Vine House Farm - Wildlife on the Farm

Nicholas Watts gives a personal overview of the wildlife at Vine House Farm, and outlines some of the specific measures he has taken to improve habitat and the breeding success of a number of key species of birds.

Our farm here in Deeping Fen is alive withwildlife, especially farmland birds. It is however down to the surveys that Ihave carried out over much of Deeping Fen. These surveys have shown me wherethe birds are and where they aren’t. There is one piece of habitat that standsout above all the rest in Deeping Fen and so I have replicated that five timeson my farms. That habitat is basically ponds and bushes.

Modern farming has unfortunately taken its toll on many farmland bird species which are finding survival increasingly difficult as our modern farms are becoming ever more efficient at reducing weeds and unwanted insects. Please visit our conservation page to see some of the measures we have put in place that has enabled some of these bird species to increase.

Barn Owl

barn-owl-tower-resized.jpgIn 1984 I could only find three pairs of Barn Owls in Deeping Fen, we had redundant buildings and so I started putting nest boxes in them, which were taken up the next year. This has clearly shown us that nesting habitat was one of the barn owls main draw backs. Over the years I have put more nest boxes up and built three brick towers for them. Countryside Stewardship and Entry Level schemes have helped and paid for 35km of wide grass margins. In 2014 I had 13 pairs of Barn Owls breeding on the farm and they raised 87 young. In 2015 no pairs bred successfully as the large number of young that bred in 2014 had eaten nearly all the voles.

Thesebrick towers quite often have 5 species nesting in them, Barn Owl, Kestrel,Stock Dove, Jackdaws and Tree Sparrows but in 2015 one tower had a 6thSpecies which was a Mallard, it nested and hatched before the Stock Doveswanted to lay

Tree Sparrow

Tree sparrows have always been in Deeping Fen,nesting in old farm buildings or even in the base of carrion crow nests as wehave so few trees with holes in. About five years ago I noticed we had TreeSparrows centred around some ponds I had dug so I started to feed them onmillet. They seemed to like the red millet best so that is what I have fed themon ever since. In the last 2 or 3 years numbers have been building up, and wenow have a colony of about 200 birds in the surrounding area around the pondswhere I have been feeding them. I have put up nest boxes for them and they alsonest in the surrounding redundant farm buildings. The whole population of TreeSparrows in Deeping Fen is centred around these ponds, so four years ago Istarted to replicate the ponds in five other places around our farms, with thehope that the Tree Sparrows will spread and they are spreading. Last year I had65 nest boxes up for them and 60 were occupied and they fledged over 500 young.

Tree sparrows, like House Sparrows, need insects tofeed their young on and we have more food than nest sites so I have put upanother 35 nest boxes this autumn at various sites around the farms near water,as that is where the most insects can be found. Where I have good habitat TreeSparrows have 3 broods and some attempt a fourth brood.

The four ingredients forattracting Tree Sparrows are ponds, a hedge with many species of bushes in it,feeders with red millet next to the hedge and other insect rich habitat nearby




Whitethroats have increased steadily throughout theyears of my surveys, though there have always been more pairs on our farms thanon other local farms.

Whitethroats like to nest in vegetation that isstill standing from the previous year –in other words places that weren't flailmown the previous autumn. I was the first farmer in this area to have widegrass margins and with a redundant ditch beside the wide grass margin, which wehave several of, and it all helps to increase the type of habitat that theyrequire. I try to use the flail mower as little as possible. When the flailmower is used during the summer it is disastrous to wildlife.

Whitethroats are summer visitors to the UK andarrive during the second half of April. The males arrive first and set up theirterritories, and it gives me great pleasure to hear their scratchy song invarious parts of the farm because I know they are in habitat I have created.Like all birds some males move around a bit, maybe if they haven’t attracted awife after a while they will move. They build a delicate nest always off theground amongst dead nettle stalks or other dead stalks from the previous yearand lay four or five eggs. They are double-brooded and have finished theirsecond brood before the end of July.

Numbers fluctuate annually but in the mid-90s westarted off with three pairs at Deeping Fen Farm and have had as many as twentytwo pairs on that farm of 662 acres.

Sedge Warbler


Sedge Warblers like to nest in a wet drain or ditchthat has not been mown out for at least two years, and also prefer more tangledvegetation than reed warblers. They arrive with us in April and have finishedtheir second brood by the end of July. They also like to nest in a wet ditchnext to an oil seed rape field and in fact three quarters of those birdsnesting in Deeping Fen will be next to or in a field of oil seed rape. Theirpopulation crashed between 2002 and 2006, but by 2010 it was back up to 2002levels. The population had dropped because the acreage of oil seed rape hadalso dropped, and therefore increased because the oil seed rape acreage hadagain increased.

There is no doubt that the high numbers that wehave on Deeping Fen Farm are due to the network of redundant ditches that wehave retained. These ditches are cleaned out about every 10 years, and bycleaning them out it makes sure that water can more easily flow through them.

Other species

Of course we have other farmland birds on our farmand in our local area. Some of these species are thriving while others aresadly declining and struggling to survive due to our modern world. I couldcarry on writing for an age but here is a brief list of some of the otherfarmland bird species we see here in my survey area:

Skylark- in decline from 300 pairs to 200 in the last 20 years.

Grey Partridge- there is a small steady population.

Corn Bunting- in decline - they are one of my favourite birds that I would love to be able to help!

Meadow pipit- havebeen in sharp decline but in the last three years have made a recovery. They doenjoy my wild flower meadows.

Reed Warbler-liketo nest in reeds that are not cut every year. As I have persuaded our drainageboard to only cut our main drains one side each year we have far more than weused to do but they are now declining because we lower our water levels duringthe winter. This is exactly the opposite that happens naturally. We lower thewater levels during the winter so that we have a bit more of a reservoir incase of heavy rain. The fish and insects hide and feed in the marginalvegetation during the winter but because we lower the water level there is nomarginal vegetation in the water so we have starved our fish and insects andexposed them to their predators. Now we have very few fish in our drains andless insects which the Reed and Sedge Warblers need to feed their young on.

Yellow Wagtail- a major stronghold area for the species but the population is in decline.

Linnet- there are far more linnets on our farms than others in the area as they enjoy our cultivated weed margins, although the population is in decline.

Lapwing-alocal success story with several more pairs nesting in the last few years andin 2014 I had about 50 pairs breeding on the farm.

Mallard duck- they have seen a catastrophic decline due to lack of insects and modern drainage.

Yellow Hammer- a small but stable population.

Turtle Dove-thesesummer visitors have only ever been declining in my life time. I heard onesinging a few times in 2015 but didn’t see any evidence of breeding.

Pheasant-ourwild pheasants are also in decline in the area due to the gradual decline ofinsects and increased predator numbers such as buzzards, red kites, foxes,badgers and the crow family.

South Lincolnshire is one of the very few placeswhere wild pheasants can still be shot. Everywhere else thousands and thousandsof pheasants are released each year and these released pheasants are only halfsharp. They make an easy meal for foxes, badgers, buzzards, red kites, foxes,badgers and we serve the crow family breakfast every morning on the roads. Anyanimal or bird that has a surplus of food will increase in numbers and becauseso many pheasants are being released that is why all those species are doing sowell.

Nature Reserve

As well as guided toursand a bird hide looking onto our feeding area at Vine House Farm,we do have a nature reserve at Baston Fen where youcan see a variety of birds and wildlife. Most years we have common ternsbreeding as well as black headed gulls, oystercatchers and Lapwing. You are more than welcome to visit our naturereserve and use the bird hide:


From the farm shop turn right out of the gatewayand continue on the main road out of the village of Deeping St Nicholas. Afterabout 5 miles there is a right hand turn towards Baston Fen. Take this road tothe end, which is about 2 miles. At the T junction turn right, continue alongthe road for about 1.5 miles until you come to the first building on the righthand side which is an old barn. Our nature reserve is here behind the yellowgates. There is a small bird hide which you are welcome to use.