Habitat- arable field margins and buffer strips

Historically, farmland was a significant habitat for a diverse range of species both fauna and flora. However, since the advent of intensive farming which occurred just after the Second World War many species were lost or have suffered  dramatic declines from that point until the present day.

The causes of the declines due to intensive farming has been well documented on this site and many others. It is not my intention to repeat it here. I am purely looking at farmland habitat at this present time. However, before I close on the subject a final word, is in my opinion, warranted, that is to say it was not the fault of the farmers who were carrying out instructions from the Government of the day and of successive governments since. 

However, in the last 2-3 decades or so action has been taken by Governments to encourage farmers to help wildlife with financial incentives to create habitat and to promote wildlife friendly farming. 


Financial incentives

In England these schemes are funded by Natural England. The most popular scheme allows farmers and land owners to earn up to £30 per hectare for environmental management at the entry level. 

Why do Natural England do this ?---

To protect England's historic features and natural resources.

To make sure the land is well managed and to keep its traditional character.

To look after wild species and their habitat.

To ensure traditional livestock and crops are conserved for the future.

To provide opportunities for the public to visit and learn about the countryside.

Arable field margins.

It is estimated that there are just over 100,000 hectares of arable field margins across England {*} most of them have been developed since the 1990s when , again, incentive payments to create them first became available.. These are strips of land which have not been cultivated and left to their natural state of affairs; with a little intervention such as cutting out woody invasive plants that would aggressively take over.

These margins help to allow arable plants to maintain their cycle of life, that is to say, they are allowed to flower  {and seed} which provide pollen and nectar for bumblebees, butterflies and other invertebrates, which in turn attract birds. Part of the financial incentive is to protect the margins by allowing permanent grass, protecting water courses and by intercepting sediment and nutrient run off from fields and reducing as much as possible the affects of spray drift.

The margins across much of lowland England in both arable and mixed farmland target habitat support for farmland birds, arable plants and other farmland biodiversity. Government initiatives like the Environmental Stewardship has encouraged farmers and land owners to put arable field margins in place on their land.

They are important areas on farm land because they also protect ditches, rivers, streams and hedgerows from agricultural activity as well as providing important sources of food and nesting habitat for many species including declining birds such as the yellow hammer and grey partridge. {see below }.

Mammals such as field voles {the staple diet of owls and other birds of prey} thrive in the rough grassland. In other words they offer a rich diversity in an otherwise barren landscape, {as far as wildlife is concerned}. Indeed they have become an integral part of the farm land eco-system.

{*}  Source Natural England. 

Partridges rely on the existence of field margins and rough grassland

Photograph courtesy of Marek Szczepanek

Buffer strips.

Buffer strips are allowed to grow under the Entry Level Stewardship but they need to be managed by the guidance from Natural England. For instance a general rule is that cutting is recommended to remove any woody growth from strips of grassland, and in arable situations there are specific dates when cutting is recommended.

For strips established through natural regeneration  regular cutting for the first 12 -24 months is recommended to control annual weeds and encourage the grasses to tiller. After the first 12-24 months  of the agreement it is recommended that 3 meters close to the crop edge  { on a 6 meter strip}  annually after July.

For strips established through sowing , it is recommended that they are cut each year in August or September  and, if excess vegetation threatens to suppress flowers, cut again in March or April.

Other guidance and recommendations are for the management of nectar rich flower mixes and extended over winter stubble. Late flowers that are nectar rich such as red clover and bird's foot trefoil will help meet peak demand of bees. Science has revealed that flower mixtures attract up to 14 times more bumble bees than grass swards with few flowering species.



Red clover is nectar rich much visited by bees


Bird friendly farming.

According to Natural England {June 2011}, more fields than ever before are being managed to halt the decline in farmland bird populations. Over 152,000 hectares {375,000 acres} of arable farmland are now providing vital winter food and habitat through farmers adopting bird-friendly measures as part of their Environmental Stewardship {ES} agreements. In the last financial year {2010/11} alone, more than 10,000 hectares {25,000 acres} of farm land bird options were added by farmers within Higher Level Stewardship schemes.

James Phillips, a senior wildlife adviser with Natural England, said; " The decline of many farmland birds over the past 40 years has been an environmental tragedy. These heartening new figures show that the farmers are taking significant steps to reverse that decline and restore the fortunes of some of our best loved birds.

" But for this work to truly bear fruit, we need to carry on introducing bird friendly farming options right across the country.  The more land that is managed in this way, the more birds it will sustain"

Darren Moorcroft, RSPB head of countryside and conservation said; " These figures show what can be done with the right options in place, informed support and advise, and the farmers who really care about our countryside. At this time of the year, parent birds face the challenge of finding enough food to feed their hungry chicks. The habitats being created on these farms will ensure their is a new generation of healthy birds singing from our fields and hedgerows"

All this sounds encouraging and with nearly 57,000 farmers in England having signed up for agri-environment schemes, with many managing the land to provide havens for birds the picture looks rosier than at any time in the last forty years or so. However, according to the BTO Annual Review of 2011, despite all these efforts so far, many priority farmland bird species are still in decline.  


BTO Annual review states that----

The BTO's annual review states that despite all efforts such as those mentioned above many of our priority species are still in decline. farmland species of birds have declined faster than any other group of birds in Britain over the last 40 years. a number of  farmland species are now red listed such as tree sparrow, corn bunting and yellowhammer.

Yellowhammers are still in decline. 

Photograph courtesy of Jorg Hempel, Creative commons attribution.

  BTO annual review continued----Despite agri environment schemes----

There has been considerable Government investment into agri-environment schemes {detailed above} in an attempt to address the issue of declining bird populations, as well as other taxa, in British farmland. a popular option within such schemes is the provision of wildlife friendly field margins, in general, most research has focused on the value of field margins in grassland areas where bird declines have been attributed to a reduction in the amount of insect and seed resources.

So what progress has been made in terms of reversing farmland bird declines through such schemes? the long term trends on the BTO website show that the answer is not much. The populations of the most quintessential farmland birds such as the grey partridge, yellowhammer and sky lark are declining more slowly than in previous decades but are, nonetheless, still going down. 

This suggests that the policy has, to date,  not worked, demanding the question why not? three other questions need to be asked concerning this enquiry.

Management quality, quantity--- is it right for birds and is there enough?

Delivery--- are farmers doing it right?

Time---as it had time to work?

Natural England funded a re-analysis of BBS { Bird Breeding Survey} data using now more sensitive methods to measure the effects of five years of environmental schemes.  The results are still being finalised for publication but they do show a more positive picture. However, it does suggest that improvements in option quality and quantity  are required, but that management is working. We  {BTO} know that environmental schemes protects valuable existing habitats.

The schemes remain the most viable approach to enhance farmland nationally and to reverse bird declines, but monitoring and research feeding back into the scheme design are essential if improvements are to continue. 


What of the future ?

Has we have seen there is work being done and some improvements have been made. However, if these financial incentives are withdrawn { in these times of austerity it is not beyond possibility} all the good work could be in vein. let us hope this situation does not occur and wildlife continues to regain a foot hold in this type of locality.

Thank you for visiting.