Tom Morrison, Hogshaw Hill Farm 2/3
What you do to encourage this biodiversity?
In October ’21 we oversowed two thirds of the farm, 44 ha, with a legume and herb rich seed mix (the GS4 option under the Mid-tier CS contract). In the words of the RPA this will “provide habitat and food for invertebrates, including crop pollinators, and improve soil structure and water infiltration.”
2021 was also the last year we used fertiliser, not only on the GS4 land (where it is not allowed) but the whole farm; previously we had used it on the hay crop.
While we wait for that to get going (it can take up to three years apparently), biodiversity already benefits from the way we feed hay in winter. We take big square Hesston bales of 450 to 500 kgs on a quad bike trailer up to our sand-capped higher fields where the stock cause little damage to the ground even in wet weather. Dropping the bale wafers on the ground in a long line is easy, waste is surprisingly low, and the little that is left or trampled in benefits the soil and the bugs that live in it. These in turn support birds such as meadow pipits and larks. The last time we had our OF&G inspection for PFLA certification, the inspector said he’d never seen so many larks and linked that directly to the way we feed hay in winter.
Not housing cattle in winter particularly benefits dung beetles; their feed supply and life cycle isn’t interrupted as with conventional, winter housed beef systems. We also rarely use wormers, and usually only on younger animals identified through individual faecal egg counts or other individual evidence. No worm drug is completely dung-beetle-friendly, but those we do use are as far along that spectrum as practicable. So – we have lots of bats whose main food is dung beetles, but we have yet to survey bats as thoroughly as we have, for example, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and invertebrates.
Hedgerows also improve biodiversity. The farm has over 8 kms of hedgerow, much of it now restored from severely overgrown hedges in line with CS contract rules (laying, gapping up, protection between two stock fences). In the winter of ‘21/’22 a new hedge of over 400 m was planted that re-creates an old hedgerow found on an 1898 OS map.
This is part of a whole-farm strategy to make existing fields smaller and thus grazing rotations more efficient, a strategy that also leads to greater biodiversity. We don’t flail our hedges; we wait 20 years or more till they need laying. The greater density low down in the hedge that comes from laying has markedly improved the overall number of breeding and feeding birds as well as the range of species. More on that later.
We have already put in some scrapes and ponds; some, fed by springs hold water year-round (we’ve named one of them Curlew Claypit in hopeful expectation); others are seasonal; we plan four more in 2023.
Finally, we are continuing to put up wildlife boxes for owls of different species, bats, small birds, kestrels etc. Over 40 are planned for 2023.
How is it connected across the farm and beyond?
Connection of biodiversity across the farm is mainly through hedgerows, many of which are unusually wide – five to seven meters width – two parallel ditches with a hedge in between them (an archaeological curiosity which we don’t have time to discuss here). To an ecologist these are better described as wildlife corridors. Additionally, with BBOWT support we have recently planted a purpose-built wildlife corridor connecting our largest spinney with woodland on a neighbour’s farm.
The similar topography of other neighbouring farms on this Chilterns spur means that they are also mainly permanent pasture with similar natural biodiversity, including one that is also PFL (and organic).