Giving Nature a Home on the Farm

‘Give fools their gold, and knaves their power; let fortune’s bubbles rise and fall; who sows a field, or trains a flower, or plants a tree, is more than all’ – John Greenleaf Whittier 

‘Your deepest roots are in nature. No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation’ – Charles Cook

My family and I live on a 250 acre mixed dairy farm in the heart of beautiful Dorset, complete with sheep and beef cows. My parents took the farm on from Dorset County Council in 1995, at a time when it was only 50 acres, and have now expanded it to the 250 acres it is today. As long as I can remember, the farm has been my home. It is a part of who I am, providing the backdrop for me to learn about the natural world, to make informed decisions about how I live my life, and to become passionate about conservation. I have my parents to thank for this.

In 2019, the latest State of Nature report showed that agricultural change has been the largest driver of biodiversity loss over the last 45 years in the UK. With 72% of UK land area being used for agriculture and food production, land management changes have had a significant impact on the wildlife that call these areas home. As we now move forward, we need to focus on agriculture, not with contempt and negativity, but with optimism. If we are to continue to produce food in the UK, we need to focus on working with farmers to make farming sustainable, cost-effective, and most importantly with wildlife in mind.

Growing up on a farm, I have always been aware of how agriculture is heavily intertwined with the environment. My Mum and Dad have always believed in their roles as guardians for the wildlife and natural habitats that call our land home, and are dedicated to conserving and increasing biodiversity. Though it can be tough to create a balance, my Dad believes that farming, through careful management, can produce food in an economically sustainable way, whilst supporting and enhancing the natural environment. Here are some of the examples of how my family are successfully working to give nature a home on our farm.

(1) The Bridge Field

Project:

The field is a small, triangular-shaped, 3 acre field, bordered by hedges and a river. It was taken on in 2014 with some other land, and is less ideal for agricultural use due to its shape and often being wet. Hence, it has been left untouched, apart from one late cut of haylage each year and dock management. This year my parents decided to begin the process of restoring the land, with the aim of giving it back to nature.

So far:

  • At the beginning of the year, we bought in and planted 219 native tree and shrub saplings of 9 species, including Goat Willow and Rowan. The hope is to create a rich and valuable habitat for wildlife.
  • We began managing the grass in the field, which is mainly Yorkshire Fog, to increase species composition. The grass has formed a dense stand across the field and is currently excluding nearly all other species.

Next aims:

  • See how the trees and shrubs grow on
  • Plant natural wildflower species using plugs, bulbs and seeds
  • Create a water source, such as a pond

07_05_20_Farm_Bridge_Field_Trees_2

(2) The Chalk Mound

Project:

Towards the centre of our land you can find a small triangular area of land that is bordered by hedges and a track. My parents took on this area with some other land in 2014, but it was not anything special. In 2017, my Dad decided to use it to make a small piece of chalk habitat, in our clay area, acting as a perfect stopover location between chalk downland to the north and south of us.

So far:

  • We bought in 40 tonnes of quarried chalk and shaped it into a mound which is 10m by 3m, and 2m in height.
  • We planted a selection of plant plugs and seeds gifted to us, ranging from Quaking Grass and Kidney Vetch to Rough Hawkbit and Lady’s Bedstraw.
  • For the first year, the mound was regularly watered as the plant plugs and seeds became established, but after that they were left to grow on, with minimal management.

Next aims:

  • Continue to enjoy the now thriving habitat that is attracting lots of insects, from butterflies to bees
  • Boost numbers of certain species such as Wild Thyme
  • Complete autumn management of the encroaching Yorkshire Fog grass at the mound’s edges

(3) Wildflower Verges and Rough Areas

Project:

As part of managing our land, my Dad leaves areas and verges uncut and able to thrive, providing valuable habitat for wildlife. One of my Dad’s inspirations for doing this is to provide rough grassland habitat for his favourite bird, the Barn Owl. Barn Owls use such areas to hunt, as it provides cover for their rodent prey. It is also great habitat for other species, such as the majestic Brown Hare.

Different forms so far:

  • Fenced off areas to keep livestock out but allow wildlife in.
  • Verges and strips left to grow up and increase in species diversity.
  • Wildflower verges planted to provide food for different species at different times of year.
  • Field margins created, maintained and protected, meaning a field is never worked up to the hedgerows.

Next aims:

  • Allow areas to continue to increase in diversity and composition
  • Continue to create a mosaic of habitats on the land

(4) Trees and Woodlands

Project:

I am a huge fan of trees, and my family are no different. Throughout our land you will find lots of different species, such as Ash, Alder, Wild Cherry and Oaks, varying in size, shape, and age. They play very important and varying roles in the landscape, from singular trees in fields and hedgerows, to the many growing in copses and woodlands around the farm. We now want to continue to preserve them and increase their numbers.

So far:

  • Over many years, we have been planting more trees wherever we can, with this year’s main project being the Bridge Field.
  • We continue to look after and manage the small woodland areas on our land.
  • We are putting up lots of different nest boxes around the farm, from small Tit boxes to larger Owl boxes.

Next aims:

  • Put up more nest boxes, including Little Owl and Kestrel
  • Monitor nest box use each year
  • Allow trees, such as mature Oaks, to naturally age and return to the ground

(5) Hedgerows

Project:

On my family’s land there are a lot of hedgerows, which are a hugely important habitat for a whole host of wildlife. They range in age and composition, including species such as Spindle, Blackthorn, Ash and Dog Rose. They also provide different services, such as food and shelter, throughout the course of a year, for lots of different species.

So far:

  • We carefully manage hedgerows with wildlife in mind each year.
  • Hedgecutting is practiced on a rotational basis and in late winter if the ground holds up. They are only cut by my Dad or brother who are skilled at cutting the hedges correctly and with care.
  • We annually manage and maintain field margins and ditches.
  • Hedgelaying has been used in the past but only when a hedge is in need of restoration.

Next Aims:

  • Maintain the high standard of hedgerows
  • Allow diversity to continue to increase

Future Aims

With 41% of species in decline since 1970, biodiversity loss and the latest State of Nature report cannot be overlooked. Whilst there is still hope that we can bring things back from the brink, and reverse the decline, to do so we need to act now. We need to create more homes for wildlife, protect what is left of our natural environment, and manage land with wildlife in mind.

On the farm this process is in full swing and gaining momentum each year. In this way, we are trying to make our land more wildlife friendly, managing and creating habitats for wildlife. Now, Skylarks can be heard singing all around the farm each morning, Brown Hares are increasing in number, Butterfly and Moths are becoming more species diverse, and Yellowhammers are becoming increasingly common. There are so many more examples from the big to the small, from Hedgehogs to Newts, but my Dad’s favourite has to be his Barn Owls. Over the last few years Barn Owls have made our land their regular home, with 2 Barn Owl pairs successfully breeding last year!

My Dad now wants to continue my Mum’s and his work dedicated to the environment, from helping farmland birds to reducing our carbon footprint. He wants to continue to show how conservation and increasing biodiversity can go hand in hand with conventional farming, allowing food to be produced whilst looking after the environment. A great example of this is the RSPB’s Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire, an arable farm where careful and targeted management is now having results. It makes me optimistic that if we now focus on working with farmers to give nature a home on their farms in the right way, then this could make a real difference to reversing species decline in the future.

How to… Identify Animal Footprints

Often it can be difficult to catch a proper glimpse of the animals around us, especially those that are more active at night. Just because you may not be able to see them though, does not mean that they are not there. Instead, a great way to find out what is living near you is to play detective and look for the signs they leave behind, such as fur, burrows or droppings.

Here we take a look at a great sign of animals being present, animal tracks/footprints. Though they are best found in snow or wet mud, at this time of year the best way to look for tracks is after rain, hardened in drying mud, or by creating your own tracker. So why not have a go playing detective and see what you can find in your garden or wider countryside whilst getting out for exercise. To help you out, here’s my guide to animal footprints!

Guide to animal footprints

Badger

Footprint Size: 5-6cm long & 5-6.5cm wide

Badger

A badger’s footprint is large, broad and robust with 5 toe pads pointing forwards in front of a broad rear pad. They also may show long claw marks that are well in front of the toes. Claw marks are shorter and closer to the toe pads for the hind feet.

Badger

Fox

Footprint Size: 5-7cm long & 3.5-4.5cm wide

Fox, Cat, Dog

A fox’s footprint is a bit like a dog’s, but appear more narrow in shape with toes closer together, making a diamond shape. There are 4 distinctly oval toes, 2 at the front and 1 towards each side, and a roughly oval rear pad. Foxes do leave claw prints, unlike cats, but do not have the elongated claws that are visible in badger prints. Sometimes impressions of hairs between pads may be visible.

Rat

Footprint Size: Front= 1.8-2.5cm long; Hind= 3-4.5cm long

Rat

A rat’s footprints vary between the front and hind feet. On the fore, they have 4 toes, whereas on the hind, they have 5 toes and a long heel. Their footprints can be mistaken with a water vole’s, but a water vole’s tends to show more splayed toes and a shorter heel.

Rabbit

Footprint Size: Front= 4cm long; Hind= 7.5-9.5cm long

Rabbit

The hind feet of a rabbit are much larger than their fore feet. This means that their footprints will be grouped into a pair of long and a pair of shorter prints. Often you will also see lots of footprints crossing each other and signs of multiple rabbits together.

Hedgehog

Footprint Size: ~2.8cm wide & ~2.5cm long

Hedgehog

A hedgehog’s footprint is long and narrow in shape with 3 toes pointing forward and 2 pointing out to the sides, making a star shape.

Deer

Footprint Size: Vary from muntjac deer at ~3cm long to red deer at ~9cm long

Deer

All deer species have cloven hooves (2 toes), the same as a sheep or a cow. A deer’s toes are more slender and pointed though, looking like 2 teardrops or an upside-down heart. Toes may appear splayed in soft ground.

It tends to be difficult though to tell apart the footprints of different deer species, as they tend to be similar, only differing in size and subtly in shape. A muntjac’s footprint though, for example, will be alot smaller than a red deer’s.

Deer

Otter

Footprint Size: 6-9cm long & up to 6cm wide

Otter

An otter’s feet are webbed due to their semi-aquatic lifestyle, which can make their prints easy to spot if visible. Their fooprints are also round with 5 toes in front of a large rear pad. Short claw marks projecting from the toes may also be visible.

Small mammals e.g. Mink, weasel, stoat, pine marten, polecat

Footprint Size: Varies with species and sex

Small Mammals

Five toes splayed in a star shape

Birds

Footprint Size: Varies with species

Most bird species have four toes, with typically 3 facing forward and 1 backwards. Depending on the species, footprints on the ground will vary in size, shape and form. A common footprint seen in the english countryside is that of the non-native pheasant. Their footprint is fairly distinct due to their large size and looks like an arrow in shape (Footprint Size: 6-8cm long).

 

All photos and drawings are my own 

Winter into spring: February on the farm

February is often described as the bleakest month, with the land still gripped in winter and the coldest temperatures often being reached. It cannot be ignored though, that February also brings the promise of coming spring, with the feeling in the air beginning to change, as the month progresses.

Some mornings a light frost can be woken up to, but still frosts are less frequent this winter, than they used to be.

Plants are beginning to stir in February, with catkins (male flowers) hanging from hazel trees, celandines appearing, pussy willow flowering, primroses flowering, and gorse flowering in the hedgerows.

This year on our farm though, blackthorn is flowering early in February, along with horse chestnut trees already coming into bud and the buds beginning to burst.

Animals are beginning to become more active in February, with brown hares becoming easier to see in the fields, rabbits becoming ‘frisky’, female foxes being pregnant, and grey squirrels giving birth in their drays. Also, badgers are beginning to give birth to cubs too, with the most obvious sign of this being remains of grass seen around the entrance tunnels to setts, left from where badgers have dragged grass down into their setts to make nests.

As well at this time of year, starling flocks begin to disperse, as individuals head back to their breeding ranges and rooks begin to build their nests in preparation for breeding. The drumming sound of great spotted woodpeckers can now be heard more frequently, as males defend their territories against other males and attempt to attract a female. This is the same with the dawn chorus, as in February it begins to pick up, due to males defending their territories and advertising themselves to available females.

Conditions were mild towards the end of February this year, leading to insects, such as honeybees and butterflies beginning to become active.

In relation to the farm side of life, in February our four sheep were brought inside in preparation for iconic spring lambing at the end of March.

My highlight of February, was beginning to hear blackbirds singing at dawn and dusk as the month came to an end, which is a traditional sign that winter is over.