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NFFN Launches our Northern Ireland Blog

January 2021

Hedges and Edges of an arable farm in Northern Ireland in Winter  David Sandford 

Fields are the main asset on most farms & as such the growing of food & fodder is maximised in order to make a financial return. However, in attempting to obtain viable yields it can lead to overlooking the vital part that wildlife & biodiversity plays on every farm.

The importance of field margins & good hedges cannot be over-emphasised in ensuring that a fair balance is achieved. Best practice is that at least 10% of farmland should be managed for wildlife & biodiversity habitats.

High quality mixed species hedges are a real asset on any farm. If they are managed for wildlife & cut in rotation only once every three years, berries & fruit will be a vital source of food for birds & some mammals during the winter, as well as providing safe nesting sites & shelter.

Under the E.F.S. scheme, 6m rough grass field margins growing high tussocky grass provide cover for ground nesting birds & “forms” for our Irish Hares. It is also well documented that insect predators control aphids harmful to crops adjacent or near to rough grass margins, thereby reducing the need for the use of insecticides. Of which, I have completely eliminated use on my farm.

These margins will require invasive brambles & shrubs to be cut back after a few years & care should be taken to cut 6” or so high to leave a good grass tilth, harbouring both mice & shrews, which in turn provides valuable food for our Barn Owls!

Also under the E.F.S. scheme, 6m wide cultivated arable field margins are easy to provide & maintain; simply cultivate after ploughing & leave untreated & unseeded. They provide ideal open dry habitat beside a dense crop, ideal for chicks of ground nesting birds, foraging on insects in the vital first weeks of their life, as well as providing a useful nutrient & spray buffer to field edges & watercourses.

The “hungry gap” for wildlife on the farm in winter is well documented & responsible for high mortality rates. In January & February crop residues such as stubble have been well picked over & on many farms there is virtually no natural food left for resident or migrant birds. The planting of wild bird feed cover plots can make a huge difference. They consist of seed producing crops such as Oats & Triticale. Kale provides cover & food for invertebrates which in turn are sought out by many species of birds.

Some of these habitats are ideal for less productive parts of the farm so it’s a win-win for farmers & wildlife!

Finally, I defy any farmer not to feel satisfaction & pride when literally thousands of birds lift off his crop on a cold frosty morning!