How conservation measures were implemented at Vine House Farm, by Nicholas Watts:
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 were all born in this house. I have always been interested in wildlife.
30 years ago I had stopped filling in dykes, 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 like to see a lot of birds about and so I try and run our farm so that we do have a lot of birds about; it makes it a lot more of an enjoyable place to be for me and my family.
So here at Vine House Farm, we are continuing a lifetime’s devotion to conservation. Back in 1980, I installed a straw burner to heat the house and office. Every year since then we have saved thousands of litres of oil as the house and office have been heated by straw, wood or cardboard. Now, by growing as much of the bird food as possible here on our farm, we are saving thousands of litres of oil and less vehicles on the road each year that would otherwise be used for imported seed.
It was in 1982 that I wanted to know which birds were breeding on my farm. So one spring morning, I set off down the farm with a map and pen to record all the birds I saw and heard. It gives me great pleasure that my daughter Lucy now joins me on some of these walks. I have done the same every year since, always 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 in the beginning, but one wet summer’s afternoon in 1992 I sat down and worked out what had been happening to our farmland birds.
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 our set-aside mature and we 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 the 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 there 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 over 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, barley, clover, grass for seed and a variety of vegetables for the 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 as cheaply as possible 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, which include:
40 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, demostrating that the conservation work we do on the farm is not just for birds, but for all wildlife.
In the fens we rely on a network of dykes to take our water away, which means keeping the water course free of vegetation, the majority of which is the Common Reed. Normally both sides of the dyke and the watercourse are mown every year, but I have persuaded the drainage board to only mow one side each year. This has resulted in wildlife corridors – several species nest in the unmown side, especially Reed Warblers. Nicholas’ surveys have shown that on our main drains there’s a pair of Reed Warblers nesting every 40 yards and every nest is attached to one, or more, of last year’s reed stems. We’re happy to see that other drainage boards have now put our recommendations into effect.
25km of 2m field margins
These widen the unsprayed boundaries between fields which harbour wildlife. Just 2m may not seem very much, but when you take into account the 25km/15.5miles it stretches for, it’s a huge amount of land for wildlife.
Thousands of miles of hedgerows have been lost in the British countryside in the last 70 years, as farmers were given grants to pull them up. Originally, we never had many hedges in the Fens – we don’t need them as we have no animals to look after, but we have planted several over the last 20 years. A single hedge on its own is quite a draughty place, so we have been planting two hedges 10 yards apart, which makes a lot better habitat than a single hedge. The experts say that you’ll get four times the amount of wildlife in a double hedge than you would in a single hedge. We now have 1500 yards of double hedging.
Six years after planting, we take the tree guards off and lay the hedge. This reduces the draught from the bottom of the hedge, making it more cosy. Between the two hedges we’ve planted wild flowers and these double hedges have been planted next to ponds that we’ve dug; the ponds are the same length as the hedges, which go right across the field.
Three spinneys have been planted primarily to provide a roosting habitat for birds that feed on the land. They also provide nesting and feeding sites for more common species of bird, such as Blackbirds and Robins that would otherwise not be on the farm.
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, Lapwing, Oyster Catcher, Redshank, Black-headed Gull and Tufted Duck. In 2004, a series of ponds and scrapes were dug at Vine House Farm, about 20m wide and 300m long, and the same was repeated in 2005 at Baston Fen. This was done predominantly to get more water around us, as where there is water there is plenty of life and the similar ponds that were dug 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 dug previously. Ponds with hedges work well for us, the combined habitat is full of wildlife.
There is no such thing as set-aside now, but I do have a 30 acre block which is treated as set-aside which in divided into three 10 acre blocks. Each year there are 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.
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, 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 and Tree Sparrows, but also attracts other grain eating birds and is particularly valuable for birds in the winter and spring. I feed in four different places around the farm, which has resulted in around a thousand finches and buntings being fed through the winter. 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. Insects 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
Oil seed rape 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 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 only 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 viscious 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 the 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 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 farmers’ land, we 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.
Six metre arable field weed margins
Field margins are where we encourage weeds to grow such as Fat Hen, Willow Weed, Knotgrass and other annual arable weeds. 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 our wheat crop as winter barley becomes edible three weeks before winter wheat. All our buntings and field mice take advantage of this food source.
Our first crop after two years of conversion was in 2000. We started organic farming because I thought it would be better for wildlife, but it’s not as good for wildllife as I thought it would be. We have grown a range of vegetables organically in the past, including potatoes, sweetcorn and green beans all for the supermarkets. We still grow vegetables for our farm shop organically. Most of our organic crops are now grown as seed crops, for other organic farmers to sow on their land. I find that growing seed crops is better for wildlife than the vegetable crops as we are not in the crops disturbing the wildlife. We have not converted any more land to organic production because we cannot grow bird seed organically, we need the rest of our farm to grow birdseed.
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. Come and visit and see for yourself by booking onto one of our farm walks which take place each summer