Integrated Crop Management (CPA Book)

Wildlife and Landscape Management


Introduction

...factories and farms

Work places can be ugly, dedicated to their purpose. often noisy and sometimes dirty. Raw materials are taken in at one end of, say, a factory, and the finished product emerges at the other. The processes that take place in between are strictly controlled and largely unseen There will be significant measures to ensure the safety of the people who work there but, beyond that, the place will be functional rather than beautiful. Access will nearly always be restricted to authorised personnel who, at the end of their work, are able to turn their backs and go home. Certainly there is no place for the unwanted visitor and squatters will be forcibly ejected. Not so for the farmer.

The farmer's production site is the land: visible to all, often publicly accessible, and home for a wide range of plants and animals, not just the ones he wants or is trying to grow. It is also his home and, by universal acclaim, naturally beautiful although few, if challenged, could articulate a definition of what that means. It is a dynamic living environment in which the farmer harnesses the natural resources of energy and nutrients to grow his crops and animals. It is a factory where it is not sufficient merely to adopt safe practices, although this is essential. It is a factory where many plant and animal visitors are welcome and where even the forcible ejection of squatters - the pests - is regarded by many as undesirable. Most important, it is a factory whose product is needed by everyone.

Has technology taken over?

Because of the fundamental requirements to provide food for a rapidly growing population, farming has intensified in the the second half of the twentieth century. The emphasis has been on production, with a steady increase in inputs to the point where, to many people, farming is now over-reliant on technology. Phrases like 'factory farming' for some aspects of livestock production , have entered the vocabulary. In truth, the reverse is the case.

In spite of the benefits of modern technology, without the natural processes of the utilisation of sunlight energy, the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen , the creation by earthworms of soil crumb-structure, the microbial breakdown of organic residues and much, much more, the efforts of man would be worthless. farming is the process of harnessing the natural resources and sometimes modifying them to produce food.

Nevertheless, the process of intensification the focus on output has sometimes neglected the other aspects of the land that make up the elusive quality of beauty. Some of the basic values and skills, built up over generations of farming tradition, have been overlooked. The march of agricultural progress has stripped the landscape of many hedgerows and trees , ponds and water meadows, all of which play host to a rich diversity of wildlife. With the supply of their food assured, the public demand is for farmers to be more sensitive to the issues of wildlife and environmental protection.

ICM seeks to redress the balance

Integrated farm management sets out to find ways that enable a commercially viable business to run at the same time as ensuring that the countryside remains attractive and richly stocked with wildlife. Such a move towards more environmentally conscious farming means that there are many options to be considered and sometimes difficult decisions  to make.

A carefully considered plan of action is essential and it must embrace the whole farm. The basis of this is an appraisal of the farm as an operating unit and assistance in doing this is obtainable from specialist agencies such as the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) or ADAS. FWAG is based at the National Agricultural Centre at Stoneleigh, Coventry, Warwickshire. ADAS is based at Oxford Spires Business Park, The Boulevard, Kidlington, Oxford.

Every bit of land counts, commercially and environmentally, but here as with all aspects of ICM, there are no prescriptive rules on what should or should not be done. Much of the secret of success lies in awareness, not just by the manager but by everyone who works there, of the habits, needs and benefits of wildlife on the farm.

Assess the wildlife and habitat features of the farm

In this area of farm management, more than any other, the decisions often depend on value judgements rather than hard facts, and the opinions may conflict. Nevertheless, the process starts with a factual survey of the wildlife habitats and landscape features on the farm. A large scale map can be created to show all watercourses, ponds, lakes and other wet areas, trees and woodland and other non-cropped areas, including set-aside. It should also show the nature of all field margins and boundaries, whether hedges, walls fences, tracks or grass strips. Any footpaths and bridleways, together with the position and function of buildings and monuments should all be shown.

Practical steps

The practical steps to be taken will vary from farm to farm, but the same underlying principles apply in most cases. It is no excuse to claim that a particular piece of land or a farm is not environmentally sensitive, or does not display any features of outstanding natural beauty. Every farmer is able to do something, however small, to protect and enhance the environment. The main emphasis should be placed on conserving and managing existing features. New features to enhance the landscape and conservation value of the farm should be introduced but not at the expense of valuable existing habitats. There is no shortage of information or help; the main problem is how to distil the information into a coherent action plan.

MAFF have recently produced guidelines, in a joint project with the RSPB, to help farmers become more aware of what they can do to protect birds whose numbers have fallen significantly over the past 20 years. Farmers can often significantly improve conditions for these species by making relatively small changes in their farming practice. The guidelines describe the practical measures farmers can take.

...cropped and uncropped areas

In both cropped and uncropped areas, field margins and headlands are important conservation areas. Where possible an uncultivated strip along any field boundary should be left and misapplication or drift of fertilisers and pesticides onto uncultivated land should be avoided. Autumn stubbles are sources of seeds and invertebrates for mammals during the winter while spring crops, set-aside and fallow provide nesting sites for birds.

MAFF/RSPB farmland bird recovery project

Designed to raise awareness amongst farmers, advisors and students of the importance of environmentally sensitive farm management for the conservation of farmland birds. The guidelines cover seven species for which studies by the British Trust for Ornithology have shown population declines on farmland.

Species

Population decline 1968-91

Grey partridge

-73%

Lapwing

-47%

Skylark

-54%

Reed bunting

-59%

Linnet

-56%

Corn bunting

-76%

Tree sparrow

-85%

Source: British Trust for Ornithology

 

 

Set-aside, much maligned for other reasons, can have a positive influence on farm wildlife, and has proved to be less troublesome than once feared as farmers have learned how to manage it and benefit from it. A recent two-year study by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has shown that set-aside fields have significantly increased numbers of skylarks, goldfinches, greenfinches, linnets and yellowhammers compared with cropped fields.

Excessive cultivations damage soil structure and many operations are a threat to wildlife. Rolling, spraying and cutting in the spring months can destroy nests as young, and even adult, birds. Ploughing permanent grassland should be avoided if possible. If this is impractical, it should be ploughed in spring and reseeded as quickly as possible  to ensure capture of the massive release of nutrients. When harvesting cereals or cutting grass for hay or silage, wildlife can escape if the field is handled in sections rather than working towards the centre from the edges.

Recently, further changes to the set-aside management rules have been made by MAFF with the aim of improving the environmental benefits without imposing unreasonable costs on farmers.  The most significant benefit for ground nesting birds is an increase from 10% to 25% of the area  of any set-aside field that can be left uncut in any year in order to provide a more varied habitat. The area can now be left uncut for up to three years.

Changes to set-aside management rules

  • A ban on cutting and cultivations between 1 April and 15 July;
  • Increase of the area that may be left uncut and the period it may remain uncut;
  • Reduction of the minimum qualifying strip width.
 

...pesticides and fertilisers

Pesticides and fertilisers need careful handling. Treatments should always be carefully targeted and matched to calculated requirements. Nitrogen, by encouraging luxuriant growth of the most vigorous plant species, reduces the diversity of natural communities of plants. Applications in the later part of the year should be avoided where possible to reduce nitrate leaching into underground water reserves. Avoid applying fertilisers on to uncultivated field margins or into the bottom of hedgerows and take particular care with liquid manures and slurry. Ideally they should be injected or applied through low-level booms. Application to frozen ground should be avoided.

Pesticides should be used on the basis of as little as possible but as much as necessary, and particular care is needed along hedgerows or near water. Some products have specific restrictions about spraying near watercourses, and these should always be followed. Even where no such warning is given, consideration should be given to leaving a buffer zone if it can be seen that there is a risk of spoiling a wildlife haven. This does not mean that treatment would necessarily kill the creatures that live there, but if it is a herbicide, it might easily destroy the habitat. Local bee-keepers should be warned of impending operations that might endanger their hives. Slugs can be reduced by paying attention to the quality of the seedbed, but where control is needed, the pellets should be drilled with the crop and covered., rather than broadcast on the soil surface.

...water

Water is an important natural resource for some farmers but it is also one of the most vulnerable parts of the farm environment. Watercourses and ditches channel away surface and drainage water from fields. But, in addition to its aesthetic and amenity value, water is also an important factor in enriching the diversity of wildlife on the farm.

As well as mapping all water features, the starting point is to note its condition in terms of acidity and the plant and invertebrate life it supports. The plan should aim to integrate 'wildlife havens' into the management of watercourses. This can be achieved by, for example, cleaning ditches on alternative sides in alternative years, and carrying out ditch management tasks in the autumn. Short untrimmed lengths of vegetation can be left along the banks.

Wet areas in field corners, instead of being regarded as productively 'dead', can be seen as an opportunity  to create a lake or pond without significant loss to field output. Vegetation growing in ponds might be the result of high nitrate levels but, in any event, it will need to be contained and ideally this should be done mechanically rather than chemically. Other pollutants, such as silage liquor or slurry, must be rigorously avoided. Ponds should not be excessively shaded by trees and livestock access should be limited.

...trees and woodland

Trees take along time to grow, but can be quickly destroyed. It is important to establish a long-term woodland management plan for the farm, with particular attention to the management of any ancient woodland. Open space within woodland, and even standing dead timber, are valuable habitats for many forms of wildlife. Once again, the first step is to make a survey of the existing woodland noting such things as species, their age and condition, and the presence of woodland animals and insects. Special requirements and uses need to be identified at this stage. These might include livestock shelters, shooting cover, and screens for buildings, or there might be commercial uses such as forestry or Norway Spruce. Opportunities to establish new areas of woodland should be sought with the aim of creating a balanced mixture  of young, middle-aged and older trees on the farm.

...field margins, hedges and walls

Fences and hedges

  • In the UK there are

412,000 miles of fences

 

300,000 miles of hedges

  • In ten years since 1983:

hedges have reduced by 20&

 

diversity has reduced by 7%

Source: Barr et al. RASE Journal 1994, pp 48-58

 

hedgerows and field margins are havens for birds and beneficial species like spiders and beetles, but they also harbour weeds, insect pests and diseases. Here conservation means finding a balance between the measures necessary to contain the pests and those required to encourage other beneficial or non-target species. A hedge management plan will schedule all hedges on the farm to be trimmed every 2-3 years, although it is useful to leave hedges uncut in places, particularly at hedge junctions. The aim should be to manage a variety of hedge types on the farm in terms of size, shape and composition. Any operations should be avoided during nesting time and ideally should be delayed until late in winter so the supply of seeds and berries is not destroyed. In fields containing stock, the hedge can be protected from damage by using an inner wire fence. Overgrown hedges should be coppiced and new growth trimmed or laid. If pernicious weeds are present and threaten to invade the field edge, it is best to use a herbicide that is specific as possible to the problem. The impact of any control measures should be carefully monitored.

...conservation headlands and beetle banks

Naturally occurring predatory arthropods are a great help to the farmer in keeping some pests, for example aphids at levels below a damaging threshold. many of these beneficial species live and overwinter in the hedgerows or the ground. The greatest threat to these species lies in a farming system that seeks to maximise land use, and minimise the amount of unproductive ground. Larger fields and use of heavier and more powerful machinery are manifestations of this, and the result is that the natural vegetation of the field margin is greatly reduced.

The Game Conservancy Trust have evolved a series of guidelines for the management of headlands designed to reverse this trend while at the same time avoiding significant penalties on agricultural production. The management technique involves the selective reduction of the use of pesticides on the outer 6 m of the crop to create a 'Conservation headland'  Although they were originally developed with the specific aim of protecting game birds, especially the grey partridge, conservation headlands are demonstrably helpful for the survival of many other non-target species.

Clearly, if fields are large, the amount of natural pest protection in the centre is reduced because of the limited ability of many predatory arthropods to travel great distances/ Where fields are much larger than 16ha (40 acres) the process can be assisted by providing havens for these species by planting grassy strips across the field.   These 'beetle banks' provide shelter and refuge, as well as food, to assist population build-up of the predators which can then readily access the crop when pest attack occurs. Professional advice on the establishment and management of beetle banks is also available from the Game Conservancy Trust.

Landscape and amenity features

Footpaths and bridleways quickly deteriorate unless they are properly managed. This is an important element of Integrated Crop Management since it is one of the most effective ways of demonstrating care for the amenity value of the landscape to the outside world. The paths themselves should be kept clear of overhanging vegetation and repaired if necessary. Ploughing or cultivating headland footpaths or bridleways is illegal.

Grants and other support may well be available for the creation of new amenity features on the farm, such as nature trails. Grant aid is available from a variety of sources for a wide range of ventures such as habitat improvement, the protection of field monuments and historic buildings and countryside access. Details of these schemes can be obtained from FWAG, ADAS, local authorities, the Scottish Agricultural College or the Department of Agriculture for northern Ireland.

Farm grants for care of the environment

There are many schemes available aimed at promoting care for the environment, wildlife or historic buildings, and improving the amenity value on the farm. The schemes are continually changing and up-to-date advice should be sought from the relevant body. Examples are:

  • The Farm and Conservation Grant Scheme
  • Grants for the Protection of Field Monuments and Historic Buildings
  • The Habitat Improvement Scheme
  • The Countryside Access Scheme.
 

Conclusion

Progress can only be demonstrated to others if it is monitored and measured. Mapping the farm wildlife havens and regular simple monitoring, keeping accurate records of indicator species of birds, mammals and plant life provide the yardsticks of progress. They are an essential part of an Integrated Crop Management system.

Environmental performance evaluation needs to set objective measurable criteria against which actual performance can be judged. The objectives are set down in the farm landscape and wildlife plan so that conservation becomes an integral part of running the business. The emphasis must be on active management and understanding of the problem. Achievement needs to be monitored so that it can be shown that environmental protection can coexist with profitable farming. It is a global issue in which all farmers and landowners have a part to play. For many, all that is required is a change of attitude, from viewing environmental improvement as a luxury to be indulged where there is time and money to spare, to routinely combining conservation and farming activities. Many of the necessary actions cost nothing, and some will even save money.

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