Vine House Farm - Conservation

Conservation on Vine House Farm - Nicholas Watts outlines his work

Vine House Farm is a traditional English farm, handed down from one generation to the next. My great grandfather moved here from Wisbech in 1883. My grandfather, father, myself and my three girls have all been born in this house. I have always been interested in wildlife.

30 years ago I had stopped filling dykes in as I realised that they were habitats for wildlife. I was doing quite a bit of conservation while all my neighbours were busy making their fields bigger and making sure they were ploughing right up to the dyke sides. I just like to see a lot of birds about and so I try and run my farm so that I do have a lot of birds about; it makes it a lot more of an enjoyable place to be and work.

So here at Vine House Farm we are continuing a lifetime's devotion to conservation and conserving. Back in 1980 I installed a straw burner to heat my house and office. Every year since then I have saved 1000's of litres of oil as my house and office have been heated by straw, wood or cardboard. And now by growing as much of the bird food as possible here on our farm, I am saving 1000's of litres of oil and less vehicles on the road each year that would otherwise be there for imported seed. And of course you can make a similar contribution by buying your bird food direct from our farm!

It was in 1982 that I wanted to know what birds were breeding on my farm. So one spring morning I set off down the farm with a map and pen recording all the birds I saw and heard, and I have done the same every year since. I always do it at the same time of year, at the same time of day, take the same time over it and always try to do it in nice weather! I didn't do much with the records at the beginning, but one wet summer’s afternoon in 1992 I sat down and worked out what had been happening to our farmland birds.

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I was alarmed by the decrease in Skylarks and Corn Buntings. I didn't know whether it was a summer problem or a winter problem. It was the year set-aside was introduced so I let my set-aside mature and I had hundreds of birds feeding on it. The next year I grew an acre of wheat on my set-aside land next to my farmyard and again I had hundreds of birds.

I opened up my farm to the public for them to share in the wild bird spectacle. Two or three people asked me if I could sell them some bird food. I told them I had never thought about selling bird food but I sold them some oil seed rape as that’s what I was feeding the birds, and gave the proceeds of the sales to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust. The next year I opened up the farm again, and again I gave all the proceeds of the open day to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust. More people asked me if I could sell them birdseed and so I was selling it without even trying!

At that time I tried to enhance the rest of my set-aside but that was only on 10% of my land. I knew that birds needed weeds in crops so in the end I decided to turn some of my farm to organic production. In 1998 I sowed my first crop of clover so that I could become organic in 2000. We now have over 270 acres converted to organic farming and grow wheat, potatoes, courgettes, sweet corn, grass for seed and a variety of vegetables for the shop.The courgettes are sent to Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons in July, August and September. We also supply River Nene organic box scheme and sell the vegetables in our farm shop.

National decline in farmland birds and reversing the decline at Vine House Farm

Over the past 50 years the nation’s mission to produce more food by agricultural intensification has deprived birds of food and nesting sites – thus resulting in alarming declines in the species that rely on farmland. Determined not to let such wildlife declines continue at Vine House Farm, we have been implementing various specific conservation measures:

Redundant Dykes

25 years ago we resisted the economic trend to fill in dykes to increase field sizes, because they are a valuable habitat for wildlife. This measure has proved hugely important to many species of plant, bird, mammal, amphibian, fish and insect, with part of the point being that the conservation work we do on the farm is not just for birds but all wildlife.

Active Dykes

Farming in the Fens is reliant on a network of dykes. Maintaining and trimming the dykes can be disastrous to wildlife, so I persuaded the local drainage board to only cut each side on alternative years of our main drains and only in October or November, in order to preserve the valuable habitat.

25km of 2m field margins

These widen the unsprayed boundaries between fields which harbour wildlife. Looked at one way just 2m isn't very much, but when you take into account the 25km/15.5miles it stretches for, it’s a huge amount of land for wildlife.

hedge-we-planted2.jpgHedges

A staggering 118,000 miles of hedgerow have been lost from the UK’s landscape since the 1950's. At Vine House Farm it’s often dykes rather than hedgerows which separate fields, but none the less we've planted 4 miles of hedgerow in the past 10 years, providing a habitat for nesting birds such as the Linnet, Chaffinch,Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Yellowhammer.

Woodland

Three spinneys have been planted primarily to provide a roosting habitat for birds that feed on the land, but also nesting and feeding for more common species of bird such as Blackbirds and Robins.

Ponds

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Ponds have been dug around the farm and planted with native plant species to provide a habitat for insects and birds. The largest pond has a small island which acts as a nesting site for Terns (over 50 pairs this year), Lapwing, Oyster Catcher, Redshank, Black-headed Gull and Tufted Duck. In 2004 I dug a series of ponds and scrapes at Vine House Farm about 20m wide and 300m long and repeated that in 2005 at Baston Fen. This was done really to get more water about us, as where there is water there is plenty of life and the similar ponds I dug on Vine House Farm back in 1998 have always been so full of life. In 2009 another three ponds were dug and a hedge of mixed native species was planted on the north side of all three ponds, as well as those ponds that I had dug previously.

Set-aside

There is no such thing as set-aside now but I do have 20 acres that I treat as set-aside each year. This is in a 30 acre block and the area is then divided into three 10 acre blocks. Each year there is 10 acres of a cereal which rotates round the three blocks, and the other two years are fallow. This is specifically designed to help the Corn Buntings.

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Wild flower meadows

These were planted way back in 1995 and more added in 2001. We now have 12 wild flower meadows totalling 20 acres / 8 hectares, and these are particularly valuable for insects such as butterflies, and therefore provide a food source for birds.Every year these are cut in August and the hay taken off, which makes the ground less fertile which is preferable for wild flowers as they’re not competing so much with grasses. Every year we walk over the wildflower meadows and spot spray the thistles (which would otherwise become dominant).

Feeding (away from the farmhouse)

This is primarily for Wild Pheasants, but also attracts other grain eating birds and is particularly valuable for birds in the winter and spring. Birds don’t need the whole countryside during the summer as many of them have their own territory,but it would of course be impractical to have a feeder every 50 yards around the farm. Also, it is insects which are needed to feed most fledglings and we’re better able to provide these by creating a diverse habitat between our crops.

Oil seed rape

Although many of you will not like the oil seed rape crop, it is by far the best crop for birds as more birds feed in it and on it, and more birds nest in it than any other crop.

Harvest is a critical period because 50% of reed buntings are still nesting in oil seed rape when it is swathed, and sadly no nests will survive this process. Swathing,cutting the crops and laying it in rows, is one way of preparing rape for harvest. The other way to prepare it for harvest is by spraying. This is far better for wildlife as all nests survive the spraying and all the young have fledged by the time the combine harvester moves in. Here at Vine House Farm we spray the rape, and reed buntings have increased by 100% in the last 15 years.A measure of this success is that the RSPB now give my recommendations for oil seed rape harvesting nationally to farmers. From 2002 to 2006 the acreage of oil seed rape declined in Deeping Fen simply because it was not a very good paying crop. The breeding population of reed buntings, reed warblers and Sedge Warblers also dropped. Since 2006 the acreage of oil seed rape has doubled and so has the breeding population of those three species.

Flail mowing (used to cut hedges)

This is avoided before the end of August to allow birds to fledge and grubs to mature. The flail mower is a viscous machine: it shoots twigs back into the hedge destroying any remaining nests, and also kills immature insects and grubs which are the breeding stock for next year. By using the flail mower sparingly we now have over 20 pairs of white throats nesting on the farms, which represent more than half the population in Deeping Fen. After birds have left their nest they still need feeding, and of course after that they still need a plentiful supply of food as they are inexperienced at feeding themselves. Delaying flail mowing until September helps young birds over this critical period.

Redundant farm buildings

These have been re-roofed to provide a home for nesting barn owls, and by placing boxes in these buildings we increased the population in Deeping Fen from four pairs in 1985, to 12 pairs in 2002. Because some farm buildings are falling down on other farmer’s land, I have recently had three brick towers built in places well away from other farm buildings. These brick towers have places for Barn Owls, Kestrels and Tree Sparrows to nest and within two weeks of each one being built Kestrels were using them as hunting posts. In 2010 in two of these towers a pair of Kestrels and a pair of Barn Owls nested successfully and in the third one a pair of Barn Owls and 2 pairs of Kestrels nested successfully. In total, nine pairs of Barn Owls nested on my farms in 2010.

Six metre arable field weed margins

Field margins are where we encourage weeds such as Fat Hen, Willow Weed, Knotgrass and other annual arable weeds to grow. These are the sort of weeds that insects live on and farmland birds need those insects to feed their nestlings on. I had 16km of these weed margins since 2005, and in 2010 I increased it to 26km. They are cultivated each spring to ensure that the annual arable weeds germinate. Our annual arable weeds are host to more insects than grass weeds, and in many of our crops there are no weeds so this is a different attempt to increase the insect population. They are the most diverse places on my farm as I can find up to 60 different plant species in a margin.

Barley in wheat

In late June there is very little food in a modern wheat crop. By sprinkling a few grains of winter barley in the wheat seed when we sow it, there is now food in the wheat crop as winter barley becomes edible 3 weeks before winter wheat. All our buntings and field mice take advantage of this food source.

Organic farming

Organic farmingis the single greatest factor which has resulted in increased bird populations and biodiversity at Vine House Farm. 200 acres have presently been converted, with conversion continuing with another 50 planned. This has been a challenge but I am enjoying it, and we’re currently growing potatoes, courgettes and dwarf beans for Marks and Spencer and Waitrose.

What all the above adds up to

As a result of endless time and commitment, at Vine House Farm we are observing increases in bird populations compared to national populations which are either static or declining. The measures listed above are very much a ‘sum of parts’ and no single measure is responsible for the success we have in increasing bird populations, or indeed those of other wildlife. Equally, we can never rest on our laurels and there will always be new initiatives we can take to further improve the biodiversity on our farm.