December was mild and wet. We had 69mm of rain here, which brings our yearly total to 520mm – only 10mm short of our yearly average. December is not usually a wet month; I have only recorded 100mm or 4ins once in the last 48 years and during January, February and March, I have never recorded 4inches. It is April to August when we get heavy showers, which gives us more than 4ins a month. During June and August I have recorded 4ins four times in each month.
Sugar Beet is our only crop left to be harvested as we still have about 30 acres in the ground. Harvesting sugar beet is a contractors’ job for all but the largest growers, as a sugar beet harvester these days expects to harvest about 1,500 acres in the season. They are big machines costing around £500,000 and can harvest six rows at a time and up to 60 acres in a day. How much the harvester can harvest in a day does depend on the size of the fields it is working in. If the harvester is working in 15 acre fields, it will have a job to harvest 30 acres in a day as it takes quite a bit of time to go round the outside of a field. If the harvester was operating in a 100 acre field it can get 60 acres harvested in a day. This is the same for every operation, drilling, spraying, ploughing and harvesting other crops.
This means that farmers with big fields usually have lower costs and making more profit per acre than those farmers with small fields. However, generally those farmers with large fields will have less wildlife on their farm, simply because there are less field boundaries including grass margins, hedges and dykes which means less habitat and diversity. There are only three species that I can think of that like large fields: Skylarks, Lapwings and Stone Curlews however these three don’t go together very well as Stone Curlews will feed their young on Skylark and Lapwing chicks!
What about those arable farmers in the South West whose average field size may not be more than 10 acres? Unless they have diversified, or grown some really intensive crops, they will not be making much money. Then there is block cropping which is having several fields next to one another of the same crop. This obviously saves operational time as it is more efficient having all that acreage close together as there is far less moving about to do. Again this is not good for the wildlife, but it is widely practised because it saves time and money. Block cropping hundreds of acres together of one crop means less insect and weed diversity in that area, which in turn affects food availability for other species.
South Lincolnshire is often referred to as the vegetable basket of the country. Our own harvest season is nearly at an end for the year but the big vegetable growers in the area harvest 52 weeks of the year. Their silty soils can grow the most wonderful of vegetables near Spalding and Boston. At this time of year, they are able to harvest cauliflowers, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, leeks and kale. Further east still, in Norfolk and Suffolk, they are continuing with the carrot and parsnip harvests.
I am feeding a lot of birds down the farm, probably 900 on Vine House Farm and 700 at Baston Fen. I feed the sweepings from our bird food operation and there are several Yellowhammers in with all the other seed eaters including species such as Tree Sparrow, Brambling, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Linnet, Corn Bunting and Chaffinch. You would be able to see this feeding spectacle if you join me on one of our Winter Watches, details below.
This spectacle will continue until early April when the birds go back to where they bred, or where they were bred, last year. Yellowhammers are a bird of farmland and you could say where there isn’t much food in the spring. Last year I went round several Yellowhammer territories and hung a feeder of millet up or made sure the nearby pheasant feeder had plenty of wheat in to give them a source of food so they could start breeding earlier or have bigger broods.
It will be interesting to see if my spring surveys in 2019 show any increase in Yellowhammers. I was also feeding Linnets into June down the farm last year so it will be interesting to see if their numbers have increased. This is basically what I have done with Tree Sparrows, fed them all year round. Tree Sparrows are a lot easier than Yellowhammers as they will breed communally. Yellowhammers are very territorial, they won’t allow other male Yellowhammers in their territory. I suspect that they might allow another female Yellowhammer in their territory as they are a Bunting and their cousin the Corn Bunting spends all summer trying to get additional wives.
The Hilborough estate in Norfolk puts a lot of effort into increasing its Grey Partridge population. They have had feeders containing wheat at 150m intervals own every hedge throughout the year and now the Yellowhammer is the commonest bird on that estate, surely because of this extra feeding which suits them.
Food is the driver, any animal or bird that has a surplus of food will increase in numbers, you only have to look at humans to realise that.
Bird numbers on the farm have reduced considerably since early November, when we had at least 6,000 birds. Nearly all the Fieldfares have moved on, Golden Plover hung around for a while but over the past two weeks they have nearly all gone, just leaving about 500 Lapwing. The Grey Lag Geese, resident at Tallington and Baston gravel lakes, keep coming our way when there is something to eat, such as sugar beet tops after the harvester has been over the field. They are big birds and they can come in numbers of up to 1,000 but generally they have not been ruining any crops. They are resident on these lakes as they can roost safely on the water at night and during Spring and Summer there is a good supply of sweet grass that is kept mown for them and their young to graze on.
Please vote for me for the Radio 4 Farming personality of the year, when the voting opens this month.
TALKS & EVENTS
Nicholas is giving talks on Farming and Wildlife at:
17th January: Nuneaton and District Bird Watching Society
5th February: Witham on the Hill
13th February: Gringley on the Hill
14th February: Gosberton Methodist Church
18th February: Wigtoft Gardening Club
Winter Bird Watches at Vine House Farm £5 per person
19th January & 2nd February. Please book in advance