Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Farmers passion for the countryside abounds!

The Arun to Adur farmers group - a very exciting project
I have been involved with running a number of courses across the country over the last week or so, which sort of reminded me just how varied my role with the GWCT is!

The cluster of farmers that I helped bring together in the Sussex Downs, so that they could manage the downland that they farm in a more joined up and cohesive way, has gone from strength to strength. As a group they decided to apply for the new Natural England “facilitation fund”, which will enable them to fund someone to oversee and organise what they collectively do.

Enter Colin Hedley, a top notch local independent environmental consultant. He teamed up with the existing group who had already been working so well together, consisting of the farmers of course, ably represented up by whole-hearted and passionate estate manager Peter Knight, myself (GWCT), Sue Simpson (Natural England), Bruce Fowkes (RSPB) and Nigel James (South Downs National Park). A thoroughly refreshing team to work with as we “all sing from the same hymn sheet” – ie: the practical delivery of integrated landscape conservation.

To cut a long story short, the application Colin headed up was successful and the newly named “Arun to Adur” – (Abbreviated to A2A – and so named because it is the area between these two rivers) farmers group held its first meeting to discuss the future ways in which it will deliver the main targets, namely, to improve the conservation of soil, water and wildlife across the downs. (Plus much more besides!)

It is a fantastically enthusiastic group consisting of 24 farmers (which is already rising!) who farm and look after some 8299 hectares of the South Downs and I’m quite sure that with Colin’s leadership, the group will thrive. You will be hearing more about the A2A farmers group over the coming months.

Farmers learning about birds at Richard Matthew's farm in Oxfordshire

The next stop was to help run a “Farmland bird event” in Oxfordshire, organised by the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) adviser in the county Tim Clarke and we were also joined by RSPB adviser Kirsty Brannan. The morning event took place on Richard Matthew’s farm at Caswell, not far from Witney. Richard is a good friend of mine and I have over the years seen him transform his farm into a top notch example of how to integrate conservation into good farming practice.  Richard is also a keen rugby enthusiast, so once we had discussed the woes of the England team, we set all set off to look around his delightful farm.

Birds abounded! We saw Little Egret, Heron, Kingfisher, Yellowhammer, Linnet, Goldfinch, Reed Bunting, Fieldfare and Redwing, just to mention a few! We also saw the reason behind why these birds were in such numbers – lots of wonderful habitats of seed bearing crops grown especially for them, insect rich areas, managed water courses and permanent pasture amongst the arable stubbles. A most enjoyable way to spend a morning!!

The Kings event: To learn about conservation crops, there is no better way than to get in them!

Then onto Buckinghamshire for an event organised by Kings Seeds, a highly professional company that does not just sell conservation and shooting cover crops to land managers, but also goes to great lengths to emphasis best practice while growing them. The event was held at George Eaton’s Rectory farm, the recent winner of the famous Purdy award.

There can be no farmer in the land that can match George for his enthusiasm of “all things countryside”! He is a true ambassador for the farming profession. So it was no surprise that we had a most enjoyable day hearing talks in the wonderful function room he has built. (So that groups ranging from us through to the local Brownies, can be educated in the ways of farming and conservation). This was then followed by a trip around the farm to look at and discuss top quality conservation crops.

So, do not let anyone tell you that there is not much happening out there on farms – because there is so much amazing stuff going on – it really is very heart-warming!     

Monday, 19 October 2015

Pesticide findings are blooming worrying.

A perennial flower margin next to an arable crop - safe haven or not? 
I have just read a very thought-provoking paper from a Sussex University team working on the insecticides known as Neonicotinoids. What made this paper particularly interesting is that the team not only looked at the commercial crops being grown, but also the flowering weeds within the crop and the wildflowers growing in the margins of the field too.

As you might gather from the title of the paper – “NEONICOTINOID RESIDUES IN WILDFLOWERS, A
POTENTIAL ROUTE OF CHRONIC EXPOSURE FOR BEES” -  - the report highlights some potentially very worrying details.

You may recall that “neonics” as they are commonly called, were banned for use in this country on flowering crops such as oil seed rape, while the products were investigated further. This is because the insecticide, which is usually coated onto the seed before planting and then taken up by the crop, is also being detected in the pollen and nectar of these flowering crops. Insects, including bees, then feed on this pollen and nectar, which may or may not affect them. 
The Sussex research found that the large majority (97%) of neonics brought back in pollen to honey bee hives in arable landscapes was from wildflowers, not crops. When the team then looked at these wildflowers growing in arable field margins, they found that the pollen and nectar had concentrations that are sometimes even higher than those found in the commercial crop.

For instance, pollen collected from Hogweed – a very common plant in field margins - often had levels over 10 times that normally found in the crop. “It may be that different plant species differ in their propensity to suck up neonicotinoids from the soil,’ says senior study author Dave Goulson. ‘The concentrations in the wildflowers were very variable, much higher than in the crop.’

Laboratory and semi-field studies on honey bees and bumblebees suggest that exposure of colonies to concentrations approximating those found in pollen and nectar of flowering crops can impair pollen collection, increase worker mortality, weaken immune function, reduce nest growth and the production of new queens.

However, a key point of controversy is whether bees consume enough of these compounds during the flowering period of the crop to do them significant harm. It has thus been argued that the levels of exposure used in these studies may be higher than most bee colonies are likely to experience in the field, based on the premise that exposure to neonics from flowering crops will be diluted by bees also foraging on untreated wildflowers.

What many folk seem to have over-looked is that although neonics are not currently allowed to be used on flowering crop plants, they are still widely used on non-flowering crops such as cereals. Very little of the seed coated pesticide is actually taken up by the crop itself, (not much is needed to be effective) with the vast majority presumably leaching off the seed into the adjacent soil, where it stays for a year or two at least, until it degrades and breaks down. 

Overall, the results from this study demonstrate that the application of neonicotinoid seed dressings to autumn-sown arable crops results in contamination of pollen and nectar of nearby wildflowers throughout the following spring and summer, and that wildflowers were the major route of exposure for bees.

Julian Little, spokesperson for Bayer Crop Science, one of the major manufacturers of neonics, says the paper is ‘very much aligned with the idea that if you can find something, it must be doing harm, which goes against what we know about chemistry: it is the dose that makes the poison’.

Bayer is currently awaiting the results of experiments being conducted by the UK’s Centre for Hydrology & Ecology on neonicotinoids in oilseed rape in England, Hungary and Germany. ‘We are very hopeful that when those results are published sometime next year neonicotinoids will be given a clean bill of health,’ says Little. 

The Sussex University report finishes with some advice for those land managers thinking of planting some wild flower areas to help pollinators. “It would seem best to promote the creation of wildflower patches that are not adjacent to treated crops or on soil in which treated crops have previously been grown to avoid exposure to neonicotinoid residues via this route.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Learning the art of joined up countryside management

GWCT colleague Mike Swan discussing the finer points of driving good quality Pheasants over the guns

Over the last week I have been involved with training a good mixture of different people in, well for want of a better title, countryside management.  

I joined up with work colleague Jim Egan at the GWCT Allerton Trust farm at Loddington in Leicestershire, for a two day course training a dozen agronomists. As I write this, I thought “will everyone reading this know what an agronomist is? So, I looked it up in the Oxford dictionary – even though I used to work in days gone by as a fully trained agronomist!

It says that agronomy is “the science of cultivation of land, soil management, and crop production”. Sure, this is what a field agronomist advises farmers on – but I think that needs up-dating!! For instance, I would really like to see the words “water” and “environment” in there somewhere!

So much of a modern day agronomist’s life is concerned with minimising the impact of what they do on the environment, not only within the cropped field itself, but also on the wider landscape. So the training course covered topics as diverse as the life cycles of the Skylark and Brown Hare, to the best ways to buffer water courses, through to the correct disposal of farm waste such as spray cans and controlling pests by encouraging beneficial insects that will do the job for them. None of these topics sit that comfortably under the Oxford definition!

It may sound surprising to many folk, but I think that a top notch agronomist is key to delivering quality conservation on a farm. He or she can make such a difference to every aspect of the farm. After all, along with the farmer, they probably know the farm better than anyone as they constantly walk the fields throughout the year.  

My next stop was the Temple estate near Marlborough, for the annual outing of Cirencester University students. Two coach loads (plus assorted cars!) bring students from a range of courses who hope to one day be in charge of a farm or estate themselves, or maybe working as land agents or as surveyors. Indeed, one cheerful girl told me when I asked her what she thought she might do as a career, replied very quickly – "your job would be absolutely perfect". At my age, that can be really quite disconcerting!

The Marlborough Downs could not have looked more perfect on a bright, sunlight day, as my colleagues Mike Swan and Austin Weldon helped me show the students around the estate. Once again we covered a wide range of topics around the running of a large commercial estate.

Then onto Sparsholt college in Hampshire to give a lecture to the “Ecology and conservation” students on the topic of “Landscape scale conservation”. I say “lecture” which sounds rather grand – more of a discussion really, as I like students to air their own opinions and ask lots of challenging questions. This group, overseen by good friend and course leader Matthew Norris-Hill were a great mix of ages and skill sets, so it was a lively debate and I think (hope) that they got plenty from the two hours.

Part of the GWCT’s charitable status is that we “educate” and I think that in general students and professionals alike, find our practical approach, largely based on our own research, refreshing. That is what they tell us anyway!!

It is always most rewarding when in years to come, you bump into an individual who is overseeing an estate or project, that you once lectured as a young faced student!    



Monday, 5 October 2015

Black rustic, frosted orange and beautifully patterned greens! It must be autumn!

I put the moth trap out over the weekend and despite the temperature dropping to four degrees, I had a reasonable catch!

Black Rustic

Top of the billing was a record 55 Black rustics - a sooty black moth with a couple of slightly orangey new moon shapes on the main wing. They are a classic autumn moth, flying only in September and October and although a common species, it is good to see them doing so well.

Frosted Orange 

Two Frosted Orange moths also put in an appearance, which was great as I always think that if you had to design an "autumn coloured moth" then you would probably come up with a Frosted Orange! What a great name too! Once again they predominantly fly in September and October and although not numerous, are quite a common moth.

A Merveille du Jour - one of my favourite moths!

But then, hiding away on almost the last egg carton to be taken out of the trap was the "wonder of the day" - and one of my favourite moths - a Merveille du jour!  This is such a stunning creature with the most beautiful patterned mix of greens and black, designed specifically for it to disappear when sitting on a lichen clad tree trunk!

The Merveille du jour is the least common of these three autumnal moths, being relatively thinly spread, but when it does turn up in a September or October moth trap, especially if it has recently hatched out and is in pristine condition, it really gladdens the heart!

I hope you enjoy seeing these hidden gems of the autumn night!