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Habitat Management

How to give wildlife a home

The two BASF sustainability farms at Rawcliffe Bridge and The Grange have introduced many varied biodiversity initiatives over the last decade to support farmland wildlife alongside profitable crop production practices.

The focus has always been on enhancing the wildlife features on the farm using simple techniques; farm labour and standard farm equipment, creating year-round food supplies for birds as well as roosting and nesting sites. Plant species have been planted and naturally encouraged to attract amphibians and insects, particularly those species which are fed to fledgling farmland birds during the nesting season.

Pollinators also benefit from this managed approach to creating habitats. Butterflies and bees respond to an increase in pollen and nectar in the landscape, especially where the range of plants can provide them throughout the season, typically from February until October. This is particularly important for range -restricted pollinators who often need to have sufficient resources within a 250m radius of their nests, in order to maintain a stable population.

The mixture of flowering species within sown habitats can be designed to help many other species, through the right scale and the right location. Butterflies benefit from tall grassy habitats enhanced with a variety of wild flowers which, together with nearby woodland, deliver areas for hibernation and egg laying that are vital to keeping their populations increasing amongst the challenges of increasing urbanisation and climate change events (extreme rainfall and warmer summers).

Independent annual counts of birds, bats, moths and butterflies are undertaken to allow trends in populations to be identified and mapped to crop and land use change. A comparison of 2009 data and 2016 data from The Grange for birds using farmland, shows an increase of 45% in breeding territories and 48% increase in the number of species recorded.

Crop rotations and areas were similar between the years, with the increase in numbers coming from a combination of more sustainable soil management practices and an increase in sown habitat area on farm that supports the needs of these birds. And all achieved alongside crops that received targeted application of crop protection products and fertiliser, delivering safe, profitable and sustainable food from the farm.

Simple habitat and farming approaches that work for biodiversity on both farms include:

  • Spreading ‘tail corn’ or screenings harvested from cereal and rape headlands, in the yard and on hard farm tracks between December and April, provides supplementary food for farmland birds during their “hungry gap”.
  • Putting up nest boxes for hole-nesting birds like tits and tree sparrows can significantly boost their numbers, allowing them to establish new colonies, often in farm woodland.
  • Putting up barn owl nesting boxes at the edge of established woodland and along hunting flight lines over grass margins can help to boost their breeding success on farms.
  • Omitting summer insecticides in winter wheat for aphid control can deliver real benefits for summer invertebrates, which are an essential food source for many young farmland bird chicks at that time of year.
  • Direct cutting of oilseed rape instead of swathing delays disturbing the field for an extra 10-14 days, which can give any resident reed buntings time to fledge their last brood of young before harvest starts.
  • Rotational ditch and dyke management can encourage water voles to recolonise the ditch banks.

At Rawcliffe Bridge, most fields have a ditch around two sides, which provide excellent wildlife corridors across the farm landscape. Annual dredging and cutting of these ditches is delayed until October and done on a rotational rather than annual basis, to encourage the tussocky grasses favoured by voles. Planting of native broad-leaved trees and berry-bearing shrubs with Corsican pine, alongside a 100-year-old oak wood has been connected to the rest of the farm by planting additional grassy margins.

The approach for habitat management at The Grange is captured within the farms Higher Level Scheme (HLS) environmental agreement. The farm already had a strong level of habitat connectivity, which has been enhanced by the identification, selection and re-sowing of under-performing areas of fields (normally the headlands and corners) into a variety of biodiversity mixtures designed to support local wildlife. These areas were established in 2014, and now successfully delivering oil rich seed for birds in winter and pollen and nectar resources for bumblebees and butterflies from early spring to late autumn, all alongside profitable arable crops.

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