The new buzzword is biodiversity. Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given species or ecosystem. More seriously, it is a measure of the health of ecosystems. When you see how we run our country, you could be forgiven for thinking that we had specifically tried to eliminate biodiversity. Farmland is a billiard table style monoculture with a single species of corn or grass. Playing fields and Parks are little better. Gardens are manicured and covered in herbicides. Roadside verges are mostly managed in a way which reduces biodiversity. Woods, heathland and any other so-called waste land were also being reduced until very recently. No-one is concerned about any of this because our educational system has completely failed to teach us that without the green plants at the base of the wildlife pyramid, everything else is at risk, hence many farmland birds have declined by over 50% and many plants together with several species of butterfly face extinction.
There is still a legacy of wildlife knowledge being only for the few. Natural History Societies and Wildlife Trusts were originally only for specialists and it was accepted that it did not really concern the rest of us. Sadly, this is no longer true. When bee populations collapse because of lack of wild flower diversity or toxic agro- chemicals it really does concern us. A third of our food crops depend on the pollinating work of bees and bees really are in trouble.
So what do we do about our declining biodiversity? There is probably space enough for all the diversity which we need. 5-10% of nearly all farms have corners where it is not worth growing crops and farmers have shown themselves to be skilled at creating habitat. Playing fields and parks are beginning to diversify and even gardeners are beginning to wake up to the charms of wild flowers. Nectar is the key ingredient which we have lost and it is the wild flowers which supply it. But there is not a lot of time to put things right. However, I can assure you that if you restore nectar, the insect world responds in the most amazing way, and quite quickly. I have done it and it works! We were astonished by the speed with which the butterflies returned to our wildflower meadows and other wild flower areas at Carvers Hill Farm. If wild flowers were to be restored to 5% of farmland, gardens, playing fields, recreation grounds and parks, our insect populations (and the wildlife which depends on them) might begin to recover. All we have to do now is to restore the plants so please get in touch if we can help.
There are four areas of interest not covered elsewhere in this website which require comment:
• Wild flowers and farming
• Wild flowers and hedges
• Roadside verges
Wild Flowers and Farming
Wild flowers are increasingly being recognised as an important nectar source for beneficial insects which can help the farmer limit the damage caused by insect pests, as well as providing seeds for farmland birds. Before introducing wild flower seed from off the farm, it is strongly advised to:
• Identify old grassland, hedgerows and banks where wild flowers still exist.
• Identify the wild flowers. Can the seed be used elsewhere on the farm?
• Integrate the management of these sites into the farming system.
• Establish field margins or field corners to produce high quality nectar.
Preparation and sowing methods are in our guidelines “ Getting the seed to grow”. Wild flowers will produce large amounts of seed in their early years and if they are allowed to flower and set seed, followed by end of year grazing, the wild flowers will increase significantly. Management by mowing only, may require higher rates of seed.
• Grasses: 20.0kg/ha (18 lb / acre).
• Wild flowers: 2.5kg / ha (2.0 lb / acre). This can be reduced to 1.25kg I ha (1.0 lb / acre) on chalk or less fertile land, where good seedbeds can be achieved. Wild flower establishment on fertile land may be unsuccessful unless yellow rattle is used to control grass growth.
Seed mixes — sow the field margin mix 1 where colour and nectar are required, and use the other seed mixes appropriate to the soils type where a more authentic mix is needed, eg for arable reversion. Special mixes can be prepared so please ask for a quote.
Please note - Field margins need to be topped at the end of the growing season to avoid losing wild flower diversity.
Wild Flowers and Hedges
New hedges on fertile land, especially former arable, will either fail or produce long term weed problems unless a clear strategy is followed for the hedge bottom. Wild flowers form an important element of the strategy.
Clean up the hedge line before planting, eliminating nettles, couch and other perennial weeds. It is best to use the growing season before planting to achieve this.
Plant a mixed hedge double row at 4 plants / metre, one row hawthorn, one mixed:
2.5% Dog rose
5% Field maple
N.B. Blackthorn suckers freely, so if the hedge borders permanent grassland, you may wish to reduce this. This mix of species will give maximum wildlife interest in terms of diversity of structure, leaf, fruits and length of flowering (nectar source). One row should be hawthorn (50%) to give the hedge a firm structure. If planting is carried out on a sunny day, remember to keep the plants in a bag until they are planted.
Protect young plants with a clear plastic spiral guard to keep off hares and rabbits and allow herbicide treatment to keep hedge plants free of weeds for two years. Poor hedge growth is nearly always due to grass competition.
Hedge Trees. These are best planted between the rows, which should be about 0.75m apart (2ft). Species to consider include oak and cherry for landscape effect, crab apple, wild pear, field maple, birch and rowan for wildlife interest. Avoid beech, since the dense shade will kill the hedge. Plant hedge trees 5m apart in twos or threes at a rate of 6 trees / 100m. Please note that many song birds require an elevated song post and are more likely to nest in the hedge if this is provided.
Management. Traditional methods of hedge management, e.g. cut and laying have now been universally replaced by the tractor mounted flail. However it is recommended that new hedges should be cut and laid once between 8 and 12 years old, even if the stakes and bindings are omitted.
Wild Flowers. Sow 1 - 2m wide wild flower Hedgerow Mix along the hedge in the third autumn (two years after planting) at 6g/m2. Failure to provide effective ground cover may result in an infestation of nettles and couch.
Use grasses from Seed mix I with the following wild flower Hegerow Mix;
8% Agrimony 6 Common St Johns wort
6% Field scabious 7 Greater birdsfoot trefoil
7% Hedge bedstraw 6 Ladys bedstraw
12% Lesser knapweed 2 Meadow cranesbill
2% Meadow vetchling 7 Musk mallow
7% Oxeye daisy 10 Red campion
2% Tufted vetch 8 Wild carrot
The story of our roadside verges and the priceless biodiversity which many of them still contain is nothing short of a scandal. In many counties the roadside verge holds the last vestiges of plant diversity. All other diversity has been eliminated by intensive farming. This sadly is a fact of life. Much however can be done as to how we manage these last vestiges of diversity. There are two methods which are used, one much more commonly than the other.
The method which destroys biodiversity: the roadside flail comes round probably twice a year. Let us assume that everything is flailed by the end of June. If the ground is flat, and this is important, the cut material will lie like a suffocating mulch over all the plants. All except the very strong will be eliminated. Fortunately wherever there are banks or steep slopes, the cut material falls off the flailed surface and the effects of the mulch are less severe. The result of this management (if you can call it so) is that we have achieved a monoculture of cow parsley over most of the south of England. If we had tried to do this, many would have said it was impossible.
The method which maintains biodiversity: in counties where there is pride in what their verges look like, such as in Devon where tourism plays a significant part in the economy of the county, local farmers cut the verges at the appropriate time of year. This is hardly rocket science. Biodiversity is maintained.
So why are we cutting verges in many counties using a method which destroys biodiversity? There is of course a simple answer. It is the simplest and cheapest method and because of the lack of education as to the importance of plants, few will appreciate the problem. It would be interesting to know if delegating this work to farmers really does put up the cost. Meanwhile anyone brave enough to try to do anything about their bit of local verge has quite a battle on their hands!
Meadow wild flowers are just about seeping into public consciousness. Woodland flowers don't register at all yet. May be this has something to do with the fact that new woodlands have no wild flowers. Yet you cannot think of a more benign set of conditions to establish wild flowers than that provided by these new woods:
• there are thousands of acres available.
• the woodland habitat is vital to provide nectar for early insects from March to April before meadow plants come on stream in May.
• except in the first year or two, woods are not sprayed with herbicides, so the open rides can be sown with meadow flowers as soon as the trees are planted (or earlier) and the areas where trees are to be established can be planted with woodland wild flowers approx 10 years later when the appropriate shade levels have developed.
Considering that there are both statutory and voluntary bodies active in this field, it is strange that this state of affairs has developed. In the case of the voluntary sector, we can speculate as to the reasons for inaction. The hard nosed ask the question “Will it boost membership?” If the answer is in the negative, nothing will be done”!