What we do in winter
I am often asked: ‘Winter must be a quiet time for you farmers?’ If only this was true!
Yes, our farm work is up to date after a relatively kind autumn on the land, planting our winter crops. The farm looks very good, crops growing with the warm weather and only as the soil temperature drops to below ten degrees centigrade will that growth slow and stop.
Our attention on the farm has now turned to our environmental stewardship. We have a Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship agreement with Natural England. This means that about 12 per cent of productive land has been taken out of crop production and used to deliver vital new diverse habitats around the farm, providing over-winter food sources, spring pollen and nectar supplies and nesting habitats. It also brings new emphasis to managing certain established habitats differently, to maximise the wildlife benefit.
Suffolk is lucky to have a high density of traditional clay-lined farmland ponds. These are unique habitats above and below the water line. We have 30 ponds on the farm and we are starting a new schedule of works to help these habitats, which we previously carried out about ten years ago.
The key for ponds is to allow sunlight to penetrate the water: the more light you can get to hit the surface the better it helps to rejuvenate the pond. Aquatic plants bloom such as water plantain, water mint and water cress. Sedges and rushes start to grow in the shallow water and deeper water remains clear. The water is warmer, helping amphibians like newts, frogs and toads but also the larvae of dragonflies and other water insects and beetles, like pond skaters and diving beetles.
Some wildlife actually have adverse effects on ponds: fish and ducks are damaging for wildlife ponds because they stir the mud on the bottom when feeding and swimming. They also defecate in the water, changing the nutrient make-up of the pond so algae blooms occur and the pond water turns into what we call a ‘pea soup’: starving the aquatic plants of light. This results in the oxygen levels of the water reducing for other species in the pond.
Our farm policy for managing ponds looks drastic at the start while selective bank side vegetation is removed, especially on the southern edge where most of the sunlight will come from. If leaf litter has built up, we will scrape the sediment back to the clay lining and allow vegetation to regenerate over the next few years. We deter ducks and remove fish wherever possible and then protect the water from farming operations by buffering with grass to prevent nutrient and pesticide pollution.
We find this habitat work really rewarding but it does come at a cost to the farm as the stewardship income only covers a small proportion of the actual costs. This is why few farmers go out and do this work but, looking forward, this might become the norm if the new Agriculture Bill is implemented, with more emphasis on land management rather than food production.
(Photo (c) Brian Barker)