Category Archives: Agriculture

The fragile nature of Green Belt

Over the last year and a half or so I’ve been working with a group of people from my village to try to limit the development of our Green Belt land. ‘Green Belt‘ is undeveloped green space encircling built up areas which has legal protection from development in order to limit urban sprawl and provide places where people from towns and cities can go for relaxation.

One of our areas slated for development is Buxhall Farm, which is around 300m from where I live. It’s in the Green Belt and I’ve posted about it’s wildlife on numerous occasions. On the face of it it’s a flat and boring piece of arable farmland with little value for wildlife. Or so you might think. Closer inspection shows that it’s home to many species of birds as well as wildflowers, butterflies moths, mammals etc. All you have to do is look…

Linnet (Linaria cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

All the picures here were taken on Buxhall Farm over the Easter weekend from 19th to the 22nd April and at the end of this post is a full list of my sightings there from that weekend.

The linnet is a ‘red listed’ bird in the UK which means it’s of maximum conservation concern. This listing is usually due to falling numbers which is often the result of habitat destruction. Linnet are present at Buxhall all year round and breed there.

Dunnock  (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv)

The dunnock isn’t red listed… yet. It’s a common sight round here and it has a rather lovely song, and some interesting mating habits.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke)

The skylark is red listed due to declining numbers, largely due to intensive farming methods. I spoke to the farmer earlier in the week and he told me that he leaves wide field margins to encourage the wildlife and farms his land accordingly. So hats off to him, it shows that it’s possible to make a living from the land without destroying all the wildlife.

Female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv)

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv)

Over the last three winters there have been flocks of around 50 yellowhammers (also red listed) at Buxhall Farm and this is an important number of these lovely birds. They are one of those iconic farmland/hedgerow species whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades, also due to intensive farming methods, but we still have a healthy population in my neck of the woods.

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io)

All in all I saw at least 7 species of butterfly. There were many whites, but only one species that I could identify as it flew close and slow, but there were probably large whites and green veined whites too, both of which I see there every year. Butterflies are a very good indicator of the health of a habitat so to see so many species so early in the season was wonderful.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

Long tailed tits are normally fliting from tree to tree in small flocks but this time there were only two and they seemed local to a particular tree, suggesting they’re a breeding pair using it as a nest site.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae)

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits)

Land designated ‘Green Belt’ has historically not been developed to retain those green areas for local people to get away from the city. But under current planning legislation an authority can simply take land out of Green Belt and develop it as it pleases. Combined with the massive curtailment of funding from central government to local authorities there’s now intense financial pressure for those authorities to try to develop an income stream from the land they own. It’s perfectly understandable that cash strapped councils need to raise funds but I don’t think this is a good way to do it, but it’s what’s happening around my village and what we are trying to minimise.

The full list of sightings on Buxhall Farm between 19th-22nd April 2019:

Species                 Number

Great tit                    1
Blackbird                 5
Greenfinch               1
Skylark                     17
Wren                         4
Dunnock                   4
Yellowhammer        4
Long tailed tit          2
Carrion crow            3
Goldfinch                  8
Rook                         21
Starling                     2
Reed bunting           8
Corn bunting           2
Whitethroat             2
Swallow                    2
Magpie                      2
Blackcap                   1
Linnet                       1
Blue tit                     2
House sparrow       3
Buzzard                    1
Robin                        1
Wood pigeon           3
Collared dove          1
Songthrush              1
Green woodpecker 1
Kestrel                      1
Chaffinch                 1
Butterflies:
Peacock                    2
Small white              1
Holly blue                 1
Orange tip                1
Brimstone                 1
Speckled wood         1
Small tortoiseshell  1

It’s a really great place for wildlife and I hope we can help to ensure it remains as very well managed farmland and doesn’t get destroyed by developers building houses.

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Histon Harvest

All the posts from my home patch have focussed on the wildlife and the impact of humans on the wildlife without much focus on the human activities per se. So as it’s harvest time now, or it would be in  a normal year, and the harvest is such an important event in human interaction with the countryside, I want to devote this post to it.

The harvest was nearly all done and dusted by the last week in July here this year, which is a good 2-3 weeks earlier than in a climatically normal year. These pictures are from last year when the bulk of the harvest took place in the second and third weeks of August. The crops vary in my local fields, and wheat, barley and oil seed rape are commonly planted.

Leviathan of the Fens –  the combine harvester – gathering the crop

Last year it was either wheat or barley so when harvest time began it heralded the arrival of some seriously big machinery. The speed with which these gigantic beasts gathered the grain and separated it from the straw and depatched the produce was breathtaking.

Dancing a duet with the tractor – it was all perfectly choreographed

The grain was unloaded into a trailer drawn by a tractor and the straw was jettisoned out the back to be simultaneously baled by a second tractor towing a baling machine :

And a quick change of partner for a waltz with the baler

The whole operation lasted just a few hours and was done with military precision and at the end all that was left was neatly arranged piles of bales amidst acres of stubble. A few years ago I was talking to a farmer in a pub near Cambridge and he told me that the harvesters have onboard computers which record how much grain is harvested from every part of the individual fields, and where yields drop it is all mapped via GPS so when fertiliser is applied prior to the next sowing operation, more will be applied in the areas of the fields which delivered the lower yields during the previous harvest. And of course, with that degree of efficiency applied to the whole process there is nothing left over for the wildlife as there was in the years pre-agro-intensification, and that’s a major reason why species such as tree sparrow, turtle dove, yellowhammer etc, are struggling. I’ve noticed in these fields that after the harvest nearly all the birdlife including yellowhammer, skylark, corn bunting, linnet and reed bunting all drastically decrease in numbers until the next springtime.

And whilst all that was ongoing there was another baler tidying up an adjacent field which is managed by a different farmer:

These monstrous bales aren’t the type that can be thrown around by a couple of farmhands and manually stacked on a flatbed trailer, they are around my height in diameter and require more big machinery to move them:

Another homeless (and endangered) farmland bird wondering what’s happened to his shelter and his meals:

A bewildered looking grey partidge (Perdix perdix) forced to the margins after the harvest

And of course, at this time of year, the grain isn’t the only harvest:

Juicy ripe plums hanging in the hedgerow

Another ramification of intensive farming is the destruction of the hedgerows. It’s something we wised up to in this country some years ago, with regard to grubbing them out, but nowadays farmers insist on attacking the ones that remain with flails (if anyone knows why they spend money and time doing this please let me know), including the one where these plums were growing. Not only does this thin the hedge right down so it provides less cover for overwintering birds, rodents, insects etc, the trees and bushes which grow there and provide food for the wildlife are producing less of these gorgeous fruit. So the wildlife is getting squeezed into a smaller and smaller fraction of the countryside and their shelter is under constant attack and their food source is constantly depleted. I think it’s not a good way to manage the countryside.

At harvest time with all the dust in the air it makes for some glorious sunsets

But on the optimistic side, I reckon it is possible for farmland to be managed to produce sufficient food for humans and still sustain our wildlife. I just hope that as a species we wise up before it’s too late. And at the risk of stirring up controversy… maybe we should simply learn not to waste so much.