Friday, August 17, 2018

Waking up to wildlife

July 31, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Bird counts on his Cambridgeshire farm informed and inspired Martin Lines in equal measure. Judith Tooth went to meet him.

When Cambridgeshire farmer Martin Lines organised a bird count on part of his farm, he recorded corn buntings, turtle doves, skylarks, sparrows, linnets, yellow hammers and more. But it was a different story on the other half of the farm.

Land on the rest of the farm was more open from hedge removal and ditch filling a few decades earlier – prompting a huge difference in results. “It woke me up,” he says. “I realised what a few hedges and a bit of water can do for wildlife.”

Martin had already set about putting some hedges back, but the survey results encouraged him to do more, taking awkward field corners out of production and establishing field margins. Now he is using a dyke running through the farm as a wildlife corridor, linking areas on his land and neighbouring farms.

“We all say we can grow 10 or 11 tonnes a hectare but we all have difficult spots that really only produce something in, say, six years out of 10. Instead you can square your fields to make them simpler to manage and more productive, you have a regular fixed income [under Countryside Stewardship] and you bring in wildlife and beneficial insects. We need a healthy environment and healthy farms, so we need to look at land flexibly.”

Creating habitats

This year, Martin has extended the boundary habitats around the farm, sowing broad areas of pollen and nectar mixes and bird seed mixes – albeit with mixed success in such dry conditions – along woodland edges and the dyke, again straightening field edges and encouraging wildlife into less productive areas in the process.

There are also 50 sky lark plots across the farm – small bare areas within the crop for nesting and feeding; a 2ha lapwing plot; six barn owl boxes and 70 other bird boxes for various species such as tits,  little owls and spotted flycatchers.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in skylarks here and the management of the fields is no different – we just lift the drill to create the bare areas, and the occasional dump of seed that results encourages corn buntings as well.”

In September, Martin will take on the RSPB’s ‘Hope Farm’ at Grange Farm, Knapwell, adding 160ha to the 420ha he owns, rents or contract-farms around Eltisley. As well as his own areas of environmental and countryside stewardship, he delivers environmental schemes for other farmers locally. This means, for example, cutting and baling all his and his neighbours’ flower-rich margins in the autumn, a practical solution that makes financial sense for all involved and encourages a wider range of species to thrive in the margins.

Crop management

There have been changes in crop management, too: spring cropping now accounts for more than 50 per cent of the arable land, mainly as a means of blackgrass control. The worst fields are now much cleaner following two years of spring crops and a break of oilseed rape or beans before moving back into the main rotation.

Five years ago the plough was dropped for a Kuhn Performer, and now, with an eye on a possible future glyphosate ban, a new drill with split seed tanks is planned to enable sowing different seeds in a single pass, and an integral crimper roller to destroy cover crops without chemicals.

“If glyphosate goes in five years’ time I still want to be using cover crops and be able to destroy them in a cheap and efficient way. And I’ve stopped using insecticides altogether: the ‘old mind’ said, get out and treat the problem; the ‘new mind’ is looking at the bigger picture.

“There’s more of a balance now, and I think cover crops will really help – I want to have continuous cover on my soils. And I want to work with pollinators and beneficial insects to create a more integrated system. I’ve already seen a 20 per cent yield boost in beans growing near pollen and nectar margins.

Flexible approach

“I’ve done a lot of contracting on organic farms and it’s opened my eyes to how little you can do to get a crop. More traditional, robust varieties are used, so now I’m not just interested in the highest yield but in disease resistance.

“And if you’re using cover crops and companion crops, you don’t need the weed control. While still doing the best I can for my crop, I’m not sticking to a rigid programme of spray application or cultivation, but using a more tailored approach, even within a field.”

Once he has got to grips with cover crops, Martin would like to reintroduce sheep to the farm and is keen to work with a mob-grazer, possibly in conjunction with other farms locally.

“I think there are really exciting opportunities to work with livestock farmers as a way of adding something back to the land. We still have some permanent grazing and used to have rotational grass. We might look at rotational grazing again, depending on how payment systems work out, as it could bring more flexibility into our cropping.”

Martin is chairman of the newly formed Nature Friendly Farming Network, a group of farmers “passionate about creating a countryside that is productive and bursting with wildlife”. Their aim is “to work together to secure better policies for food and farming, share insights and experiences, and demonstrate that farming and nature can, and must, go hand in hand”.

Voice for nature

“We have a lot of support from organisations like the RSPB, Buglife, the Soil Association, National Trust and so on, all endorsing our aim to create a strong voice for sustainable nature friendly farming,” he says.

“We don’t want to overlap or reinvent, but to bring in farmers not yet engaged. We need to change hearts and minds – whether it’s through wheat or barn owls or corn buntings… I think sometimes we don’t realise how lucky we are as farmers to have all this countryside around us.”

The network is open to farmers and the public alike to join, and funding is being sought to help with organising public, farming and parliamentary events. There is a lot of opportunity at the moment, says Martin, to lobby and argue for policies that support wildlife, sustainable farming practices and fair returns for delivering a healthier environment. Social media is a great tool for learning, for sharing stories and for reaching the public.

“I think we need to have a vision for 20 years’ time for business, landscape and wildlife, and then come back to now and look at how to get there. We need to make our businesses more resilient, whether it’s to climate change or commodity markets, so that we can still make a return in difficult times – something previous generations haven’t always focused on.”

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