Farming and Wildlife
Today’s agricultural practices exert immense pressures on the appearance and wildlife of the countryside. But there are encouraging signs as farmers and conservationists get together.
In recent years the conservation of the countryside has assumed special importance and has attracted much public comment and debate. Countryside management in the past has created the landscape, accepted by many people as being natural, which has maintained the conditions necessary for a thriving and varied wildlife. The shaping of the countryside has been influenced by three main factors: agriculture and forestry, field sports and the desire of landowners for amenity and privacy.
History of conflict
There has always been a conflict between farming and conservation, with concern over changes brought about through new agricultural practices. During the enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries many writers complained about the loss of open fields and the waste of land which resulted from planting hedges. Today’s agricultural practices exert a greater pressure than ever before on both the appearance and the wildlife of the countryside. Arable farming requires no stock-proof boundaries and the fields are larger to accommodate huge machines. Every kind of farming activity exerts a direct influence on wildlife, especially the use of chemicals to control pests, diseases and weeds to produce food which reaches prescribed standards of size and quality.
It is, of course, easy enough to farm with little or no regard for the consequential effects on landscape and wildlife. It was the recognition of the apparent conflict between agricultural practice and countryside conservation that brought together a group of agricultural and conservation interests in 1969 at what has become known as the Silsoe Conference.
A combination of the specialist skills represented there showed that farming and wildlife conservation could be reconciled but, to be fully effective, conservation had to be planned with just as much care and attention to detail as was given to planning farming operations. The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) was formed, with members drawn from the main organisations concerned with the countryside. County FWAGs were then set up, and today there are 65 local groups throughout England, Scotland and Wales, thus covering the whole of Great Britain.
There are of course many sources of sound agricultural advice, and much information is available on conservation. FWAG’s special contribution is to offer farmers advice on wildlife conservation that also takes account of the requirements of practical farming. It provides demonstrations, meetings and advisory leaflets as well as a forum where the many conservation interests — farming, field sports, nature conservation, landscape conservation, access, water gathering, forestry and others — can meet to discuss their problems and learn to appreciate each other’s point of view.
The chairman is almost always a farmer, which encourages other farmers to see the group as helpful and not just another body telling them what to do. Advice may come through a full time adviser, or from one or two members on a voluntary basis. This advice is welcome since it is independent of any one conservation group and, although it recognises the place of modern farm technology, it is not directly linked with agricultural productivity.
Farming and conservation
Conservation is not just a matter of planting a few trees or clearing out the odd pond. A farmer must decide whether the existing habitat and features are worth retaining and maintaining. Established features are much more valuable than new ones: an old wood clear felled and reclaimed for agriculture cannot simply be replaced by new plantings. So the task of a FWAG adviser is to assess how to maximise the diversity of existing habitats and the amount of cover, food and shelter for wildlife, while at the same time ensuring that profitable farming continues.
Attention is also given to field boundaries and field size; there are no advantages from very large fields. Hedges may be the only suitable permanent habitat for a wide range of wildlife, supporting many species of insects, providing nesting sites for birds, and shelter for wildflowers. Cutting should be done in autumn and winter when the least harm will be caused to wildlife and never during the breeding season.
Advice is also given on chemical control methods: fertilisers and chemical sprays should be kept out of hedge bottoms, where they are wasteful and damaging to wildlife. Some insect predators which feed on cereal aphids over-winter in unsprayed field boundaries and can help to keep aphid numbers below the threshold where insecticides need to be used. Harmless insects occurring in the crop are depleted by the use of insecticide sprays and herbicides which remove the weeds on which they live. A system of modified pesticide use has been devised for crop margins which controls key weeds but leaves important insect host plants.
Major changes in land use, such as drainage of wet areas or reclamation from woods or scrub to agricultural use should be carefully considered. Land may be more viable as woodland or old grass; less fertile land may be better planted to trees than producing crops with heavy inputs of expensive fertiliser. Rather than drain problem areas, it is better to create a pond or wet area which provides wildlife habitat and, possibly, facilities for anglers.
Field corners which are difficult to cultivate with modern machines, steep banks, track sides and other ‘waste’ areas on farms can be planted with trees or shrubs. This not only improves the appearance of a farm but provides cover for wildlife and, where there is an interest, game. Before these areas are planted, especially old grassland, farmers should take advice, because trees may be undesirable when interesting and important plants are growing. Native trees and shrubs should be planted rather than exotic species.