Down on the wildlife friendly farm

Helen Babbs meets a bird loving farmer who’s transformed his 1,700 acres of Lincolnshire land into a natural paradise, and steals a few wildlife friendly vegetable growing ideas along the way.

Vine House Farm in the Lincolnshire Fens is a business with a difference.  A traditional arable farm, passed down through several generations of the Watts family, it’s managed in an environmentally sensitive way that makes it incredibly rich in biodiversity, home to numerous birds and insects and glittering with rich pond and plant life.

Of 1,700 acres, 400 are used to grow wild bird seed, 200 are devoted to organic vegetable crops and 16 are full of wildflowers.  Fields are bordered by weed margins, hedgerow and woodland, dykes are respected as vital wildlife homes and there are ponds, nest boxes and bird feeders dotted throughout.

Conservation farmer extraordinaire

Farmer Nicholas Watts has notebooks dating back over fifty years with records of the birds he’s spotted out and about in his local area.  Since 1982 he’s been keeping detailed maps of which birds are breeding where on the family farm.  As his records have grown, he’s noticed some worrying trends, including an alarming decline in skylarks and corn buntings.

In an effort to address this decline, Nicholas began experimenting with different farming methods and opening his farm up so other people could also witness the birds feeding on his land.  This led to the development of what is now a hugely successful wild bird seed business, as well as ventures into conservation and organic farming.

“I just like to see a lot of birds, so I try and run my farm in a way that means there are lots of them about – it makes it a more enjoyable place to be” says Nicholas.  “Through the conservation work we’ve undertaken, Vine House Farm is seeing increases in local bird populations, which may be static or declining nationally”.

He recognises that modern farming methods can have a devastating impact on biodiversity.  “Farmers are encouraged to practise block-cropping, so vast swathes of land are dedicated to just one crop. On our farm, we try to vary this more.  We have a bit of wild bird cover here and a bit of wildflower meadow there, which is more work, but also brings diversity to the landscape”.

Nicholas explains that “in an intensively farmed wheat field only the wheat survives. Birds are intelligent creatures. If they don’t think there’s enough food around to feed their young, they will not breed. No diversity means no insects, which means no birds”.

Weeds and water for wildlife

One way of supporting farmland wildlife is cultivating weed margins between crops.  “They provide a diverse habitat for different types of insects to thrive, which in turn provides food for young birds” says Nicholas.  These weed margins literally buzz with life.  Walking beside one, you will spot all kinds of insects and birds.  In one spring morning Nicholas may spot comma, brimstone, peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies.

And there’s no doubt that conservation measures like this attract wildlife to the wider landscape too.  Over the winter the farmhouse garden was visited by brambling and field fare, and this summer the farm is hosting nesting barn owls and lapwings, to name just two species.

Water is another key element of wildlife friendly design.  Vine House Farm has resisted the trend to fill in redundant dykes to increase field sizes, recognising that they are important habitats.  They’ve also encouraged the local drainage board to only trim active dykes on alternate years, as intensive maintenance can be disastrous for wildlife. Some dykes have been widened and are now full of reeds and edged with bramble hedges. Nest boxes on poles in the reed bed are proving very popular with sparrows.

Conservation farming techniques

Dykes and ponds – planted with native species, these wet areas provide valuable food and shelter for a huge variety of wildlife.

Field margins – wide unsprayed boundaries of ‘weeds’ between crops are vital for the insects that baby birds feed on.  Young birds need moist food as well as dry.

Hedgerows – two miles of hedge planted over five years at Vine House Farm provides nesting for birds like linnet.

Wildflower meadows – Vine House Farm has 16, one acre multi-coloured fields of flowers that are perfect for butterflies.

Woodland – three spinneys have been planted to provide roosting areas for birds.

Old farm buildings – have been re-roofed and nest boxes installed so they are now home to breeding barn owls.  The farm also has a series of specially built brick towers that provide nesting areas for owls, kestrels and tree sparrows.

Going organic – 200 acres of Vine House Farm are now organic and they sell their veggies to some of the big supermarkets.  Nicholas says going organic is the “single greatest factor that has resulted in increased bird populations and biodiversity”.

New ways of managing the land

The Wildlife Trusts recognise that farms and farmers are massively important to ensuring the well being of our countryside and, in turn, the health of our wildlife.  Large areas of natural habitat that once acted as buffers against environmental change have been replaced with barriers like urban development or intensive agriculture.

A new approach to land management is needed, where wildlife friendly farming is the norm and agricultural land is part of a ‘Living Landscape’ of joined up habitat, where wildlife has room to manoeuvre.  Impressed by Vine House Farm’s conservation prowess, The Wildlife Trusts now work in happy partnership with the Watts family and their wild bird seed business.  Find out more on www.vinehousefarm.co.uk

Do it yourself – weeds and seeds and water

It’s all about weeds and seeds and water at Vine House Farm, and on a big scale.  The weed rich field margins between crops on the Watts’ farm provide valuable habitat and a source of food for all kinds of species.  The bird seed grown over 400 acres keeps many UK gardens well stocked with treats for birds over winter.  Dykes and ponds are great for amphibians, birds and invertebrates.  Why not follow Nicholas’ example, albeit on a smaller scale, and try incorporating more weeds and seeds and water into your plot?

Make your own weed bed

Weeds should really be written in inverted commas, as these are actually pretty wildflowers that will entice precious pollinators such as butterflies and bees onto your patch. Other species attracted to wild areas will eat pests like snails and slugs.  And remember, a ‘weed’ is only a plant in the wrong place at the wrong time!

Weedy plants to try:

Campions

Deadnettles

Forget-me-not

Knapweed

Ragged robin

Vetches

Grow your own bird seed

Resist the urge to tidy and leave seed heads for birds to feast on.  There’s actually something very beautiful about the skeletal shape of plants that have gone to seed.  In winter, fallen fruit and berries are beloved by hungry birds.

Seedy plants to try:

Oats

Poppies

Sunflowers

Teasels

Thistle

Wheat

Dig a pond

Ponds are a wonderful, wildlife friendly addition to any garden or allotment.  Emulate Vine House Farms’ love of water and construct one in your plot.  You can download a free guide to building a pond from www.wildlondon.org.uk/gardening

This article appears in the June issue of Kitchen Garden magazine

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