Prioritising Wildlife Farming - Agrii - Connecting Agri-science with farming

Company News

June 9, 2014

Prioritising Wildlife Farming

The farmland wildlife improvement writing is very clearly on the wall. Our entire industry needs to understand precisely what that writing is telling us and take-up the challenge it presents with a new ‘must do’ attitude. Or we could face far more serious constraints to our freedom to farm than the 5% Environmental Focus Areas (EFAs) required under the new CAP regime.

This is the firm view of independent industry specialist, Marek Nowakowski of the Wildlife Farming Company, borne of more than 30 years working on habitat improvement within profitable farming as an agronomist and adviser to growers, agricultural organisations and Government.

“The ‘post-decimal set aside’ called EFAs we’ll see from next January is only the start,” he warned Agrii agronomists and growers in his new national consultancy role with the company. “The original set aside was a massive lost opportunity for wildlife. But what have we learnt ?  Around £4 billion has been spent since the start of ELS/HLS. Yet the evidence shows a continued decline in many aspects of farmland wildlife – birds and pollinators, in particular.

“So we are now facing this new ‘green’ set aside. Voluntary, EFAs may be called, but our legislators’ dictionary clearly has a unique definition of the word. After all. who can afford to lose a third of their farm payments for the first two years and even greater amounts thereafter?  And, more importantly perhaps, what happens if these measures also fail to halt the decline of farmland wildlife?

“Well, the obvious political response is simple.  Take more and more land out of production until the decline is halted.  All the more so, given Government’s clear reluctance to fund future improvement efforts, and public pressures on it and the EU that are at least as intense – and often far more powerfully pressed – than food security issues.”

The real problem, Mr Nowakowski stresses, is that we know the easy option of putting the whole 5% EFA requirement down to fallow will not deliver the goods. But what will do so ?

“It’s what we do with the land we take out of production that makes the difference,” he said, stressing there is plenty of scientific evidence that the right approach will deliver the gains being sought, as well as being practical.

Several long-running Defra experiments have, for instance, shown practical and affordable wildlife increases from the right management.  The most recent of these run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Wildlife Farming Company explored two approaches to conserving wildlife on a 1000 ha farm – removing 1% and 5% of land from production. These were compared to business as usual with no land removed. As predicted, the greatest wildlife gains came from removing 5% of land to create quality and varied habitats.

“Sowing wildflowers on less productive margins and awkward field corners delivered the greatest range of benefits for pollinators, beneficial insects, and even improved soil health in terms of more worms and organic matter,” Marek explained.

“Overall, we achieved a measured wildlife increase of 12% where our enhanced approach was adopted compared to a gain of just 1% under a typical ELS programme of tussocky grass and natural regeneration strips. And more pollinators should mean better crop pollination, more natural predators should reduce pest pressure, and more insects in general should mean more birds. Equally, well-managed field margins should be valuable in suppressing arable weeds.

As well as highlighting the impressive scale of improvements possible in farmland bird, bumblebee, butterfly and other bug populations, this study and its smaller-scale Buzz Project precursor have provided practical guidance on how to achieve them.

“Our studies have confirmed that the most successful and stable systems stem from a diverse farmland wildlife base,” reported Marek. “They’ve also proved that the key to achieving this biodiversity is creating and maintaining the right quality and variety of habitats. So this has to be our priority; a priority which is incidentally right up our street as agronomists and growers since habitats are merely managed crops by any other name.

“Because the estimated 90% decline in farmland wildlife is due to habitat loss, we have to put the right habitats back. Because farmland birds starve in the winter we need to feed them. And because they feed on insects as well as seeds, and insects depend on pollen and nectar, the best way we can bolster wildlife is to plant flowers. Which, of course, also support bumblebees and other important pollinators.”

Viewed in this way, it isn’t hard to see why environmental stewardship efforts involving only a minute percentage of bird food or wildflower plantings have been disappointing. However well-managed, the other stewardship habitats simply cannot deliver the seeds and wildflowers that are the fundamental building blocks.

So how can we make sure EFAs deliver more wildlife and avoid escalating cropping restrictions while securing any crop and farm system performance benefits available ?  Well, Mr Nowakowksi has no doubt that an altogether more positive management approach is essential, backed by the best scientific understanding and supported by the right guidance.

He identifies a shortage of good practical training as one of the main limitations to quality habitat delivery. Which is why he has developed a specialist environmental training course to provide Agrii agronomists and growers with the tools they need, linked to demonstration sites across the company’s iFarm network.

“A recent Centre for Ecology and Hydrology study with social scientists from Exeter University shows that training can have huge benefits for environmental delivery – with trained farmers consistently delivering more flowers for bees and seed for birds than untrained ones,” Marek reported. “So, supported by Natural England and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, we have designed the Agrii course to help everyone see the wood for the trees in wildlife improvement alongside profitable farming.

“For instance, our training highlights the critical value of habitat zoning along field margins, placing strips of tussocky grass, wildflower and pollen and nectar mixes alongside one another to provide the best ecological balance for the greatest wildlife diversity. Equally, it underlines the importance of avoiding bare strips between crops and flower-rich field margins where arable weed grasses can thrive; which grass and wildflower mixtures to use and where for the best combination of wildlife support and weed competition; and the specific agronomy required to get the most out of them.

“Growing wildlife is no different from growing crops,” he concluded. “It’s all in the agronomy. So, alongside the best crop agronomy, we aim to equip as many landowners and their advisers as we can with the practical understanding that we know will enable them to deliver the wildlife goods through EFAs and enjoy the pleasure and success this can bring. I have no doubt whatsoever that applying this understanding will become as essential to their profitable farming futures as first class crop agronomy has long been.”