News and blog Friday's Farming Thoughts Entry #16 - Joanne Leigh: Connectivity in the Landscape Looking out over the countryside at this time of year you can see the pale creamy fields of harvested crops framed within the deep green lines of hedgerows, ditches and margins. The ever-decreasing patches of green pastures nestled in now and then and some early shades of orange through to brown of those fields already ploughed. The hedges are looking quite hairy at this time of year, old nests falling out of branches bits of straw hanging in the breeze escaped from the trucks taking it off site. On closer inspection you can see the jewelled red and black berries of the hawthorn, spindles, bryony, blackberries and sloes. How lucky we are to have hedgerows abundant with fruit we didn’t plant ourselves, at arm’s length, to feast on and find pleasure on a long walk. The variety of species that provide fruits and nuts can be identified by the leaves which are slowly starting to fade and will soon be as golden as the fields they surround. Every now and then there is a tree, sadly mainly Ash, so it might not be here next year and that will leave a bigger gap between the oaks or shrubs that have been left to grow tall. The margins that run alongside the hedges are scruffy and wild full of seeds from various grasses and wildflowers which look pretty nestled within the tangle. A pollinator refers not just to bees, it can be a beetle, insect or even small mammal that pollinates the flower which produces the fruit for the larger mammals to feed on. Some of the pollinators fly but others less able rely on certain wildflower species or deadwood within the grassy margins to feed and travel, in order to reach more plants that need pollination. The wider they can travel the more they can populate and lets not forget some of these insects are predators. Predators eat other insects or help to decompose dead mammals, returning them to the earth, providing fertility and feeding microbes below ground. Birds mainly feed on seeds and fruit but when feeding young they need insects which they can find in taller grass, within the shrubs of hedges or within the crop. The height of the grass matters. Tall messy grass next to the hedge provides cover and shelter for travelling along, shorter grass leading into the field provides an area to forage, play around or just lounge. Each provides a difference in temperature so on a hot summers day insects, mammals, birds can retreat to the dense cover of a hedge with tall grass and know it offers safety and comfort. Equally in the depths of a harsh cold winter the same hedge and tall grass provides protection from wind and snow and keeps hibernating mammals warm and cosy ready to come out in spring and start a fresh. All of the UKS wildflowers, shrubs and trees supplies its insects birds and mammals with all of their needs providing both early and late pollination for insects to keep them going through winter. Harvest is a great time of year to spot the gaps in hedgerows, the missing trees lost to disease or succumbed to drought or flood; the narrowing margins that flank the network of habitat around the farm. Its worth taking stock of this decreasing natural capital and to reflect on how wildlife can survive across the farm. Where does the hedge lead to, a dead end or is there another hedge, tree or grassy margin that joins it to a woodland and beyond. What does it look like, is it tidy and clipped, tall and billowy, is it varied and full of fruit. If you were a wild animal or insect, would you be able to survive on what you see, are there enough berries and nuts to last a winter, enough cover to hide you from predation or shelter from the storms. Is there anywhere for wildlife to drink on the farm or have they to rely on morning dew and rainy puddles, does the water leak off an old barn roof and off down the track or is it pooled in a dew pond or lake. What extra value can this network of green corridors bring to the farm to help your farming business and do you have enough of it. Increases in all of these things are related to the number of birds you have on farm, if you have a good wide range then you know you have a flourishing network. How often do you see birds and what do they look like, where do you see them most often and why? How do you know if you have a good wide range? This all comes down to monitoring but failing having the expert knowledge of a bird spotter you can guarantee that if you have the supplies then you will have the stock. So how do you know if what you have is rewarding your wildlife with an abundance of food, shelter and nesting availability. Biodiversity is key to all life whether you’re a small insect or a large bird the food web relates to all of us and finding that food within reasonable distance is vital for survival. Mixed hedgerows with tall field margins full of our native wildflowers, mixed trees left to blossom and thrive naturally can supply an abundance of pollination and food for our native species as well as our summer and winter visitors. The more variety we can offer to our wildlife the more they will thrive. Some simple daily exercises can provide us with the information we need to make good management decisions. Counting the plant species in the margins or hedgerows to see if we have a good range, do we have flowers early in the season and late in the season. Do we have plentiful berries in the winter and what is the cutting management for the hedges and does it consider food for birds. Feeding birds over winter and counting the amount and range of birds on the track. Putting in pollinator strips and sitting for 5 minutes to observe the different insects feeding on a single plant. Using apps to identify plants and insects and recording that on an office whiteboard to produce weekly records. Bringing a BTO trained officer to monitor your breeding birds early in the year. Monitoring your watercourse nitrate and phosphate on a monthly basis coming into the farm and off. How we manage our natural capital is going to have a big impact on what it can provide for wildlife year on year. The flowers on hedges providing the berries later on will only grow or produce on second years growth, cutting yearly to the same height will reduce your flower and berry count. Hedges need to breath year on year at least 6 inches, this is not going to impede on crop health in fact it will help it by providing shelter from wind and bad weather and hold a host of beneficial insects and aid integrated pest management. Thickening of hedges will mean better cover for birds nesting in the hedge, giving us more chicks. Increase the trees in the hedgerow, don’t cut them with the flail this will reduce their life and they are very beneficial to wildlife and crop health. Trees will last for hundreds of years and provide cover for crops, organic matter from leaf fall and nesting habitat for owls and insects, these will predate smaller mammals and provide food for young birds. Increasing a margin against a hedge provides a wildlife corridor for mammals and insects, leave the last meter of grass against the hedge undisturbed all year round. If you have to cut a margin then remove the cutting and this will increase the wildflowers you have in the margin. A wider margin is much better than a narrow one for many reasons, its protection of the hedge against spray drift, it’s a source of mycorrhizal fungi that is often absent from the fields due to cultivation, it helps with flood management by interrupting flow and holding onto water. Margins provide food for chicks and other mammals. Increasing water for wildlife, if that’s a pond or dew pond, if its dry in summer or wet all year round the benefits for wildlife are vast. Birds use muddy puddles to build nests and wade in over winter. Some water waders include Snipe, Golden Plover and water pipit and can be observed in these areas if they are provided. Building wetlands along watercourses is vital for a lot of birds as well for protecting our rivers from silt build up. They also bring a different mix of wildflowers to the farm and mammals such as otters which are a delight to see returning to our rivers. There is always more advice available through your local FWAG adviser and often funding to help with plugging the gaps and building biodiversity on the farm. Please take time to observe your nature networks and let us know how they are providing for you and your farm business.