Former Norfolk FWAG chairman’s 1,000-species wildlife challenge

Charles Sayer on the strips of his land at Sparham Hall planted with wild bird seed mixture of mille

Charles Sayer on the strips of his land at Sparham Hall planted with wild bird seed mixture of millet, fodder radish, vetch and sunflower. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

A committed defender of farmland wildlife has succeeded in his personal challenge to identify 1,000 animal species on his Norfolk land in a year.

It certainly sounds like an enthusiast's challenge – to find and identify 1,000 animal species on a single farming estate in just 12 months.

And after a year spent peering under logs, rummaging through hedgerows, and waiting in the dark with a moth lamp, Norfolk landowner Charles Sayer has succeeded in passing his self-imposed milestone, with a month to spare.

But such is the abundance and diversity of the UK's wildlife, he feels he has only scratched the surface of the ecosystems which, if managed properly, can thrive within a landscape of commercial agriculture.

Mr Sayer, of Sparham Hall, in the Wensum Valley north-west of Norwich, has recently stepped down as chairman of farming wildlife advice group Norfolk FWAG – a role which he has used to help promote conservation and stewardship.


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His 900-acre farm includes 200 acres of permanent grass, a herd of suckler cows, 80 acres of woodland, and 550 acres of arable land, farmed under a contracting agreement. The rest is part of an HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) scheme which supports wildflower margins, seed-rich headlands and protected hedgerows.

And he says this variety of habitats and food sources is key to the diversity in the wildlife he has documented.

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The total of 1,000 species does not include plants, nor does it include spiders or many of the flies and beetles which were too numerous to catalogue.

But it does include everything from badgers and otters on the ground, to ospreys, skylarks and barbastelle bats in the air, along with more than 500 species of moths.

'I am not sure where it started, but 1,000 seemed like an interesting round number, so I wanted to see where it led, particularly because there had to be so many insects,' said Mr Sayer.

'The birds are very noticeable, but when you see them feeding their young it is always with a beak full of insects, so we have got to have insects otherwise we are dead in the water.

'The UK has 24,000 species of insects, which just shows how woeful my total is. If you looked up that one hedge you could find 1,000 species, but it would be a lifetime's work. I don't think people realise what a breathtaking amount of stuff is in there.

'Birds and mammals only came up to 150 between them, so it left quite a lot of creepy crawlies, and moths and butterflies.

'I found 570 species of moth, but there are over 1,000 of them in Norfolk, so if I had been any good, I would have found more. And other things come to the moth light, like grasshoppers, bugs and beetles. That is where the challenge was – not in finding them, but identifying the little devils.

'I had been looking at moths for 12 years, so my knowledge of moths is OK. For birds, dragonflies and moths I have got really good reference books, but when you get down to bugs and beetles you are in complicated territory because of the enormity of the numbers.'

Mr Sayer said his interest in conservation had grown to become 'all-consuming' – and he has been freed to pursue his stewardship projects while the commercial aspects of the farm are handled by his contractor.

'It works really well for me,' he said. 'Since we have been in a contract agreement here it has been more manageable.

'The speed of work on a farm means it goes from growing a crop to harvesting to cultivating for the next crop, and that being sprayed. If you are an insect out there, it is a hard environment to survive in.

'We have got to be productive on the land that is productive, and we have got to be so productive that we have got some land spare for wildlife. Then we have got to do as much as we can with what's spare.

'Connectivity is everything. We need swathes of sympathetically-farmed land within a highly profitable and well-run farming industry. And it has got to pay. There has got to be a reason for everything.'

Conservation measures

The diversity of wildlife at Sparham Hall Farm is encouraged through a series of measures funded by a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme.

Hedgerows, mostly hawthorn but with some blackberries and sloes, are meticulously managed – but cut sparingly to preserve habitats and food sources during the winter.

Some are paired with wild bird seed mixes – wide strips containing fodder radish, millet, vetch and sunflowers, whose seeds sustain birds like greenfinches during the winter.

'I have seen some really good numbers,' said Mr Sayer. 'I have got a flock of 50 in here, and two other flocks of 100. The hedge is part of the working of the strip, because the birds will go in there, out of the way from sparrowhawks.'

The farm also has six-metre margins enhanced with wildflowers. Mr Sayer said: 'The key for insects is the variety of food plants. You tend to focus on the things you can see, like the beautiful butterfly flying down the hedge. But if you don't get the food plants for it, it won't be there.'

A hill overlooking the river valley provides nesting sites for skylark nests and meadow pipits. And in the woodlands, open glades and sunny rides have been cut to let sunlight through to the ground, allowing red campion and other plants to flourish, and attracting thousands of hoverflies in the summer. Some ivy-covered deadwood is left on the ground to encourage insect life.

Heidi Thompson is business manager for Norfolk FWAG, the farmer-led conservation charity which has worked in the county for 30 years, and which Mr Sayer chaired for four years until stepping down last month.

She said: 'Different creatures live in different places. If you have got a woodland with a high canopy, you might have 2,000 species in there, but if you cut a glade through it you could double that.

'In the hedges, the interesting thing is what you don't see. It is where all the pollinators are hunkered down at this time of the year.

'A lot of people only think about pollinators when they see bees and butterflies in June. But if Charles came down and 'tidied up' by chewing that hedge to pieces, you would lose all your pollinators for next year.

'That is the difference between doing the bare minimum, and doing it with passion, like Charles does. If farmers are made to do it (conservation) with a gun to their heads, you won't get these results.'

The species list

More than 1,000 species have been recorded at Sparham Hall Farm this year, including the following animal groups:

• 27 mammals

• 117 birds

• 25 butterflies

• 570 moths

• 90 beetles/bugs

• 173 others (including bees, wasps, dragonflies, hoverflies)

The birds feeding on the wild bird seed mixtures at the moment include greenfinch, chaffinch, goldfinch, brambling, linnet, reed bunting, yellowhammer, and tree sparrow.

Among the 570 months are two which were recorded for the first time at the farm: The grey birch and the broad-bordered bee hawkmoth.

Mr Sayer said the 1,000th entry had been spotted in the summer, but took a while to identify. He said: 'The last one was a bug which had been on the camera for six months and was eventually run to ground. The first was probably a tawny owl hooting out of the window. The point is there is just so much out there.'

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