A few weeks ago, I spent a lovely couple of hours walking part of a 100 acre farm owned by Jef Bell and Linda Rogers. I was particularly interested in meeting with them as they have practised non intensive, chemical-free land management on the site for the last 19 years.
As we walked around on an unexpectedly glorious sunny afternoon, it became quickly apparent that Jef and his wife are true custodians of the land and that they get a great deal of satisfaction from the wildlife that surrounds them.
Jef spoke of the Pipistrells and Swallows that share their outbuildings and stables. And I noted a viewing platform in one of the woodlands that he had built, from which to view the comings and goings of the local fauna. Nearby a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker had made home in one of the trees after skilfully knocking a perfect hole into the trunk for its nest of chicks. And in fact their woodland is a fantastic habitat for many other birds. Some of which were listed during a plant survey of the area in 2007.
Alongside the usual birds found in the area, the list included Goldcrest, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Marsh Tit, Long-tailed Tit Nuthatch, Wren, Jay Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Tree Creepers, Woodcock, Lesser and Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Buzzard, Red Kite and Pied Wagtales.
In addition to the Tawny Owls that already inhabit the area Jef is currently looking into installing a Barn Owl Nest Box to encourage Barn Owls and so continue to increase the biodiversity on the land.
However it is not a simple matter of putting up a nest box. For a start there are three different types of nest box recommended by the Barn Owl Trust and your site determines which one may be the most appropriate. In fact Barn Owls need such specific habitat requirements that your site might not be able to provide a suitable habitat at all. Such things as proximity to major roads and overhead wires can be lethal and suitable nesting sites and a regular food source are essential.
“The main cause of Barn Owl decline and the biggest factor limiting population recovery is lack of food (mainly field voles, wood mice, and common shrews). The solution is for farmers and landowners to create areas of perfect habitat and the Entry Level Stewardship scheme (which is open to all farmers in England) can provide financial assistance. Other schemes are available elsewhere in the UK.
Ideal Barn Owl habitat consists of rough, tussocky grassland with a deep litter layer as this is where field voles (the Barn Owl’s main prey) are most numerous. Grassland that lacks a deep litter layer is of much less benefit to Barn Owls – even if the grass is long” (Source: www.barnowltrust.org.uk).
Jef and Linda make sure that their grassland meadows keep their litter layer and so support a healthy habitat for field Voles, Wood Mice and Shrews. If you would like to know more about encouraging Barn Owls to your land and its suitability, then visit the Barn Owl Trust website for more information on suitable habitat and types of nest boxes.
Over the years a number of woodland mammals have been sighted on the farm including Badgers, Roe Deer, Munt Jac, Rabbits, Stoats, Shrews and Wood Mice. Evidence of Dormice has also been noted by the distinctive holes they make in fallen seed pods that have been found around the land.
Unfortunately, over the last 10 years there seems to have been a steep decline in the number of Brown Hare on the farm which echoes the pattern depicted across the UK.
The Brown Hare requires a patchwork quilt landscape of mixed cereal and root crops and grass, preferably with livestock. Small and varied fields provide optimum habitat throughout the year – summer cereals provide cover for adults and leverets, ley grass and pastures provide good grazing and winter root crop and cereals provide cover and forage.
Leverets are left all day by the adult and hide in long grass away from predators. Unfortunately, the decline of the Brown Hare may be due to current farming practice which cuts and gathers hay crops in July when the leverets are still sheltering in the fields. There are agricultural environment schemes available which offer grants to farmers to improve Hare habitat, if you are a landowner and would like to find out how you can help stop the decline in the UK of the Brown Hare then visit Wildlife Trust – ‘Working with Business‘
On the day that I walked the site we came across a Common Frog taking advantage of a shady wet ditch and Jef spoke enthusiastically about stumbling across a grass snake in one of the grass meadows not so long ago.
Grass Snakes are grey/green in colour with a distinctive yellow/black collar around the neck and black bars down the side of the body. They are the only egg laying snake in Britain, the female lays eggs in June and July preferably in rotting vegetation and compost heaps. So try not to disturb these areas on your land or in your garden until after the end of summer as the eggs hatch in late summer. The grass snake is a very timid creature and feigns dead if cornered, they are a protected species in the UK so discovering one on your land is a fantastic find.
The farm comprises ancient woodland and hedgerow and grassland meadows. In addition the farm land has a ‘Green Lane’ running through the site with medieval dew ponds. Green lanes were traditionally used by drovers taking their stock to market and the dew ponds were used as watering stops for the animals during the long journey. Although they are no longer used these ancient dew ponds provide an invaluable habitat for frogs, toads and pond species and are part of the biodiversity on the farm.
Mid July to early August, Jef and Linda harvest hay from the grassland meadows. They do not use insecticides or pesticides on their land or crops, preferring instead, to work in harmony with nature. Although their crop may be smaller than commercially grown hay, it is packed full of nutrients because it contains wildflowers and herbs not found in commercially grown hay which is subject to chemical sprays.
This means the meadow hay is not only beneficial to the local wildlife, insects, bees and butterflies but also the lucky horses whose feed it is used for. I noted Daisy, Buttercup, Red and White Clover, Knapweed, Birds Foot Trefoil and Ribwort on the day I walked through the grass meadows. On a second visit in mid July Lady’s Bedstraw was in full flower and Slender Knapweed was just beginning to flower.
The meadows were full of butterflies and moths and David Dennis, Butterfly Conservation intends to carry out a Butterfly survey to see which species are present. Butterfly Conservation are carrying out the ‘Big Butterfly Count’ from 14th July -5th Aug. To take part just go out into your garden, park or common. Choose a sunny spot and spend 15 minutes logging which butterflies are present. You can download and easy to use Butterfly ID chart from their website and simply submit sightings online (www.bigbutterflycount.org)
When certain areas of the grassland meadows are still in flower and have not had time to set seed at the time of mowing, Jef and Linda make sure to mow around the flowers to allow them their full life span to set seed and so hopefully increase in numbers the following year.
A plant survey carried out in 2007 by surveyors John Moss, Brenda Harold and Jean Williamson designated the land as a County Wildlife Site due to an extensive range of indicator species found on inspection. Indicator species are used to define whether an area contains ancient woodland, meadowland, hedges etc.
For example, a minimum of 10 indicator species are required to qualify for ancient woodland – this site had 22! The indicator species found in the woodlands included trees such as Cherry, Holly, Hornbeam and Oak, the native shrub Hazel and woodland flora such as Wood Mellick, Sorrel and Speedwell, Enchanters Nightshade and Yellow Pimpernel.
Why not see if your land or garden is an asset to wildlife or contains ancient hedgerow or woodland and check how many indicator species you have. For a full list of indicator species visit www.britishwildlife.com
As part of the management of the site Jef has cleared parts of an old larch plantation to help encourage new deciduous woodland, and created a new deciduous woodland edge alongside one of the meadows to protect an established Badger set. Earthworms are the main food for Badgers and so some grassed areas should be mown to allow badgers to find earthworms and if the grass clippings are kept on a nearby compost heap they will provide a useful supply of earthworms and invertebrates. Ideally there should be areas of rank grass if possible to provide cover for possible prey such as short tailed voles and wood mice. For a Badger friendly plant list that will help attract badgers to your garden visit The Badger Trust website.
A Common Spotted Orchid, previously unseen on the farm, has recently flowered in the new woodland indicating that the sites biodiversity is improving each year. In addition Jef and Linda practice a three year rotational hedge cutting plan as part of Defra ELS (Entry Level Stewardship). In order to maintain best habitat for biodiversity Defra advises cutting hedgerow in winter in separate sections on a three year rotation so that only a small part of the hedgerow is cut at any one time and minimum disturbance is created to nesting birds and hedgerow creatures by hedgerow cutting.
After the site was assessed by the Hertfordshire Wildlife Site Project, for it’s value to local wildlife Defra concluded:
“You are on the edge of a high priority area for farmland birds, arable plants, bats and dormice and vulnerable grassland and associated species.
This means that any options you manage that benefit these species of habitats will be very beneficial to your area.
Having walked the farm with you it was clear that you are doing over and above the requirement of the management options, the level of biodiversity is impressive”
The improvement of biodiversity is at the forefront of modern day ecology practices and Jef and Linda have shown that with careful sympathetic management of their land not only do they benefit from the rich wildlife that is abundant and thriving around them, the environment is allowed to recover and provide essential habitat for our diminishing local flora and fauna. Jef and Linda are true custodians of the land for future generations, and if other land owners did the same we might just be able to repair some of the terrible damage that intensive farming, industry and indiscriminate housing has wreaked on the countryside
If you are a landowner and wish to know more about helping the wildlife on your land, please contact Meadow Project (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit the links on this blog for further information.
Farming and Forestry Improvement Scheme (Grants available until Dec 2013)
Special thanks to Ryan Clark for his photos of Brown Hare, Red Kite and Barn Owl. Please take a look at his fantastic collection of photos available for sale at www.ryanclarknaturephotography.wordpress.com