Here is a season by season guide to spotting different nature & wildlife on your farm.
It is just a start, we need your help to build it up – please send in your ideas and help us create a rich calendar for what is on the farm and practical notes on how to enhance it: firstname.lastname@example.org
|NOTICING NATURE – AND SOME WAYS TO HELP IT!||ADDITIONAL PRACTICAL NOTES|
|INTRO||As the farming year unfolds, are you keeping your eye out for what wildlife appears on your farm?
What flower or bird brings you joy as the seasons change?
What can you look forward to appearing this month?
What wildlife might be on your land?
What more can you do to encourage it and enhance it?
Here is a month by month guide to help you farm for nature!
|This is just a start – please help us create a rich calendar to celebrate and support farming for nature!
What have we forgotten?
Do you have any useful ‘nature hacks’ to share?
If you have any queries why not put it in our Forum on the website and allow other farmers to answer. See here.
|Everywhere!||Cuckoo calling is in full tilt during May
Heralding the coming of summer, the pagan festival of Bealtaine was traditionally celebrated on the 1st of May
|‘The Cuckoo comes in April, she sings her song in May, in June she changes her tune, and in July she flies away’. One of our most distinctive and fascinating birds, its call – declining in some areas – is a connection to what generations before us would have experienced in the countryside.
Bealtaine meant celebrating the bounty of nature and bidding farewell to the harshness of winter for another year
|Bogs||The fluffy cotton grass (bog cotton) is in ‘flower’ as is the strikingly beautiful bogbean.||The ‘flowers’ are in fact hairy fruits that follow the earlier brown clusters of flowers. Bogbean’s hairy petals are coloured white but tinged with pink. Its intense bitterness led to its use for brewing beer (a substitute for hops) and it was also once used for curing rheumatism, coughs and colds.|
|Buildings & walls||Swifts are returning to nest in old buildings, especially in roof spaces and under eves. Watch for swifts as they return to the exact same spot every year to breed. First time breeders are called ‘bangers’ due to their noisy habit of dive bombing and bumping off potential nesting sites to check if they are vacant or already occupied!!
Many insects also make use of old stone buildings. The red mason bee will readily nest in stone cavities.
|Make sure to seek advice before you undertake any changes/renovations to old buildings. Swifts that return to Ireland to find their nesting spots damaged or no longer there often fail to find a new site to breed that year. If it’s absolutely necessary to remove the nest site, make sure to carry out renovations outside of the nesting season and perhaps install some swift boxes and a calling system elsewhere on the farm so that the swifts have somewhere else to nest.
Red mason bees really are busy bees.. they pollinate a hundred times more flowers than the honeybee!
|Coastal farms||Phytoplankton are tiny floating plants. These are naturally occurring, form the basis for all marine life and are also responsible for producing most of the world’s oxygen! However, if there is an upset in the balance of nutrients in water (particularly an increase in nitrogen and phosphorus), phytoplankton can increase dramatically – causing an algal bloom. Algal blooms off the coast, therefore, are good indicators of water pollution. These blooms can also release toxins that are harmful for humans, animals (both wild and domestic) and marine life.
Sea beet, with its edible triangular leaves, is popping up along the coast.
|To keep our oceans clean and reduce the occurrence of harmful algal blooms, it’s important to minimise any run-off of fertilisers or FYM into the sea. Run-off can reach the sea through rivers, streams, and estuaries, or from direct run-off onto beaches, roads, and cliff faces after heavy rainfall. Before applying inputs, consider how best to minimise run-off on your farm –
· Can you keep back from areas where run-off is more likely?
· Would a soak-away help to ensure water doesn’t run freely down a laneway?
· Could a hedgerow or bank of trees slow the flow of water across your land?
Sea beet is the wild ancestor of many common crops grown in Ireland, including chard and sugar beet.
|Garden or farmyard||Help out pollinating insects by avoiding chemical sprays and letting native wildflowers like dandelions and daisies flower in your lawn.
Sow nasturtiums as a decoy for white butterflies.
|Take care when buying potted plants from garden centres or supermarkets. These plants are often intensively grown and, despite being sold as ‘pollinator friendly’, often have chemical residues that can harm bees and other wildlife in your garden. The soil in potted plants can also harbour invasive pests such as the New Zealand flatworm, which kills our native earthworm. Where possible, source organically grown potted plants from a reputable seller or, better yet, grow from seed.
These colourful flowers are also edible in salads.
|Hedgerows||Crab-apple, spindle, guelder rose and rowan may be flowering in hedgerows around now, but this is the month in which the whitethorn transforms the countryside with its frothy exuberance!
The willow warbler, chiff-chaff and blackcap are back and letting everyone know about it, filling the field boundaries with noisy life.
|The flowers of the ‘sceach gheal’ (white thorn) have quite a ‘musky’ fragrance. The small red berries (haws) are an important food source for wildlife: in hungrier times both leaves and haws were also eaten by people, referred to as ‘bread and butter’. Protected by the fairies, it is said to be bad luck to damage whitethorns!
These birds winter in Africa but return to our hedgerow trees just as they come into flower. Let’s look after these birds while they visit!
|Hill pasture||‘Gorse (furze, whins) is in flower’….||… ‘and love is in the air’ (well, it flowers most of the year!). One of the most beautiful perfumes of the countryside, gorse is of great importance to spiders and songbirds and can provide shelter for stock as well as young oaks and ash. A nitrogen-fixer, it was once harvested, crushed, and used to feed livestock. We have two species of gorse in Ireland, our native low-growing shrub and the introduced variety of European gorse. Both are great for wildlife, but the European variety can crowd out native species if not managed.|
|Pasture, meadows & field margins||This month is a great time to see a variety of flowers emerge. Early purple orchids, twayblades or some bitter vetches may appear in the shade of a hedgerow. Yellow rattle, milkworts and speedwells begin to show in unimproved grasslands, and any number of so called ‘weeds’ flower everywhere.
Early varieties of red clover are flowering.
First cuts of silage are being taken
|Consider leaving areas of pasture un-topped so that the thistle, yarrow, self-heal, plantains and others can be a source of nectar for pollinators, and then later seeds for bird species such as finches. Most flowers/weeds are really great indicators of site management and soil health, such as soil compaction or soil acidity. ‘Weeds’ such as dandelion, as well as being great for pollinators, have taproots that break up compaction and absorb nutrients from below.
Clovers are a cornerstone of organic farming and the engine that drives productivity. In contrast to white clover, red clover has an upright growth habit and a strong, deep root. All kinds of bumblebees love their nectar, if they are allowed to flower.
Consider if you can leave a 100m by 4m uncut strip along a field margin? Or can some fields be managed for later cuts or hay? This can help provide bees and other pollinators with the continuous supply of flowers they require to forage.
|Ponds||Life is heating up in the pond! Look out for shrimps, water snails, skaters and hoverflies.||If pond vegetation is taking over, there may be an issue with run-off up-stream. You can remove some of the vegetation by twirling a stick in the pond. If possible, a reed bed or willow bank upstream will help to improve the water quality of your pond (and will be great for wildife too!)|
|Streams & rivers||Listen out for reed buntings calling (a short “ziu”) especially along stream margins and other wet vegetation.||These wetland birds have, over recent years, spread into farmland. Sparrow-sized, the male has a black head, white collar and a drooping moustache.|
|Tillage fields||A really nature-rich farmed habitat can be created by sowing a hectare or more of wild bird cover around now.
Mycorrhizal fungi are fungi that form mutually beneficial relationships with the roots of plants. The hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi carry nutrients, water and chemical messages to and from plant roots. In turn, plants provide the hyphae with plant-secreted sugars. These vast interconnected messaging and trading systems have been dubbed nature’s internet or the ‘wood-wide web’.
|Agri-environment schemes will usually help with the costs. The crop is left un-harvested over winter, providing seed sources for the birds. Consider adding additional species to the usual mix, as the more diverse the mix the more species it will feed and house!
Plants with healthy mycorrhizal fungal partners benefit from increased availability of soil nutrients and moisture, as well as greater resistance to disease. Tillage, fungicides and other chemical treatments damage the growth of this network, reducing the natural benefits that it provides to crops. Reducing chemical inputs, minimising tillage and incorporating organic matter (e.g. straw) into the soil, can all help to promote a healthy population of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil.
|Wet or rough ground||Look out for yellow flags (irises), butterworts, early marsh orchids and native hogweed.||Pollinators love hogweed, while the beautiful butterwort is an insectivorous plant (it eats insects!). Cherish your farm’s wetlands, they are amazing!|
|Woods||For early risers, the dawn chorus, nature’s very own orchestra, will be in full, glorious flow these mornings.||At its best, the dawn chorus is surely one of the greatest things to enjoy on a nice early summer’s morning. Birds are busy finding mates, building nests and some will already be feeding young.|
|Further tips for the month to help our planet!|
|Climate||With summer droughts becoming more prevalent, now is a good time to think about how to make your water system as efficient as possible||>43% of treated drinking water in Ireland is believed to be lost to leaks. Is there a leaky pipe or tap that could be replaced on the farm?|
|Pollinators||Remember ‘No Mow May’!
If you’ve been tempted to cut the grass on lawns and road margins, now is a good time to hold off again to allow pollinators to feed from flowering species such as clover.
|If necessary, you can cut some sections for pathways through lawns, or rotate the cutting so that there are always a few strips in flower.|
|Water quality||Silage effluent can be very damaging if it escapes into watercourses.||Before filling silage pits, check that all concrete is in good condition with no cracks and that you have sufficient capacity in your effluent tank. If you are using round bales, try to avoid stacking them on top of each other, as this increases effluent.|
|Everywhere!||When we hear the term invasive species we tend to think of Japanese knotweed, rhododendron and Himalayan balsam, in flower now. But there are many others…||Established alien invasive species also include cotoneaster, buddleia (butterfly bush), clematis, montbretia and snowberry – find out more at www.invasivespeciesireland.ie|
|Bogs||Look out for the pin-points of colour that appear in our bogs around now – the beautiful bogbean, the fascinating sundew, the ragged robin.
Our uplands are popular with walkers this time of year but suitable grazing regimes are key to their health. Too much and you expose the peat and lose carbon, and the risk of fire increases greatly.
|Bogbean leaves resemble those of the broad bean. It has stunning star-shaped, pink/white flowers fringed inside with long white hairs. It was used to flavour beer, known by some as the ‘bog hop’!
Overgrazing, poaching and erosion can reduce the ability of the hill or peatland to support wildlife – and livestock. Stocking levels may be as low as one sheep per hectare but the farmer is the best judge based on his/her experience. If feeding rings are present, move them often to prevent poaching and nutrient enrichment.
|Buildings & walls||Old stone walls can look llke the arrival halls of airports as parent birds fly too and fro feeding broods hidden in cracks between the stones.||All this activity can also be quite noisy as chicks compete for precious mouthfuls of food. Sometimes strange sounds are added to the mix – starlings are great mimics, and have been known to imitate the sounds of car engines, reversing alarms or radios!|
|Coastal farms||The Irish coastline stretches for over 5500kms. Where prevailing winds lead to sand being blown onshore, sand dunes take shape. Dunes come in many shapes and sizes and support a wide range of flora and fauna. Watch out for sea sandwort, sea spurge and the spotted orchid.||In addition to providing habitat for a range of species, sand dune systems act as natural protection from storm impacts and rising sea levels. However, sand dune systems are fragile and prone to disturbance by human activities. We can protect our sand dune systems by avoiding activities that damage the surface of the dunes, by fencing out livestock and by keeping to designated pathways through the dunes.|
|Garden or farmyard||Leave a sunlit patch of nettles for bees, butterflies and hoverflies.||Nettles are a food plant for lots of butterfly larvae (e.g. red admiral, peacock, comma and more). On farmland they provide important early cover for birds like the corncrake. Great for making soup and fertiliser too!|
|Hedgerows||The honeysuckle or ‘woodbine’ begins to flower. You’ll often smell it before you see it!
As the summer rolls on, can you see foxgloves in your hedgerows?
|Honeysuckle is a rich source of nectar for many insects, which will keep the bird populations healthy. The elephant hawkmoth loves its nectar. Just before flowering is a good time to take cuttings and try to propagate new plants for transplanting around the farm.
Foxgloves – also known as ladies’ fingers – only flower every other year (biennial). Although poisonous, foxglove is important in the treatment of heart conditions.
|Hill pasture||With its distinctive call lasting up to half an hour, the skylark is best heard in early summer.||The song is usually given while the bird is flying 50 to 100 metres overhead. Although hill ground is a favourite, the skylark also likes tillage fields and pastures. Topping or mowing can easily destroy the nest.|
|Pasture, meadows & field margins||The meadow thistle – or bog thistle -will begin flowering now in wetter grasslands.
This is a great month for flowering grasses and herbs in our pastures and meadows.
|Ireland hosts 25% of the world’s population of this elegant, non-prickly thistle, which is a favourite of the larvae of the painted lady butterfly. Light grazing in early summer followed by heavier grazing in late summer will help this plant.
Depending on your perspective, flowers in the grassland can be viewed as weeds or as welcome displays of biodiversity. Yellow rattle is one such plant – a semi-parasite, it weakens grasses and thus allows more space for less-competitive herbs to take hold. Less grass more flowers anyone?
|Ponds||June is a lively time around ponds with frogs, damselflies and dragonflies emerging, in turn attracting other animals to predate them.
Any sign of pond skaters or water boatman on your water bodies?
|Keep an eye out for herons visiting your pond; one of their favourite foods is the frog! Bats are also on the wing, with hedgerows and ponds favourite feeding areas.
Pond skaters ‘skate’ around on the surface of the water in ponds, lakes, ditches and slow-flowing rivers, feeding on smaller insects which they stab with their sharp mouthparts or ‘beaks’.
|Streams & rivers||Our waterways are filled with new life as mother mallards shepherd ducklings between patches of flowering vegetation like water lilies and flag irises.||Secretive moorhens make nests in reeds and rushes, breaking cover only rarely.|
|Tillage fields||Can you spot sparrows, blue tits etc. eating aphids off the crops?||There are many natural predators of the ‘pests’ out there. Before spraying, see if nature is doing her job in helping you grow your crops. The common wasp is a predator of aphids; ladybirds, lacewings and earwigs are among others that do the job as well.
As well as killing off ‘pests’, pesticides kill these useful predatory insects. This in turn can increase your ‘pest’ problem in the future.
|Wet or rough ground||Rough or ‘untidy’ patches of ground are currently providing food for a whole new generation of wildlife!||Watch as small birds forage for insects, hares feed on woody plants, field mice gather seeds, and the kestrel hangs in the air overhead – before all return to feed hungry mouths in hidden places.|
|Woods||Normally very secretive, in summer it’s possible to spot the pine martin during daylight hours.
Did you know that there are over 2500 species of mushroom in Ireland?
Fungi are also deeply enmeshed in Irish folklore. The fly agaric and liberty cap, for example, are believed to produce visions of faeries and leprechauns!
|Pine martins favour conifers and have a broad diet including invertebrates, nuts, fruits and small birds and mammals. Pine martins are returning to Irish woodlands after near extinction in the 1900s. Interestingly, they are also helping our native red squirrel to bounce back by predating on, or simply scaring off, invasive grey squirrels.
Traditionally only a handful of species of mushroom have been available for sale in shops in Ireland. However, there is a growing market for other varieties such as oyster or shiitake. In response to this demand, some farmers are diversifying continuous cover broadleaf woodland enterprises by growing these varieties on inoculated woodpiles. (Due to the danger of mushroom poisoning, however, foraging of wild mushrooms should be left to the experts!)
|Further tips for the month to help our planet!|
|Climate||With farm machinery seeing heavy use at the moment, it’s a good time to remember simple ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption.||· Turn the engine off rather than letting it idle
· Shift up a gear and throttle back for lighter work or on the road
· Remove unnecessary tractor weights – doing so can save over one litre of diesel/hr.
· Check tyre pressure regularly (lower pressures for field work will reduce fuel use)
|Pollinators||Pollinators are busily pollinating many of our food plants at the moment, including apples, strawberries and tomatoes, amongst many others.||Research has shown pollinator activity boosts oil seed rape production by ~30% (when compared to crops where pollinators have been excluded)! – another good reason to reduce pesticides and safeguard our native pollinators!|
|Water quality||Sheep dipping may be underway on some farms in June. Leakage of sheep dips can lead to serious pollution of watercourses, including contamination of drinking water and large-scale fish kills.||Before dipping, make sure that your dipping tanks are leak proof and that they are located as far as possible from drains and water courses. Make sure to use a drip pen and to prevent sheep accessing any watercourses for at least 24hrs.
It’s worth noting that, while many dips are terribly harmful for the environment, they are also harmful to humans. Dips containing organophosphate are linked to numerous cancers, and the effects of exposure can build up over time. Where possible, explore alternatives and eliminate the use of dips!
|Everywhere!||Summer evenings are the best time to come across hedgehogs.||Snuffling and grunting like a pig (its young are called hoglets!), the hedgehog is out and about looking for food. They can travel 1 to 2 km each night in search of food – their diet includes earthworms, beetles, spiders and slugs.|
|Bogs||Listen for the haunting call of the curlew across the bog in summer. Curlew arrive back from winter feeding grounds to breed on bogs in March or early April, by July their chicks are fledging. Chicks leave the nest within a day or so, and thereafter feed themselves.||Habitat loss due to forestry and destruction of peatlands has devastated breeding populations of curlews in Ireland. If you farm on or near a bog, safeguard this precious habitat to ensure our curlews can continue to breed in Ireland in summer.|
|Buildings & walls||Have a closer look and see what your stonewalls are growing – ferns like hart’s tongue, wall rue or maidenhair spleenwort, the pink flowers of herb robert, mosses and lichens.||Walls can also provide homes for bird nests, cavity-nesting bees and our only native lizard, the common lizard.|
|Coastal farms||Coastal estuaries, sand bars and mudflats can seem quiet at this time of year, as many of our winter-visiting waders, for example black-tailed godwits, have flown to northerly latitudes to breed. They don’t stay away too long though – the first can start to return as early as July.||In the meantime, low tide can reveal the signs of an abundance of life along the coastline. Look out for the trails of crabs, squirts of water from razor clams, and tiny coils of sand from lugworms.
These tidal habitats are vulnerable to pollution from agricultural run-off. In particular, run-off containing fertiliser or FYM can cause the growth of a blanket of green sea lettuce or ‘ulva’ to appear, smothering natural shore-life.
|Garden or farmyard||Food is more abundant during the summer months and many birds choose to feed protein rich insects to their chicks. This means that feeders can be conspicuously quiet during the summer months.||During hot or dry periods, provide a shallow dish of water for garden birds to drink and bathe in. There’s nothing quite like watching a blue tit take its morning bath!
As with any bird feeders, it’s a good idea to raise birdbaths off the ground and to make sure birds have a good view of any potential predators approaching – cats in particular!
|Hedgerows||The fruit of crab apple, sloe, and the different rose species are gradually maturing at this time. Hedgerows are a hive of activity in mid-summer, from buzzing bees to darting bats to furtive field mice.||The natural bounty of our hedgerows is a testament to our pollinators having done their job in spring. With so much countryside activity around now, these hedges also act as a safe space for our wildlife to shelter, travel and eat.|
|Hill pasture||Heathers are becoming increasingly prominent on hillsides as the summer progresses, to the delight of many beekeepers.||On closer inspection it’s usually possible to distinguish between different types of heather – from ‘ling’ to ‘bell heather’ to ‘cross-leaved heath’. Often growing together, these can form a spectrum of pinkish-purple colour with occasional flashes of white.|
|Pasture, meadows & field margins||In more diverse grasslands, the bluish-purple (and occasionally white) flowers of the devil’s-bit scabious appear now.
It’s a great time to go orchid-hunting. Look out for the fragrant orchid, the pyramidal orchid, the frog orchid and helleborines such as the ‘common’ and the ‘dark-red’.
Its hay cutting season for some; deciding when to cut is to strike a balance between the condition of the crop, the availability of help, the weather forecast and, ideally, nature’s needs!
Keep your ears open for the shy, secretive (but noisy!) corncrake in any old-fashioned hay meadows.
Ragwort is beginning to flower. This noxious weed (it contains alkaloids which can cause liver damage to cattle and horses) shouldn’t be mistaken with ‘goldenrod’.
|The story goes that devil’s bit scabious received its name because the plant contained so many cures that it angered the Devil and he cut the roots short (they look blunt as if bitten off). They are also the larval food plant of the marsh fritillary butterfly.
While orchids aren’t known for their scent, the pyramidal orchid is said to have a faint ‘foxy’ smell and the fragrant orchid has a wonderful smell resembling that of cloves.
Delaying the cropping of hay until late July or August can make a huge difference to the diversity of plant species, as more plants get a chance to flower, seed and to enhance the soil seed bank.
Once common, this is a really rare bird now. It is hanging on in a few places (e.g. Mayo) with some farmers really working hard to give it a better future.
While ragwort is much maligned, it’s an attractive native flower and beneficial to a wide range of insects, particularly the black and yellow stripped cinnabar moth caterpillar.
The Latin name for goldenrod is solidago which means ‘to make whole’ and this plant was used on the skin to heal wounds.
|Ponds||Enjoy the spectacle of damselflies, dragonflies and bats feeding over your pond.||If a prolonged period of drought causes the water level of your pond to drop very low, consider topping it up. Rainwater can be harvested and stored for this purpose during the winter months.|
|Streams & rivers||Meadowsweet begins to flower in late summer near streams or in wet grasslands.||Its creamy flowers look like feathers in the wind. It has a distinct strong sweet smell, which attracts insects (it smells of almonds!).|
|Tillage fields||Following harvest, it’s a good time to think about nature friendly ways to build soil fertility for next year’s crop.
Fungal mycelium unlocks natural nutrients in the soil, improves drainage and promotes aeration. It’s a great time to think about how to boost mycelium in your soil for the benefit of next year’s crop.
|A diverse winter cover crop can help to protect soil from erosion, while also fixing nutrients that are then available for the following cash crop. While cover crops are great for soil and wildlife, do consider also leaving some fields in winter stubble, as this is an important winter feeding habitat for farmland birds such as linnets and yellowhammers.
Tilling soil results in fragmentation of mycelium, leading to compaction, the growth of anaerobic organisms and the release of greater amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In contrast, min- and no-till methods promote the growth of native mycoflora (fungi), which in turn help the farmer by decomposing stubble, improving soil structure and fertility, and nourishing the roots of crops.
|Wet or rough ground||Manage your wet grasslands carefully: light grazing from here on may be worthwhile if underfoot conditions allow. While some poaching of the ground is inevitable, take care not to overdo it.||Wet grasslands are important for lots of biodiversity including charismatic breeding ‘wading birds’ such as lapwing, snipe and curlew. Where drains have been used in the past, it will really help if these can be blocked or maybe even if sections could be expanded out to form linear ponds.|
|Woods||Another damp-loving, sweet-smelling plant that starts flowering in July is wild angelica.||Look for its umbrella-like clusters of pink-tinged white flowers in wet grasslands and woods. A cousin of fennel, it was used to flavour liqueurs.|
|Further tips for the month to help our planet!|
|Climate||Plastics are produced using fossil fuels. The less plastic products used on the farm, the lower the carbon footprint of the farm.||When purchasing farm inputs, try to avoid excessive packaging and ask your co-op or farm advisor about which suppliers are the most environmentally friendly.|
|Pollinators||Manage beekeeping activities with care||While keeping bees can seem like a good way to boost pollinator numbers, bought in bees can introduce disease as well as compete for limited resources with native wild bees. Rather than installing a hive, think about creating species rich grasslands and field margins and reducing the use of pesticides. If you build it, they will come!|
|Water quality||Summer can be a good time to think about making simple changes to reduce the impact of winter housing on water quality.||Simple checks can include making sure that there are no leaks from water troughs, tanks or pipes. Any leaks can cause pooling or run-off of contaminated water. Likewise, it’s a good time to ensure slurry tanks have no leaks and that sufficient stores are available for FYM in the wintertime.|
Farming For Nature Offers Best Practice Guidelines and Actions to take on different land types here.
|Everywhere!||Care for your soil. It is the basis of everything for your farming produce and productivity. Among the many benefits are:
Improved soil aggregate stability
Crop and grassland resilience (to drought/flood)
Reduced weed pressure
Adherence to Statutory Management Requirements
Avoidance of pollution issues
|Do not leave soil exposed or susceptible to erosion.
Avoid poaching, pinch-points, trafficking and rutting.
Nurture the soil and build humus – give back (healthy) nutrients.
Add species diversity to your sward.
This is body of work is supported by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and the Marine, and National Parks & Wildlife Service.