Challenge to farmers to go out counting
12:49 02 February 2014
Archant © 2014
Farmers across the country will be taking part in the first national big farmland bird count over the next seven days, writes agricultural editor MICHAEL POLLITT
Guide to improve wildlife habitats
A new game cover and environmental crops guide is now available from seed house, Limagrain.
It details stewardship crops, including sorghum, kale, sunflowers and maize as well as cover crop mixtures. It also provides guidance on achieving good crop establishment.
The HiBird range includes a range of cover crop mixtures such as Setter, which provides two-year full-season cover and feed, and is made up of kale, millets and buckwheat. Following herbicide trials with BASF, Limagrain has developed a range of mixtures which are tolerant to specific herbicides so that gamekeepers can successfully establish weed-free good cover. For example, Cocker, which consists of Caledonian kale, mustard, fodder radish and linseed, is tolerant to Butisan herbicide, and provides full season cover for up to two years. Further mixtures are included in the guide.
It includes tips on growing a successful cover crop – from soil type and site selection, to seedbed and sowing methods, fertiliser recommendations and suggestions for weed, pest and disease control. Information is also included on which cover crops meet environmental stewardship requirements.
For a free copy of the HiBird Gamecover & Environmental Crops Guide, click here, or email Limagrain UK at: firstname.lastname@example.org
West Norfolk arable farmer Joe Martin has been planting “false” hedges on his low-lying fenland farm to attract even more birds.
And his novel strategy to provide more protection for common farmland species by planting chicory and kale “hedges” has been a success.
Mr Martin, who farms a total of 1,200 acres bounded by the New Bedford River or Hundred Foot Drain and the River Wissey beyond Denver Sluice, also has attracted large populations of corn and reed buntings.
One patch of wild bird seed mix, which has been established for more than a dozen years ago, has become so popular partly because hundreds of birds sit on the telephone wires and electricity lines. As the block needs to be re-planted on a nearby site to replenish the variety of seeds and reduce the weed burden, he may even have to take special measures to erect some artificial wires to keep them happy.
Broadland farmer took part in pilot bird count
Award-winning Broadland farmer James Tallowin took part in the pilot big farmland bird count last year.
As a national finalist in the 2012 Silver Lapwing national conservation award, he spent at least two half-hours on the family’s Willow Farm, Hickling, counting species on some marshes and also areas of wild bird seed cover.
“I did one count on the wetland area and marsh and did another on a wild bird cover seed mix area. I probably saw between 12 to 15 species of birds and several red-listed bird species on the wild bird cover as well as numerous linnets, reed buntings and yellow hammers and little finches on the seed mixtures.”
“It also shows that the schemes to encourage birds on farms are working,” said Mr Tallowin, who farms with his father, John.
He will be repeating the exercise again for the latest count. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust wants as many farmers and gamekeepers as possible to take part. Last year, 69 species were seen on 60 farms on 10,000 hectares. More than 650 people will be counting next week.
The trust is running a photograph competition, open to everyone taking part in the Big Farmland Bird Count.
Take a photo within the areas of the farm where the counting is taking place, showing either, birds or wildlife crops. Why not send a photo to the EDP as well? www.iwitness24.co.uk
Species list and tips are available. Details available from www.gwct.org.uk/bfbc
As the chairman of the not-for-profit body, Farm Conservation Norfolk, which is the successor to the county’s Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, Mr Martin has fully embraced the wildlife challenge on his peat soils.
At Ouse Bridge Farm, he has established 13 acres of wild bird seed mix in various blocks and also planted about four miles of hedges to improve the diversity for birds and also mammals.
Remarkably, 112 species of birds have been seen on the tenanted farm, said Mr Martin, who farms on the remote edge of Norfolk beyond Downham Market. Although he has a good knowledge of most common species and can readily recognise a host of the LBJ (little brown jobs), he has relied on the expert help from Jed Andrews, who counted 3,452 birds of 43 species in 10 months last year.
Mr Andrews, who is the former warden at the Norfolk Ornithology Association’s Holme Bird Observatory, also rings birds on the farm and has recorded 112 species on the tenanted farm.
The key to encouraging the variety of birds has been providing diversity and especially food for birds through the winter and spring months, said Mr Martin, who is a cousin of the chairman of the National Farmers’ Union’s sugar board, William, who farms at Littleport, near Ely.
In the early 1990s, Mr Martin said that he had been “very much an output dominated fenland farmer but I wanted to put something back to the environment.”
But he also recognised too at that time with plans to cap the then EU farm subsidies or IACS (Integrated Administration and Control System) payments, it would make sense to have a second income stream – conservation. “Then I found that I enjoyed it. It gives more variety on the farm which is fantastic.”
The economics of conservation have gone up or down, reflecting the profitability of agriculture.
“When wheat was £60 per tonne, which we’ve all forgotten about, and was only about five or six years ago, conservation was a pretty profitable enterprise. Two years ago, when it was £200 tonne, it was not very profitable,” he said.
When he joined the HLS (higher level) environmental scheme in 2008, it followed on from his earlier involvement with countryside stewardship.
A former organic farmer for 15 years, Mr Martin has been passionate about the need to encourage as much diversity on the land to encourage wildlife. He had even left big bales on the farm, which have provided cover for grass snakes.
He will be supporting the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s bird farmland bird count, which starts today, as he goes about the farm when he refills the six supplementary feeding sites. At least three times a week, he travels a total of 14 miles to refill the containers and sometimes more often when the weather has been colder.
Located along the stretches of hedges, which were mostly planted about 12 to 15 years ago as part of countryside stewardship, the feeders have attracted considerable flocks of LBJs. “It is great to drive down the concrete road and then see this great flurry of birds flock off,” he said.
But the main thrust of have efforts have been concentrated on establishing blocks of wild bird seed mix and over more than 20 years, he has gained plenty of experience about the best approach. Again, variety and diversity has been key.
One block adjoins one of the oldest established fenland areas of hazel coppice, which may be 200 years old, according to Norfolk tree specialist Gerry Barnes. Mr Martin is also looking at the possibility of taking fir cones from the small numbers of Scots Pine, which were planted on the edge of the woodland, to raise some local replacements for the existing stock. By having about three acres of an assorted range of seed, particularly fodder radish, it has brought large numbers of birds to the heart of the farm.
Although he has learned a lot over the years from his experience with bird seed mixes, he said that the two expert and independent advisers from Farm Conservation, which is based at Honingham Thorpe, near Norwich, can really help.
He has been concerned that too often, bodies including Natural England have tended to adopt a one-size fits all approach for some environmental schemes - one procedure, one prescription for the whole country.
“If someone on the Breckland is doing what I’m doing here on the peat, then one of us is doing something badly wrong. Any farmer would know that,” he said.
“Second, in my opinion, anyone can produce a nice wild bird seed mix in September and October. It really needs to be in February, March and into April. That where’s fodder radish really comes in its own because it is a such a fantastic crop.”
He also said that triticale and of course, conservation headlands, were fantastic for corn buntings and tree sparrows like their cereals.
The challenge for farmers is to “be creative in developing solutions which suit their farm,” he added. Better results have been achieved by planting bigger blocks than penny-packets around the farm, said Mr Martin.
He has found from experience fodder radish and second year kale can provide this late seed source, which helps to address the so-called “hungry gap.” Other options have included late-planted spring wheat, which tends to retain grain in the ear. And he tried drilling spring triticale in the last week of May, which has been successful. “I think actually on fertile sites I can probably go later than that and it will still vernalise,” he added.
With his peat soils, which have a naturally high weed burden, the wild bird seed plots have to be farmed. “On peat soil types, the weed pressure gets so high so quickly that it has to be moved on and that’s an economic and agricultural imperative.”
His experience has shown that there is more wildlife appeal from some second-year seed crops such as kale and chicory as part of the overall mix.
“If you leave it for a second year, it is still there at the end of March and April. I’m not convinced that the hungry gap is January, February, March but in the fens may be March, April and sometimes into May. It is not open and shut because the answer to everything is diversity.”
While he appreciates the value of skylark plots, especially in areas where cropping tends to be dominated by continuous wheat and oilseed rape, his fenland rotations with sugar beet, cereals and potatoes, onions and vining beans also provides more natural variety.
He is also quietly pleased that to have been one of six farmers to have turtle doves, another species which has seen a dramatic reduction in recent years. While he did have some on his farm, actually on his lawn, the farm was also home to a colourful escapee, a crimson parakeet, for more than a year.
But his strategy to leave “false” hedges growing about two metres high, typically a four metre-width of maize or chicory has also helped species including tree sparrows. “There’s no question that the birds like to jump from a cover crop into a bit of cover for protection,” he added.
As a fenland farmer, he considers that there has been some historical under-recording of wildlife and especially with mammals including widespread numbers of water voles.
“The fens are under-rated as a habitat, especially the fen edge. We have ditches, diversity of cropping and been so under-recorded in the past 150 years,” he added.