Devon is a largely agricultural county and a large proportion of our wildlife lives on farms. The British countryside is far from natural. It is essentially man-made, with the first settlers starting to clear the ancient wildwood 5000 years ago by ploughing, cultivating, and dividing up the land.
Intensive agriculture became widespread from the 1950s, with larger machinery, the removal of hedges, increased use of herbicides, pesticides and fertiliser, a change from hay to silage making and higher stocking densities. This had a dramatic effect for the worse on wildlife.
Today, some 80% of Britain is still farmland. Devon’s steep-sided valleys and rolling hills make it generally less suitable for very intensive agriculture. The County has not experienced such dramatic changes in its landscape as have the flatter counties to the east where large machinery and full-scale intensive arable production is more practical.
Fortunately, Devon has more hedgerows than any other county and most are on farms, though appropriate management is necessary (see Hedges). Farms also provide other habitats such as woodlands and copses, orchards, wetlands and ponds and grasslands.
Some of the main wildlife features that can enhance Devon’s farms are highlighted below:
Grassland is often an important feature on a Devon farm although much of it is ‘improved’ and species-poor (see Grassland). By leaving uncut margins around mown grass fields or fencing off strips along the edge of grazed fields, grasses and flowering plants are allowed to go to seed, thus providing:
- seeds as a food source for birds and mammals
- habitat for small mammals and in turn for hunting barn owls and kestrels
- habitat for various insects such as grasshoppers and beneficial insects such as ground beetles, which themselves are food for birds feeding their chicks (e.g. whitethroats and yellowhammers)
- nesting areas for ground-nesting birds such as partridge.
The best fields to target for margins are those that adjoin sensitive wildlife habitats such as watercourses, unimproved grasslands and hedgerows. Watercourses should also have a margin of at least 2m to help prevent soil erosion and pollution of the water. Grassy strips should still be cut or grazed once every three years to prevent scrub invasion.
Arable field margins
Only about 10% of Devon is arable. Of that over two-thirds is cereal, with the rest being for fodder crops or horticulture. The change from spring-sown crops to autumn sown crops has led to a dramatic decline in many farmland birds that relied on spilt grain and weed seeds which could be gleaned from winter stubble. Many birds and mammals forage in fields throughout the year, such as brown hare, skylark and grey partridge.
The margins around crops are generally the least productive areas of a field, so leaving a 1-metre grass strip between hedge and the crop will benefit wildlife in many ways, without significantly detracting from the field’s productivity. Indeed, grass margins can directly benefit the farmer. They act as a barrier to weeds, preventing them spreading beyond the hedge base and into the crop margin. They are also home to beneficial predatory insects and spiders, which help to control crop pests, and they provide habitat for grasshoppers, sawflies and other insects that in turn provide chick food for birds such as partridges, tree sparrows and cirl buntings (a rare bird now confined to southern Devon).
Many rare arable plants such as corn marigold, corncockle and corn poppy are now confined to the edges of arable fields. Careful management of these margins can help these plants (without creating a significant weed burden at the edge of the crop) and provide an attractive feature on the farm. Wild flower strips attract nectar-feeding insects, such as bumble bees and hoverflies.
Set-aside is farmland that is left unmanaged for a few years on a rotational basis and can offer an alternative to winter stubble on arable fields. Not only does it provide seed for birds and habitat for arable weeds and over-wintering insects, but it also provides breeding habitat for hares and ground-nesting birds such as grey partridge and skylark. Many insects such as sawflies over-winter as pupae in the soil and benefit from set-aside due to the lack of cultivation. These insects provide an important food resource in the spring for many farmland birds feeding their young, including grey partridge, turtle dove, skylark, tree sparrow, linnet, yellowhammer and cirl bunting.
Lowland Devon has a tradition of cider-making and nearly every farm once had its own orchard. Unfortunately many orchards have been neglected or destroyed but where they do remain they can be of great value to wildlife. The large standard trees in an orchard provide nesting sites and cover for animals and plants and also nectar for bees and other insects. Holes in the trunks can be used by nesting little owl, treecreeper and blue-tit. The trunks often provide a home to lichens and have cracks and fissures where insects and creepy crawlies can live. Branches are tangled and high off the ground making them ideal for mistle thrush and chaffinch to nest, whilst woodpeckers can forage for insects among the rough bark.
Many traditional varieties of apples, pears and other fruits are also being gradually lost as these old orchards disappear. Grants may be available for the restoration of traditional orchards as well as the creation of new ones. In particular, it is worth exploring Defra’s Environmental Stewardship and, if you are within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the availability of Sustainable Development Funds.
Farm buildings, old barns in particular, can be abundant with wildlife, from insects such as over-wintering small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies, spiders, wood boring beetles and honeybees to birds such as the barn owl, little owl and kestrel. Swallows tend to choose stables and barns that are close to the hub of the farm. The loft and walls of old farm buildings may be home to long-eared and pipistrelle bats.
Erecting suitable nestboxes inside barns will attract birds such as the barn owl and kestrel. To encourage swallows simply leave half a stable door or window open through the summer to allow access.
Grant-aid through Defra’s Environmental Stewardship schemes is available for landowners and farmers to restore habitats such as grassland, orchards, woodlands and hedgerows.