6 key actions to protect wildlife on farmland

The meadow at Bickley Hall Farm

The meadow at Bickley Hall Farm - Credit: Clare Huxley

Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Ben Gregory, explains how evidence gained through years of research is helping to restore wildlife at their Bickley Hall Farm headquarters

Meadow vetchling at Bickley Hall Farm

Meadow vetchling at Bickley Hall Farm - Credit: Clare Huxley

The decline in wildlife on farmland in Britain is well-known. The most depressing thing is that despite decades of research and government incentives to help reverse this, according to the latest State of Nature report, the decline continues. Farmland accounts for 75% of land in the UK. This makes wildlife conservation hugely important – not only for the individual species that depend on this landscape, but also to make the British countryside we all know and love more ‘friendly’ to wildlife.

The key to supporting wildlife on farms is knowing what’s there already and finding out what you’ve got the potential to have by creating, maintaining or restoring the right conditions. Agricultural and environmental expertise has been brought together to convert evidence gathered through research into practical measures to reverse the decline in farmland wildlife. The latest idea is ‘The Farm Wildlife Partnership’ which consists of eight wildlife Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO), including The Wildlife Trusts. The partnership’s six key actions for farmers are borne out of years of research and field trials and if delivered at the right scale, in the right place, could be just the ticket for reversing the decline in farmland wildlife in Britain.

At Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s 86 hectare Bickley Hall Farm, near Malpas, we’ve been working hard to provide for wildlife. Taking each of the six key actions from ‘The Wildlife Partnership’ initiative in turn, we can highlight what we’re doing on our farm to help.

Perdix farmland bird feeder

Perdix farmland bird feeder - Credit: Clare Huxley

1. Look after existing wildlife habitats

At Bickley Hall Farm we’ve identified the important habitats we have, for example ponds, hedgerows and ditches, by carrying out an assessment of the features on the farm. We’ve then put measures in place to enhance their quality.

2. Make the most of hedges, ditches and ponds

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Taking hedgerows as an example we’ve implemented a cutting regime which means only one third of our in-field hedgerows are cut each year. This means two thirds of our hedges are always left uncut. Flower buds on many hedgerow plants form on second-year growth, so annual cutting can prevent them forming. Allowing plants such as hawthorn and blackthorn to flower provides huge benefits for insects.

3. Create wet features

These features can enhance the wildlife value of farmed land by supporting aquatic plants, invertebrates and amphibians. At Bickley Hall Farm, the Cheshire Wildlife Trust have put measures in place to provide a variety of different wetland habitats including creating 2500m² of scrapes (shallow ponds) to attract breeding and wintering wading birds. We have also restored two overgrown ponds and created a mini reedbed in one of our ditches. This not only provides habitat but also acts as a filtration system, slowing water down and allowing any nutrient inputs and sediment to settle to the bottom of the ditch instead of making their way to the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) mere which borders the farm.

4. Provide flower rich habitats

Research shows that a minimum of 2% of land needs to be managed as flower rich habitat on farms across the UK to maintain populations of six common pollinators. Using Bickley as an example that would mean that we’d have to provide a minimum of just under two hectares (nearly five acres). We’re going above and beyond that by managing 22 hectares (55 acres) of flower rich habitat in the form of traditionally managed hay meadows. These are cut late in the summer to provide a valuable pollen and nectar source from flowering plants such as bird’s-foot trefoil, knapweed and ox-eye daisy. We also have up to 10 metres of flower-rich field margins, managed as mini hay meadows. These act as ‘buffer strips’ alongside water courses, reducing the risk of any sediment from the fields entering ditches.

5. Provide seed rich habitats

Historically, more is known about conservation solutions for farmland birds than any other group. Research shows that seed eating birds can be supported on farmland where 10-20% of the land is left as ‘stubble’ after a cereal crop has been taken, or through the creation of ‘wild bird seed plots’ on 2% of a farm. At Bickley Hall Farm we do both; we leave on average 10 hectares (12%) of our land as stubble over the winter, and we grow 2.5 hectares (2%) of dedicated bird seed crops.

6. Enhance the farmed area

Britain’s farms aren’t nature reserves. They have to be productive and profitable but this shouldn’t be to the detriment of the environment. Good farming practice can lead to a reduction in the use of pesticides, restore soil quality and reduce water pollution for the benefit of wildlife. Bickley Hall Farm is no exception. Working in partnership with a local grazier and cropping partner, we rear livestock and grow oats for milling. Growing spring sown cereals (as opposed to winter sown) and leaving overwintered stubbles provides benefits to many plants, invertebrates and birds. By managing the farm organically, without artificial fertiliser, our productive grass fields are made up of a diverse range of grasses, herbs and nitrogen-fixing legumes. This not only provides a good range of vitamins and minerals for the livestock, but also creates a more diverse vegetation structure increasing diversity for invertebrates.

So does it work? Well the results of our 2017 bird surveys (nine undertaken throughout the year) are in and highlights include, 292 skylark, 12 tree sparrow, 568 linnet, seven song thrush, 22 redwing, 25 fieldfare, a pair of lapwing and a single yellowhammer. All of these have the unenviable status of being UK red-listed birds of conservation concern, meaning that there have been severe declines in UK populations.

With changes on the horizon to agricultural environmental funding, it’s imperative that landowners have a strong and coherent message on what they can do to support wildlife on their farm. Decades of research and field trials have proven that a combination of these six key actions can succeed. Let’s hope we start to see some more encouraging headlines on increases in farmland wildlife in the years to come.