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: [email protected]
|NOTICING NATURE – AND SOME WAYS TO HELP IT!
|ADDITIONAL PRACTICAL NOTES
|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.
|As we finish celebrating the harvest feast of ‘Samhain’, a lot of animals are brought indoors where they are fed for the winter. Not everywhere though!
|This time of year is a turning-point for farming, unusually so in the case of the Burren where livestock (mainly suckler cows) are herded onto the rough limestone grasslands (known as winterages) for the winter. On these low-lying hills they can enjoy the ‘dry lie’ afforded by the limestone bedrock, as well as a healthy diet of native herbs, grasses and calcium-rich water.
|In addition to flood relief and carbon capture, natural (undrained) bogs filter and purify water, leading to cleaner, clearer water downstream.
|To maximise these natural ‘ecosystem services’, where possible avoid burning, cutting peat, planting forestry, draining or overgrazing on bogs or peatlands.
|Buildings & walls
|Time to have a look around the farm and see if there are any suitable places to plan to put up nesting boxes for our native Irish farmland birds such as barn owls.
Barn owls will happily nest in indoor or outdoor barn owl boxes, ideally close to some rough grassland for hunting.
|If you are hoping to attract barn owls to your farm, it’s a good idea to use live or snap traps rather than rodenticides for any rodent issues – barn owls (as well as other wildlife) often eat poisoned rodents, which can be fatal. Of course the best rodent control on a farm is the barn owl itself – a breeding pair can eat as many as 2000 rats and mice in a year!!
Plan to get nest boxes up before December, as barn owls need time to get used to a new box before they will nest in it – often farmers find a box is empty for a few years before miraculously being filled with screeching owlets one spring!
|Sea buckthorn is adorned with clusters of yellow-orange berries.
|Sea buckthorn was introduced to Ireland in the 1800s and has since become invasive in some coastal areas. It uses underground rhizomes to colonize new areas and can quickly crowd out native coastal species. If you have sea buckthorn on your farm, it’s best to keep its growth in check.
|Garden or farmyard
|Hang up some bird feeders in quieter areas of the garden or yard, near to a hedgerow or somewhere birds can fly back to for safety.
|Join Birdwatch Ireland’s Garden Bird Survey and report into the national database on what birds are coming to your feeder – winter visitors might include blackcaps, greenfinches and siskins.
If you have any spoilt grain, putting this out – say near a good hedge – on a regular basis in the harsher winter months will feed a lot of wild birds.
|Plant new hedgerows and ‘gap-up’.
Think about some hedge laying to rejuvenate the hedge and improve stock proofing
Trim hedgerows where needed.
|When planning your new hedgerow, remember to maximise the benefit to wildlife by planting a variety of native flowering species grown from local sources. Also, try to connect new hedgerows to existing natural habitats to create corridors for wildlife. Look at what grows well in your area and plant-in more of these – better still, collect local seed and grow some yourself, it’s easier than you think!
Laying a hedge is a real skill and a great way to help make it more stockproof. Coppicing species such as hazel, willow and whitethorn is also a good way to create different age structures in the hedgerow. The ‘All-Ireland Pollinator Plan’ has some excellent resources on managing new and existing hedgerows for wildlife.
To minimise the impact on wildlife if you are cutting your hedgerows, try to cut them between November and January. While hedgerows can legally be cut from the 1st of September, this early cutting reduces food supply for wildlife. Ideally, cut your hedgerows in smaller sections and on a three-year rotation to ensure there is always some food available for wildlife. Try, if possible, to leave some hedgerow sections uncut, this increases the diversity and structure of habitats present.
|Have you heard an eagle cry this year?
|Due to conservation efforts, some of our native birds of prey are making a comeback. Keep your eyes peeled for buzzards, white tailed sea eagles, and even the golden eagle as they recolonize Irish farmland. These charismatic birds prey on species such as crows and rabbits, helping to keep the populations of these potential ‘pest’ species in check.
|Pasture, meadows & field margins
|If left to seed, plants like yarrow and lamb’s quarters will still be holding seed heads aloft, tempting hungry birds.
|The birds will not eat all of the seeds – some will be carried to fresh pastures, where they will germinate and start the cycle again in spring.
|While all appears quiet on the pond, the larvae of dragonflies, mayflies and water beetles are busy below the surface, preparing to emerge as adults in spring.
|During cold snaps, breaking the ice on the pond will provide oxygen for pond life as well as a place for birds and mammals to drink.
|Streams & rivers
|Plant some trees like alder and willow to stabilise eroding banks.
|Alder coppices well and the wood makes excellent charcoal (and gunpowder!). Everybody knows the sally (willow) – a really easy tree to grow: when simply pushed into the soil, willow cuttings will root and grow into new trees!
|November is a good time to take stock and think ahead. Do you have a less-productive field that could do with a nature-friendly boost to soil fertility?
|Double cover crops, where two diverse cover crops are grown and mulched, or incorporated back to back (i.e. one in summer and one in winter), can kick-start depleted soil biology. Other options to consider are nitrogen fixing ‘combi-crops’ (where two mutually beneficial cash crops, e.g. barley and peas, are grown together and then separated at harvest) or making your own nutrient rich compost fertiliser on-farm.
|Wet or rough ground
|What ‘waterfowl’ visit your wetlands or watercourses? Can you spot the silhouette of the farmland bird the lapwing wading in the shallows?
|Wet grasslands, alongside rivers in floodplains, can provide really important feeding habitats for thousands of ducks (e.g. widgeon), geese and swans that spend their winter in Ireland.
|As dusk falls or dawn breaks you might see the woodcock, a beautifully patterned bird, whose marking camouflages it well.
It’s a good time to spot the mighty scots pine standing out amongst the bare deciduous trees.
Inoculating your bare-root saplings with fungi can naturally increase their growth rates and resilience to disease.
|Woodcock are a secretive bird, but if you are out and about on the farm late in the day, look out for these along woodland edges. Or can you spot the jay out collecting acorns? – a super oak tree spreader.
Our only native pine, it was thought to be extinct (and reintroduced from Scotland) until a stand of native pine was recently identified in the Burren. This tree is an important food source for the native red squirrel.
When planting, simply add a handful of well-rotted wood chippings or sawdust into the hole into which you are planting or around the base of the planted tree. The perfect source of this material is a local, well rotted down deciduous tree: it will be full of tiny fungal hyphae ready to nourish the roots of your saplings!
|Further tips for our planet!
|Trees, shrubs and woody vegetation are great at storing carbon in their biomass.
|Think of hedgerows, woods and copses on the farm as nature’s carbon storage tanks. Is there space anywhere for more trees on the farm?
|Trees are also a wonderful source of food for pollinating insects – could you plant some native trees from seed on your farm this year?
|Ripe rowan, hawthorn and elder berries can all be gathered on the farm in autumn and the seeds planted (although remember to leave some for the birds!).
|November is bare-root planting season – is there a buffer strip on your farm that could be improved with a stand of native trees?
|Planted buffer strips can slow the flow of water across the land, absorb excess nutrients, prevent erosion, provide food and shelter for livestock and provide habitat for wildlife!
|Keep an eye out at night for the barn owl – easier to see in winter as there is less foliage.
|Barn owls are mostly found in the south and midlands. They like to breed in farm buildings and will use special bird boxes. Avoid using rodenticides as these are fatal for owls.
|Peat moss harvested from our bogs is a precious resource that takes thousands of years to form.
|Short-lived Christmas poinsettias (with their festive green and red foliage) and other decorative Christmas plants are sometimes grown in peatmoss. These are often binned (precious peatmoss and all) straight after the festive season, so avoid buying if possible!
|Buildings & walls
|Woodlice (also known as slaters, clocks, pigs or penny-pigs!) are often found in dampish areas.
|Woodlice play a crucial role in helping to decompose dead and decaying plant matter and wood – a key part of the nutrient cycle!
|Winter storms can deposit all kinds of things along the coastline. One treasure is the ‘mermaid’s purse’. At first glance these capsules look like the flotation sacks on egg wrack or bladder wrack seaweed, however, they are in fact the egg cases of sharks, skates and rays!
|Often about the size of your thumb, these capsules have trailing, spiralling tendrils, which are used to anchor them to seaweed deep underwater.
|Garden or farmyard
|Leaves, dried stems, seed heads and fallen branches all provide winter cover for useful predatory insects as well as other wildlife. Rather than burning, pile vegetation into a wildlife hotel and allow it to rot down naturally over the winter.
|Take care not to disturb hibernating wildlife in the corners of sheds or under vegetation!
|In late Winter, the ivy berries provide a food source for the birds right through hungry gaps till March or even April.
|Ivy provides precious shelter for hibernating butterflies and other insects. It gives some small birds a place to huddle together to keep warm on winter nights and helps them survive until spring (e.g. long tailed tits, wrens). Ivy can be left on trees except where there could be safety issues – along roads, close to houses. Managing ivy by trimming it back occasionally from the crowns of trees may be the best option.
Many things are associated with the festive side of this month like robin redbreasts, holly with its red berries and the wren. The tiny wren has a loud call and it is often seen jumping amongst the undergrowth and ivy looking for food with its distinctive tail feathers peaked high.
|Bare branched trees are standing starkly on Irish hillsides.
|Despite their deadened appearance, as the rain falls, these trees gently hold soils in place with their far-reaching roots. Irish hillsides were historically clothed in stands of such trees – is there somewhere on the farm that a few more trees could help to reduce erosion?
|Pasture, meadows & field margins
|The end of the year often brings memories of past Christmases – what did nature look like in your townland for previous generations?
|Often the Irish names of townlands offer clues. Words relating to forests make up 20% of Irish placenames. For example, the Irish word doire (derry) means ‘oakwood’, while around 8% of Irish place names reflect an agricultural past, for example including words for meadows or rough pasture.
|If you have a pond on your land, floating something like a ball or piece of wood on it will keep it unfrozen for longer, giving wildlife an open water supply in any freeze over.
|Floating a piece of wood will also help keep drinking troughs and storage tanks ice free. Installing stop valves and draining water pipes when not in use can also help prevent water pipes from cracking in icy weather. On bigger water storage tanks, having a wildlife escape ladder (a piece of rough wood or rope) may enable trapped wildlife to get out and thus prevent the water from being polluted.
|Streams & rivers
|Watch out for the snow white plumage of the little egret as it hunts in shallow waters
|Little egrets were once hunted for their plumage, their elegant feathers thought to be just the thing for ladies’ hats!
|Flocks of yellowhammers may feed in fields with winter stubble. The south and east is their main distribution in Ireland as these are the main the tillage areas.
Did you know that fungi can help to keep your soils warm in winter?
|Also look out for other seed eaters: linnets, green finches, reed buntings, bullfinches, and for sparrowhawks feeding on these smaller birds.
Many fungi produce antifreezing agents, which have evolved to protect their mycelium during cold spells. These agents also protect the roots of grasses and other plants when temperatures drop below zero.
|Wet or rough ground
|It’s mating season for foxes! Beginning in December, the howls and barks of foxes punctuate the quiet on crisp, clear nights. Rough ground with some scruffy scrub can provide a great place for foxes to rear their cubs.
|As dusk falls, keep an eye out for starling murmurations that occasionally form over the woodlands and wetlands.
|Anytime over the next three months is a good time to plant bareroot trees while they are dormant.
It is a good time to assess what deadwood you have.
|Try to source – or grow from seed! – local, native trees as these are generally more suited to the area and the resident wildlife. Plant your trees in pockets, strategically situated around the farm – by doing so you may be able to gain additional benefits for your livestock (shelter, shade) and for the health of the soil and water on your land. (Before planting, think about fencing needs – you may need to protect your trees against livestock or wildlife – see our best practice guides for more info.)
Standing deadwood provides important nesting sites for hole-nesting birds and some insects (solitary bees etc.). Dead wood in semi-shaded conditions is good for fungi and invertebrates. Standing deadwood rots from the inside out and lying dead wood from the outside in, and so each support different types of life.
|Further tips for our planet!
|As the weather becomes less predictable, what steps can you take to build climate resilience on your farm?
|Nothing beats nature for natural resilience to climate change: boosting biodiversity, from the soil to the tree-tops, will help your farming system to remain productive in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather events.
|Fruit and nut trees can be great sources of food for pollinating insects.. and for us!
|It’s a good time of year to source some bare root fruit and nut trees and plant a small orchard in a sunny spot on the farm. Choose heritage varieties where you can, as these have evolved to thrive in our landscape without the need for harmful chemicals. Once established, apple trees can continue to bear fruit for half a century!
|Feeding livestock outside in winter can result in poached areas or ‘sacrifice paddocks’. This can pose a risk to water quality as nutrients and sediment can build up and then be carried into nearby water bodies after heavy rain.
|Moving feeders regularly, maintaining good lie-back areas and splitting large groups of livestock into smaller groups will all help to protect your fields and prevent poaching and harmful run-off in winter.
|Shhh!! Careful now, you don’t want to wake anyone up!
It is a good time to look up any wildlife management projects or other supports for special habitats or species on the farm that may be struggling locally or nationally.
|In Ireland, bats and hedgehogs are the only animals that undergo true hibernation, conserving energy at a time when food supplies are low. Disturbing them at this time can be fatal to their chances of survival. Badgers don’t hibernate, but do build up fat stores in autumn so they can reduce activity during cold winter weather.
Birds like the hen harrier and the curlew have special projects dedicated to helping them along. There are also projects trying to halt the loss of species in aquatic habitats, for example, the pearl mussel, crayfish, and salmon. There should be plenty of good advice out there for these species even if you’re not a participant in one of these projects. Or else contact your local NPWS ranger for advice.
|On a clear, crisp day in January views across the open bog landscape can be truly spectacular!
|The spectacle continues at night, with the dark evenings and lack of light pollution offering the chance for some winter stargazing. Light at night can confuse wildlife and even cause birds to start singing. Where possible, try to minimise light pollution at night by closing shed doors and turning off lights in the yard when not in use.
|Buildings & walls
|Farm buildings and old stonewalls provide shelter for a wide range of birds, insects and small mammals. As spring approaches, birds will begin to look for nesting sites. The blackbird and the robin are two of the earliest to do so and both have been recorded nesting as early as January.
|Birds that traditionally nested in old outbuildings, such as swifts, kestrels, and barn owls, will readily nest in man made nest boxes. A wet week in January can be an ideal time to think about building or sourcing some nest boxes for the farm. BirdWatch Ireland have great instructions on their website, or you can contact them directly for advice.
|The fragments of Ireland’s rocky coastline that are difficult to farm (e.g. cliff edges, rocky peninsulas, steep banks) often end up covered in a thick layer of scrub. To maximise the biodiversity supported by these fragments of scrub, it can be helpful to encourage a more diverse mix of native flora.
For example, previously cleared land, that is then left fallow, will often be colonised by bracken, bramble and gorse. Each of these species are important for wildlife, however, by blocking the sunlight from reaching the ground, these colonising species can also slow down the establishment of a more diverse range of native flora.
Did you know that one third of the world’s species of whales, dolphins and porpoises have been spotted in Ireland’s coastal waters?
|If you have large areas of monocultural scrub on your land (i.e. dominated by just one species), consider clearing a few small patches each year and planting some native trees or bushes that grow well in the local environment. Bracken, bramble and gorse are shade intolerant, so as the trees grow and develop their canopies, patches of scrub will die back beneath them, creating a more diverse (less monocultural) habitat, which in turn will support more wildlife. An even better strategy than planting is to have a closer look at your scrub and see if there are native trees already trying to emerge (e.g. blackthorn, whitethorn or willow). You can give these trees a helping hand by lightly pushing back the surrounding vegetation to allow sunlight to reach their leaves.
DO: remember to clear around saplings in spring and summer for the first four/five years, or they will likely be outcompeted by returning scrub!
DON’T: clear all the scrub in an area – while once considered ‘wasted land’ research is increasingly showing the importance of scrubland for wildlife!
DON’T: clear scrub around emerging trees if you have deer in the area – thorny scrub provides a natural tree guard for emerging native trees!
The giant humpback whale is one species that is often spotted from the Irish coastline. Sightings are most common in autumn and early winter along the south and west coasts. From a viewpoint on a clear day, watch out for tell-tale signs across the water. These often include splashes, breaching, or a plume of spray from the blowhole.
|Garden or farmyard
|Make a home for the solitary bees. These bees aren’t like honeybees that live in hives. As their name suggests, they make their own nests and lay their eggs in tunnels, such as in dead wood or hard exposed soil.
|Have you got some old, untreated timber lying around? Just drill some holes (between 2-6mm diameter) a couple of inches deep in it, and either hang it up or leave it as is, and you have made a potential home for the solitary bees! To be most successful, it needs to be off the ground, over a metre long and facing south. A bit later on, observe the solitary bees fill the holes of the ‘bee hotel’ with eggs and food and then seal the entrance with mud or pieces of leaves.
|Depending on how mild the winter is, you may start seeing the primrose or the lesser celandine flowering from late January.
|The Latin name for primrose – ‘prima rosa’ – means ‘first flower’. Another early flower is the lesser celandine – a buttercup-like yellow flower found in shaded areas: a welcome sign of spring!
|High grazing pressure during the winter can lead to long-term damage of vegetation, soils and water features. Grazing animals will also select for certain plants, meaning that high stocking rates will reduce the diversity of the sward over time.
|Reducing stocking levels at this time of year will allow taller vegetation to develop and create the conditions for a mosaic of flowers and shrubs to appear in the spring.
|Pasture, meadows & field margins
|Depending on your location and the suitability of ground and weather conditions, you may be spreading slurry around now, so please think about safeguarding water courses from run off.
Barnacle geese have arrived from Greenland to flock on the green fields and salt marshes.
|Field margins and good buffer strips can really help protect wildlife in streams, rivers and ponds. Fencing to keep livestock back from watercourses can help prevent both water pollution and bank erosion.
These geese love to feed on our coastal pastures during winter.
|While most pond life is quiet at this time of year, stoneworts and mosses continue to grow
|Birds and mammals will continue to visit the pond to drink – make sure there is always a gently sloping edge to the pond so that wildlife can reach the water without risk of falling in!
|Streams & rivers
|The sight of a shy otter porpoising in a river or gambling on a river bank has got to be one of the most rewarding wildlife experiences in Ireland!
|As well as clean river systems, otters need rich and diverse riparian boundaries in which to rest and build their dens – consider planting willow thickets along riverbanks; otters and other wildlife will love them, and this will have the added benefit of filtering any farm run-off before it reaches the watercourse.
|Any unsprayed stubble left in a field, especially with remains of the crop and the weeds that grow in it, can be a good source of food for wildlife.
|This is especially true if the field is not cultivated until the spring. Many species benefit from unsprayed stubble, particularly the linnet, skylark and the hare.
|Wet or rough ground
|Keep an eye out for barn owls perching on fence posts in January.
|To save energy on cold days, barn owls will hunt from a perch rather than from the air. If they are very hungry, they will also risk hunting during the day rather than at night. In the past, barn owls would often hunt rodents inside barns during the winter – earning them the nickname the ‘farmer’s friend’. Where this is no longer possible, try to maintain some rough grassland on the farm year-round, as this is the ideal hunting habitat for the barn owl.
|Woodlands will spread if you let them – do you have the space for a bigger woodland area?
The aptly named jelly ear fungus is festooning dead and decaying wood at the moment. Elder is a favourite tree of this flesh coloured, ear-shaped wonder. When trees on the farm are lost to age or disease, consider leaving some standing deadwood – it’s a crucial habitat for many of our species of native fungi.
|It is a good time to think about this as you may be considering woodland or hedgerow management. Allowing a buffer of vegetation to grow along the edge of your woodland will improve its value for wildlife. No need to plant trees – they will come if you give them time and space (so called ‘natural regeneration’). This area creates a gradual change from bigger trees at the woodland edge to smaller trees and then shrubs giving way to grassland. In addition, if you have space, linking up wooded areas or expanding from existing patches of woodland will make a real difference.
Native Irish trees have co-evolved with many types of native Irish fungi. Invasive fungal pathogens, however, can be fatal to our native trees. These include Dutch elm disease and ash-die back, which were introduced to Ireland on imported wood and nursery stock respectively. To reduce the risk of accidental species introductions, it’s always best to try to source local provenance nursery stock.
|Further tips for our planet!
|Don’t treat soil like dirt! It’s your greatest resource!
Building healthy soils to sequester and store more carbon is known as carbon farming and has a wide range of benefits –
As well as storing carbon, healthy soils will reduce fertiliser needs and weed pressures and increase water infiltration, nutrient levels and crop resilience.
|· Do not leave soil exposed
· Avoid poaching and pinch-points
· Nurture the soil and build humus – give back (healthy) nutrients by applying compost or growing cover crops
· Minimise tillage or try no-till cultivation
· Add species diversity to your sward.
· Reduce or eliminate chemical inputs
|Keep an eye out for winter bumblebees
|Normally, worker bumblebees die off during the colder months, while the queen bee hibernates and waits for spring. In recent years, active bumblebees have been spotted throughout the winter – if you see one, you can report it to the National Biodiversity Data Centre where researchers are trying to better understand the effects of climate change on our native pollinators.
|From mid-January FYM can be stored in a dry field.
|When storing FYM in this way, minimise run-off by covering the heap with a tarpaulin. To ensure any remaining run-off does not enter watercourses, store FYM at least twenty metres (ideally more) from any drains, streams or rivers.
|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.
Farming For Nature Offers Best Practice Guidelines and Actions to take on different land types here.
This is body of work is supported by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and the Marine, and National Parks & Wildlife Service.