Farming with Wildlife, Norton Suffolk Archive

October Bird Counts at Halls & Little Haugh Farms

 

I walk round Halls and Little Haugh Farms at Norton Suffolk several times a week especially since my horse has retired and gone to live with the Honeywood’s old pony at Halls Farm.

Rye waiting during Sky Lark count little Haugh

Rye waiting during Sky Lark count little Haugh

 

12th Oct 2016 bird count Halls farm Norton

12th Oct 2016 bird count Halls farm Norton

28th Oct 2016 bird count Little Haugh farm Norton

28th Oct 2016 bird count Little Haugh farm Norton

There always seem to be “more birds around” but, in terms of evidence this is meaningless. The British Trust for Ornithology surveyed the bird population of the UK between 2007 – 2011 the “Bird Atlas” , I took part in this survey. I counted the birds in 1km Squares fours times a year for 1 or 2 hours along with 100s of other people all over the UK. The BTO Bird Atlas is the best evidence we have of the UK bird population.

Orchard at Little Haugh farm during bird count

Orchard at Little Haugh farm during bird count

I will follow this plan to survey the birds at Halls and Little Haugh. I will try to walk the same route at least 4 times a year and count the birds I see. The results of my first walks can be seen here. My walk at Halls farm took just over an hour, Little Haugh I walked further for nearly 2 hours. This is the main reason I saw more birds at Little Haugh.

0G1P3140Little Haugh farm during bird count

0G1P3140Little Haugh farm during bird count

There is commercial game bird shoot over both farms because of this I have not counted the pheasants and red legged partridges I saw on the walks even though many of these birds are nesting and breeding on the farms.

Dug out wasp nest, field edge Little Haugh

Dug out wasp nest, field edge Little Haugh

Farm payments, money for nothing?

Payments to farmers and land owners is a news story that is repeated every year and often has negative spin. Farm payments were first started to increase food production and decrease reliance on imported food. In the first half of the 20th century huge amounts of land were left unfarmed because it was cheaper to import food.

Farmer’s payments used to be linked to production and they got a guaranteed price for their products. This led to over production; the infamous grain and Butter Mountains were one of the results of this policy.

Farmers now get market prices for their products, these prices change dramatically depending on world production. In low price years many farms loose money on their crops and the farm payments keep them in business. This is especially true for smaller and upland farms.

The payments are now linked to environmental and landscape management, these include; controlling water pollution, soil quality, maintaining hedges and wildlife protection. Even the simplest “Basic Payment Scheme” has to be applied for every year and the farmers must show they are following the rules. Many farmers and landowners apply for higher payments including “Countryside Stewardship” which has different “Tiers” and further rules. These can include flood management and restoring wildlife habitat.

For most farmers the payments they get are an essential part of their income. Making sure the “Basic Payment Scheme” application is made correctly is vital but complicated and many farmers employ consultants to make their applications.

The compliance rules include the width of field margins, when hedges can be cut, which type of crops can be grown and water used for irrigation. If these rules are not kept payments can be withheld.

The compliance rules are there for good environmental reasons however, many farmers and landowners just see them as hurdles that have to jumped. Without a commitment to the spirit of the compliance rules many of the environmental benefits are not being delivered.

To get an understanding of the complexity of the compliance rules have a look at some of links below. Farmers and landowners are not getting money for doing nothing!

https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/countryside-stewardship-get-paid-for-environmental-land-management

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/546336/BPS_2016_scheme_rules_FINAL__DS_.pdf

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guide-to-countryside-stewardship-facilitation-fund

 

 

 

Indentifying the moths in the trap at Halls farm

Norton Moths

Standing in the orchard at Halls farm on warm summer evening butterflies give way to many more moths as the sun sets. Some of these moths are big and colourful many more are small fast and very difficult to identify especially as it gets dark.

5 spot Burnet moth in Halls farm orchard

5 spot Burnet moth in Halls farm orchard

There are about 2500 species of moths in the UK, 900 of these are the bigger or macro moths many of which are large and beautiful. All these different moths need different habitats to live in and plants to feed on. The number of different species and total count of moths found give a good a good indication of the health and diversity of a local environment.

Because most moths come out at night they are hard to see. However, most moths are attracted by light, especially “blue light’. This summer we have running a moth trap at Halls and LLH farms Norton to record the moths living here.

 

Indentifying the moths in the trap at Halls farm

Indentifying the moths in the trap at Halls farm

We run the trap over night and the following morning identify the macro moths caught and the number of each species. On this page I will try to, post the recording we make through the summer. The trap is run once or twice a week and the moths released after they have been recorded. The moths settle on egg boxes in the trap and are usually quiet early morning before the sun warms them up.

 

Moths in the trap early July

Moths in the trap early July

Depending on how keen we get we will try to run the trap in different parts of the farms to get an overall picture of the moths living on the farms.

 

Norton Barn owls, 2016 a good breeding year?

Barn owl picking up vole from right foot. Cloudy June evening. Tyto alba

Barn owl picking up vole from right foot. Cloudy June evening. Tyto alb

Are the Norton Barn owls having a successful nesting season? The short answer is yes, we have checked over half the know nest site at Little Haugh and Halls farms and so far found six breeding pairs.

 

20% of the land on the farms is managed for wildlife as well as for the commercial game bird shoot. The wide rough field verges, woodland and grassland are all ideal for hunting Barn owls. However, lack of nest sites was a problem that we tackled in autumn 2014 by erecting 15 new boxes, this summer 10 of the new nest boxes show signs of Barn owl use and 3 have been used by Tawny owls.

Barn Owl young in new Barn owl box

Barn Owl young in new Barn owl box

Over the next few days we will be checking the older nest boxes on the farms. These boxes are higher up and more difficult to see into, I tend to put them off to last but, I will check them and let you know if we find any more breeding pairs.

 

The 2 broods in the photos have only two young owls. This may be due to the cold wet spring and that the adult Barn owls are young and inexperienced. However, the adults are now catching voles and mice in good numbers and the boxes are quite smelly from the voles waiting to be eaten!

Barn owl young in new Barn owl box 2nd brood

Barn owl young in new Barn owl box 2nd brood

 

The longest established Barn owl nest site on the farms is deep inside the Halls farm Straw barn. In the last few days Steve Honeywood has seen 4 young owls being fed on top of one of the bales. It will not be long before the young owls leave and it is probable that this pair will have a second brood, we will keep watching.

Barn owls boxes, good for hornets too

Barn owls boxes, good for hornets too

 

 

Should we be subsidising this action?

Farmers in the UK receive subsidy every year called the “The Single Payment Scheme”. The scheme is not linked to production but farmers must meet “cross-compliance” standards and demonstrate that they are keeping their land in “Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition”

Ditch canalised, thick old hedge flattened, green field edge gone

Ditch canalised, thick old hedge flattened, green field edge gone

The standards of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition relate to issues of soil erosion, soil structure, soil organic matter and set minimum levels of maintenance so as to avoid the deterioration of habitats and protection and management of water.

In Suffolk these standards are clearly open to interpretation. These photos are typical of the work being done during the winter on many farms receiving the “The Single Payment”.

Old green lane and possible ancient hedges turned into row of standard trees

Old green lane and possible ancient hedges turned into row of standard trees

Ditches are dug out sometimes over 3 metres deep into the clay subsoil. Old over grown hedges are cut down to ground level with the exception of the odd “standard tree”, any hedge re-growth is prevented by annual cutting. Green field edges that are part of “cross-compliance” are reduced to liquid mud by ditch spoil and heavy hedge cutting tractors.

On most Suffolk arable farms over 95% of the land is in arable production and of little wildlife or environmental value. If the remaining 5% of land consisting of hedges, field edges and ditches is heavily managed in the winter these farms become wildlife deserts.

close up of "management work" done to old green land and hedgerow

close up of “management work” done to old green land and hedgerow

The improved drainage that results from the deep bare channel like ditches runs straight into rivers and then into the East Anglia fens which at sea level are very vulnerable to flooding. The bare or sparsely vegetated ditches also lead to increased nitrogen pollution.

The activity shown in these photos are not a once only action. Ditches are scoured regularly leading to increased run of water at flood prone times. Hedges and verges are cut back hard on all sides every year seriously degrading their environmental and wildlife value.

It is hard to see how this sort of action meets the spirit of the cross compliance standards and should be rewarded with public subsidy. In addition this farm is used for farm demonstrations by Frontier Agriculture Ltd and is visited by many farmers. It is hard to see how some of the management practices on are in line with Frontier’s stated environmental policies.

http://www.frontierag.co.uk/about-us/corporate-and-social-responsibility.aspx

 

 

 

 

 

March a critical time for Barn owls

Barn owls hunt by sound and fly silently but their silent feathers are not waterproof. This is why the Suffolk Barn owls have been hunting at all times of the day for the last few months, they are trying to avoid the rain that soaks their feathers and wind that stops them hearing small rodents. However, up to now I have often seen them catching field voles, this makes a change from the lack of voles last spring.

 

Barn owl hunting small Suffolk meadow March morning Tyto alba

Barn owl hunting small Suffolk meadow March morning Tyto alba

March and April are important months for Barn owls if they are going to breed successfully. The females must gain enough weight to be able produce eggs later in the spring. As we run into March in Suffolk the mornings have been frosty and even snow is forecast, this makes a change from the mild stormy weather we had up to now. It remains to be seen if the changing weather effects the field vole population, this in turn will decide if the Barn owls have a good breeding year or not.

 

Barn owl over small Suffolk meadow March morning Tyto alba

Barn owl over small Suffolk meadow March morning Tyto alba

So far this March the signs are good and the Barn owls are still catching plenty of voles. I will keep watching, the next few weeks will dictate the Suffolk owls have a good year or not.

 

Leaping and Boxing – About to take off?

Although the last week has been cold the sun has come out and the rain stopped, day-light has pulled out to be longer than night time. The Brown hares at Halls and Little Haugh farms have started to be much more visible. During the short winter days they rest in the tangled hedge bottoms and thick field margins only coming out to eat in darkness.

Brown hare pair mad June box early morning. June Suffolk. Lepus europaeus

Brown hare pair mad June box early morning. June Suffolk. Lepus europaeus

The drier fields and growing winter cereal crops have drawn out the Brown hares into the early spring sun. They are often in pairs or sometimes bigger groups of more than ten hares. Prospective couples have started to chase each other and I have already seen two pairs mating in the distance.

It will not be long before boxing will become a common sight on the farms but, boxing at Norton is more likely to be seen in later spring or early summer. The recent cold dry weather has slowed growth but the winter crops are well advanced and any warmth and sun will make them race away hiding the hares in long growth.

On a practical note most of my brown hare photos are taken from mobile hides, these do like the strong winds and can often be found on the other side of a field tangled in a hedge if left out in windy conditions.

Hopefully as the weather calms down and days get longer the hides can go back up and I will be able to watch and photograph the Hare’s spring boxing and other action. Keep coming back to see what happens.

Brown hare sitting in cow parsley. May evening Suffolk. Lepus europeanus

Brown hare sitting in cow parsley. May evening Suffolk. Lepus europeanus

Bird ringing at Halls farm

Large flocks of finches and linnets are disturbed when I walk round Halls and Little Haugh farms; on one water logged field last winter more than 60 snipe were counted as we squelched across it. There just seem to be more birds about both species and numbers than there are on most Suffolk farms. However, “more about” and one off counts are not good scientific evidence and do not prove anything.

Mist netting to trap birds for ringing

Mist netting to trap birds for ringing

John Walshe started working at Halls farm a year ago as a forklift driver, John has an enviable knowledge of birds and is a licensed bird ringer. John started to regularly hang out long mist nets on the farm, the caught birds are identified, aged, sexed and weighed. John is part of a UK wide volunteer army recording much of what we know about the bird population, the British Trust for Ornithology collects, interprets and reports this information. Ringing is only one method used, the most recent and comprehensive Breeding birds survey was published in 2013. This was based on volunteers recording the birds seen in 1 Km squares four times a year for three years. Government and other organisations use BTO bird surveys to help make conservation and other environmental decisions.

Bird caught in net

Bird caught in net

 

Over the last year John has built up a detailed picture of the birds at the orchard at Halls farm; species, population, resident or transient and breeding is indicated from the information he has collected. Winter 2014 / 15 John caught 21 species and 625 individual birds. Some caught birds already had rings. A goldfinch had been ringed in Yorkshire, several green finches were ringed in other parts of Suffolk.

 

Taking a bird from the net

Taking a bird from the net

I found it striking how many species stay in the same place. John is ringing in the orchard at Halls farm, a two hundred metres away there is a flock of more then 20 reed buntings in a hedge and game mix field, John only ringed 5 last winter showing that they hardly move from one location. The farm has many breeding skylarks that are resident all year, none were ringed last winter.  This indicates how important even small patches of land are to many species, hedges trimmed at the wrong time or verges cut down will destroy food and shelter for local bird populations.

 

birds are taken from the net and put in bags for recording and ringing

birds are taken from the net and put in bags for recording and ringing

Trapping and ringing birds is a useful tool for mapping populations but has limitations and other survey techniques can be used like the counting used in the BTO Breeding birds surveys. Ringers are always adamant that trapping and ringing does no harm. However, being caught in a net then handled and ringed should be assumed to have an effect and there should be clear reason before any bird is ringed.

 

Too often trapping and ringing is undertaken by well meaning people who although licensed, act independently, “surveying their own patch” almost as a recreational pursuit. The decline in bird populations has been extremely well documented and it is difficult to understand why the same issue has to be repeat ably shown. Arguably the BTO should only issue ringing licences if there is need for specific information to fill in gaps in our scientific knowledge. For example; “bird in hand” photos on Facebook and birding websites of rare migrants caught in coastal ringing nets after a long over sea flight, seems more like “trophy ticking” than the collecting of useful scientific information. Ringing as a useful tool is in danger of being undermined by over enthusiastic individuals.

 

Ring being put on a birds leg

Ring being put on a birds leg

John’s evidence from ringing and recording at Halls farm has confirmed that the farm orchard has a greater than average number of bird species. This helps show that Halls and Little Haugh farms partnership with Jordan’s cereals farms which includes devoting 10% of the land to wildlife conservation is helping to increase wildlife diversity.

The Pond

The pond is in a corner where two rides cross in Pakenham Wood. It was dug out four years ago one morning when Robert had borrowed a digger, it is about 30 metres by 6 metres at its widest point. The land in the wood is heavy clay so water naturally fills any deeper depressions.

looking at wildlife in the pond

looking at wildlife in the pond

We had come up to the wood because Jordans, who are supplied with oats from the farms, want to change the way the 10% of the land managed as wildlife habitats are assessed. Alison Cross from the Wildlife trusts and Anthony Goggin from Leaf wanted to look at what is being done on the farms.

In July, Pakenham Wood has Silver-washed Fritillaries and White Admiral butterflies gliding up and down the rides; these had already distracted us. We then got to the pond, at first glance nothing special, reeds growing at the deeper end and lower plants in the shallow end. Then the chaser dragonflies started to dip eggs into the pond surface, the more delicate damselflies could be seen and water boatmen were on the surface. We stood and watched.

Siver-washed Fritillary and white admiral feeding on a hot July day. Suffolk. Argynnis paphia

Siver-washed Fritillary and white admiral feeding on a hot July day. Suffolk. Argynnis paphia

Reeds are growing out of the deeper water, and despite the still air the dead brown leaf on the reed base moved and then split open. This was a dragonfly emerging from a larval stage that had climbed up the reed. This had a near hypnotic effect on us, as within 30 minutes the small stubby green wings had grown to full size and dried, the dragonfly suddenly took its first confident flight. A closer look at the reeds revealed more hatching dragonflies and of lots their empty brown cases.

 

Southern hawker just emerged, July morning Suffolk. Aeshna cyanea

Southern hawker just emerged, July morning Suffolk. Aeshna cyanea

The pond water is clear and we could see the larval dragonflies climbing up underwater but they were not alone. The small four legged animals were Great crested newts and it is likely that we were the first people to have seen them in this relatively new pond. The newts shared the underwater space with round water beetles including the large great water beetle.

Southern hawker almost ready to go, July morning Suffolk. Aeshna cyanea

Southern hawker almost ready to go, July morning Suffolk. Aeshna cyanea

The plan had been to start see how the different habitats on the farm complemented each other, for example how the thick hedges with wide margins acted as wildlife corridors through the farm. However we had spent nearly two hours transfixed by a new small pond and lunch was waiting at the pub.

Great crested newt in the pond

Great crested newt in the pond

After lunch we tried to be more focused, looking at the way the farms growing Jordans oats can get maximum wildlife benefit and diversity from the 10% land not in agricultural production. Despite the farm being part of a game bird shoot we came across a flattened field margin. This, dead rabbit remains and a characteristic smell were sure signs of young foxes playing in July sunshine.

Heading back for lunch from Pakenham wood

Heading back for lunch from Pakenham wood

Back at the farm office Robert the shoot gamekeeper was vaguely interested about where the fox litter he had seen in the spring had moved to but he was far too busy with young game birds to be bothered by young foxes. As we told him about the pond he let slip one of his rare smiles. The pond had just been an afterthought, just making use of a digger being used for drainage work on the farm. Like us, Robert was amazed by the life we had seen. Alison Cross suggested that he dig another pond close by which will take over from our pond as it silts and chokes up in the next few years.

What we had seen on one July day was how a couple of hours digging a new pond has been richly rewarded and that tolerance of untidiness allows wildlife, including foxes, to thrive on two productive farms and a commercial game bird shoot.

 

Red fox with a "big old dog rat" June morning Suffolk. Vulpes vulpes

Red fox with a “big old dog rat” June morning Suffolk. Vulpes vulpes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frontier Agriculture, environmental opportunity?

Frontier Agriculture’s people are probably unaware of the environmental impact of their farm demonstration days. Frontier organises open days on the farms where test plots are grown of its seed varieties. These test days are attended by hundreds of farmers who want to view the test plots and meet with Frontier staff and other growers.

Frontier agriculture demonstration farm open day

Frontier agriculture demonstration farm open day

I live near one farm that Frontier uses and the demonstration takes place over two days in mid-June. In preparation for this the farmer has all the verges round the farm cut back, this includes trimming deep into the ditches on the farm. In addition many of the hedges are cut back. The intention appears to be to make the farm look neat and tidy.

It is of course vital that the prime arable land in Suffolk is as productive as possible and over 95% of the farm’s land is cropped and farmed very efficiently to produce food.

Verge and ditch mown down mid June, flowers and ground nesting birds gone

Verge and ditch mown down mid June, flowers and ground nesting birds gone

The remaining few percent of the land not in production are the field and road edges and the hedges, these are the only places where wildlife can live. Plantlife the wild flower charity states that road and field verges are now the most important wild flower habitats in England. Virtually all unimproved hay meadows in Suffolk have been ploughed up. Road and field verges are now the only place where wild flowers can be found. The verges are also home to ground nesting birds including game birds. Many songbirds are still nesting in hedges in mid-June.

Hedge cut back in Mid June when birds are still nesting

Hedge cut back in Mid June when birds are still nesting

Cutting road and field verges in mid-June prevents wild flowers from producing seeds, so annual and biannual flowers cannot reproduce. Many wild and game bird young are abandoned and starve when hedges and verges are trimmed too early.

Grass verges and hedges do need managing. If verges are cut back in July, like old hay meadows used to be, wild flowers can seed and thrive. If hedges are left until birds have fledged in mid-July no harm is caused to them.

Left hand verge managed by another farm, Flowers left to seed, cover for ground nesting birds

Left hand verge managed by another farm, Flowers left to seed, cover for ground nesting birds

Road users complain that the road verges grow high. In part this due to the high loads of fertiliser spread on them. Frontier wants the test plots to look good, but the fertiliser is spread so wide that even the roads look like hail has fallen during the spring.

Frontier could put more substance behind the environmental statements on their website. Demonstration farms do not need their grass and wild flower verges made to look like lawns and their hedges trimmed in mid June. More effort can be made to target the application of fertiliser and sprays to the crops and keep it off verges, field margins and roads. These actions are cost neutral and will bring a significant environmental benefit. If this was promoted as good practice to the landowners who come to the open days, Frontier could make a really positive environmental impact with very little effort.