats are to be the most productive. A more diverse species mix also means far greater stability in providing sufficient wildlife homes as well as food sources and mating opportunities.
“Quality habitat creation depends on sowing the right mix of species in the first place,” pointed out Marek. “To provide the season-long supplies of insect and bird food needed, more complex perennial grass, flower and pollen & nectar combinations are generally better than simple legume mixes. They generally cost a bit more. But you get what you pay for and they last a lot longer.
“You should also choose your mixtures carefully for different locations around the farm. Wildflowers will thrive better and support much more insect life on the warmest, south-facing sites, for instance, while the coolest north-facing field edges are best devoted to tussocky grasses to provide insect hibernation sites.
“At same time, longer-lived wildflower or tussocky grass margins are important alongside watercourses and across slopes vulnerable to erosion, while annual and other short-lived mixtures need to be located elsewhere for the greatest soil and water protection.
“It doesn’t end there, though. You have to sow and manage your habitats effectively – in the first year, in particular. Broadcasting seed onto a fine firm seedbed with ring-rolling before and after sowing is the best establishment approach. Regular cutting in the first year and occasionally thereafter is also necessary to restrict annual weeds and encourage the most resilient and diverse perennial swards.
“Putting enough of the right habitats in the right places is important too,” added Marek. “The best available evidence suggests that five 0.25-0.5ha roughly evenly-distributed patches of wildflowers per 100ha should be sufficient to support good pollinator populations. Ideally, these should be no more than 500m apart so the whole area is within the flying range of the small solitary bees that are some of our best pollinators.
“Creating a range of different habitats in an area will increase their overall value by providing bird nesting and insect hibernation sites as well as food sources. And cutting them at different times at the end of the season rather than all at once will ensure the best continuity of resources.”
Alongside created habitats, Marek is adamant that better balanced care and attention should be given to the natural habitats with which they interact to create the best possible year-round matrix of resources for wildlife across the farm.
Appropriate management of hedgerows and uncultivated ground should, he believes, be a particular priority to ensure the greatest diversity of farmland habitats and help fill the late-winter/early spring wildlife ‘hungry gap’.
“Since most of the wildflowers we see early in the year are not commercially available as seed, we need to make the most of what comes for free in our hedges, hedge-bottoms, woodland and watercourse edges and other non-farmed areas,” he suggested. “That way we prevent local insect and bird populations built-up over the rest of the year from crashing unnecessarily at the start of each new season.
“Goat and grey willow, hawthorn, red and white dead nettles, ground ivy and dandelions are especially valuable for insects here, so you should encourage these wherever possible. You should not shy away from supplementary bird feeding either.”
To maintain the greatest habitat diversity, Marek also suggests managing hedges to different heights, rather than cutting them all in exactly the same way at the same time each year.
As a rule, he explains that north-south running hedges are best left taller as the hedge bottoms will receive about the same amount of sunlight regardless of the height. In contrast, keeping those running east-west shorter will maximise the sunlight and warmth provided to their shadier northern aspects.
“Just like the most profitable crops, growing the best quality habitats is all a matter of getting their agronomy right,” Marek Nowakowski concluded. “When we do this it’s amazing how much wildlife value we can add to farmland.
“Quite apart from the growing agricultural policy pressures likely to be coming our way following Brexit, we know that a better-balanced natural environment is increasingly important to the future of our farming. So, the sooner we apply the knowledge we have to make the improvements we know to be possible the better off we will all be.”
BETTER BEE THINKING
Bees are at the top of many wildlife conservation agendas but remember that honey bees are the only bees that make honey but are not the best pollinators, according to Marek Nowakowski.
“They’re very good at gathering pollen and nectar for themselves but science shows us that it’s the 200-plus species of smaller solitary bees that are the real pollination heroes,” he explained at the training days. “This is mainly because solitary bees transport pollen in a dry form. In contrast, honey bees moisten the pollen with nectar and spit and mould it into balls to carry it back to their hives. Wet pollen is pretty ineffective for pollination.
“So if we want to make a real difference to pollination our habitat creation work needs to be focused on the solitary mining, mason and leaf-cutting bees that are doing most of the work, together with the 26-species of larger, hairier bumble bees.
“Specifically, we must cater for the fact that the smallest solitary bees, when foraging, may only fly around 250m from their nests, thrive best in warm sheltered habitats and variously require bare ground and cavities in plant stems or walls to rear their young.
“In doing so, of course, we’re also creating ideal habitats for a wide range of species such as hoverflies, sawflies, ants and other small insect species including many pest predators. As well as valuable pollinators, many of these are excellent food for farmland birds.
FREE HABITAT MANAGEMENT GUIDANCE
Habitat Creation and Management for Pollinators is a newly-published 90-page handbook by Marek Nowakowski and Richard Pywell of CEH, providing practical guidance on farmland pollinator improvement from the best available research.
Copies are available free-of-charge to farmers, land-owners and advisers from