How farmers manage their tillage fields and margins is important for farm wildlife. Tillage impacts the structure and function of soils upon which many habitats depend. By farming to protect soils, tillage farmers can make space for nature without losing productivity. By managing 5-10% of your farm for biodiversity, you can make a huge difference for nature with relatively small effort.
Using nature-friendly management can offer a host of benefits including:
- Good soil structure reduces waterlogging and the impacts of droughts
- A healthy predatory insect population reduces the need for pesticides
- Reducing pesticide use benefits pollinators immensely and can increase pollination
- Healthy soils don’t produce as many greenhouse gas emissions as damaged soils
What’s Already There?
- The first step in improving the value of any farm habitat is to understand what’s currently living there. This is important for any rare or protected species, but also to identify new opportunities for restoring nature.
- Record which animals are visiting or nesting in your fields and what plants are growing in the field margins. Understanding what these animals and plants need will help you to tailor your actions to best suit them.
Reduced or No-tillage
- A consequence of reduced or no till farming is that disturbance to the soil structure and its organisms is minimised; organic matter is concentrated at the surface and breaks down more slowly.
- This allows beneficial organisms such as fungi and bacteria to break down the organic matter in the upper layers of the soil, releasing nutrients over time.
- Combined with crop-rotation and cover crops, this approach minimises weeds and diseases without relying on chemical methods.
Planting winter cover crops prevents soil erosion and nutrient run-off into local waterways. Growing winter bird cover for example protects the soil, provides cover for animals moving through the field, controls weed levels and provides food for wildlife, especially seed-eating birds.
- These crops are then tilled into the soil as a green manure, which slowly release nutrients back into the soil, enriching it for the following crop. When used as a cover crop, legumes fix nitrogen, benefiting the soil, crop yields and wildlife.
- Changing the crop grown in a field every year prevents a build-up of pests or diseases to any one crop.
- This system of crop rotation works well with integrated pest management (see below).
- These areas, with only short or limited vegetation, provide suitable conditions for ground nesting birds like lapwing.
- They can be created by ploughing in autumn and leaving alone over winter, or by harrowing in February or early March to create a rough surface for birds to nest.
- In autumn, use a plough to create a ridge of earth about 40cm (16inches) high and 2m (about 6.5 feet) wide. Sow with tussock and mat-forming native grasses.
- To allow wildlife to move to and from the bank, the distance between it and the field boundary should be less than 25m.
- Cut as needed in the first summer; cutting when the grasses reach 10cm will encourage tussocks to form. After the first year, to ensure there are undisturbed sections for wildlife, cut on a 3-year rotation.
- These banks provide a habitat for many beneficial insects and nesting birds.
- More details on managing beetle banks can be found below.
In-field Herbal Leys/ Grass Areas
- A native grass-wild flower mix sown in August-September increases the value of the area for wildlife, especially pollinators.
- Positioned parallel to a slope, these areas will slow down run-off, helping to prevent it reaching nearby streams. Further. a grassy strip adjacent to a waterway provides a buffer against run-off.
- Cut in the same way as the beetle banks: regularly in the first year and then in sections every three years.
- Avoid pesticide use nearby as this will harm the wildlife living in the area.
- To allow wildlife to move more easily around the farm, connect these areas to field boundary habitats.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
- IPM uses a variety of non-chemical methods to reduce the use of chemicals. This is especially important as over-use of chemicals can lead to resistance in the targeted pest species.
- Methods used in IPM include:
- promoting beneficial wildlife (by protecting hedgerows, grassy areas, herbal leys etc.)
- crop rotation (to prevent increased pest and disease resistance)
- buffer-strips along field edges (to protect adjacent habitats from spray-drift)
- sterile seedbeds (for weed-control)
- targeted spot-treatment or pesticide-use if needed (aim to avoid spray drift or watercourse contamination)
- cleaning machinery (to prevent the spread of harmful organisms between sites)
- weed management plans (look at the history of weed outbreaks on your farm and try and identify the cause to prevent further outbreaks)
On some farms there will be fields where you might consider shifting for tillage to other land covers – from grasslands to woodlands.
- A low-maintenance step could simply involve leaving a segment of your field alone and letting nature reclaim. Once you decide to do this leave the area alone to allow nature to take its course. You can start small and see what develops over time before extending.
- To promote connectivity, allowing animals to move more easily, link these new habitats with existing natural areas.
- You will need to watch out for invasive species and may need to act to limit their spread.
- Farm Wildlife UK provide information and conservation advice on different types of farmed areas here
- National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Farmland Actions to Help Pollinators here
- Soil Food Web has videos explaining how to get good soil nutrients, what good soil structure should look like, weed suppression, avoiding pests and diseases on your crops, encouraging carbon sequestration in soils here
- Teagasc provide a guide how to review your soil structure and manage it here.
- The Bride Project in Co.Cork (EIP) has a Farm Habitat Management Guidelines here.
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The development of these how to sections have been supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service
and the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine