The recent cold weather has drawn my attention to the very interesting relationship between the birds which live on our farm and the feed sources they rely on when ice and snow make access to their usual sources much more challenging.
Although we’ve never had a proper official BTO or RSPB survey, anecdotal and totally unscientific evidence, mainly derived from my own observations, has persuaded me that an unusually high volume and variety of birds is able to coexist with our nature friendly farming system. For instance, visitors often remark on the sometimes almost deafening volume of the birdsong in and around our farmyard, or the size of the population of house sparrows – we have around 200 birds.
Of particular interest, to me at least, is the fact that the presence of this volume and variety has little to do with active stewardship measures that we are taking, but mainly, as it were by default – by which I mean that the birds are directly benefiting from aspects of the particular farming system that we have chosen to adopt.
Examples of this include the relative biodiversity of our pastureland, even including those fairly intensively managed fields we cut for silage, which still benefit from the fact that we have used no nitrogen fertiliser or pesticides for the last 40 years.
The farm actually has been in a stewardship scheme, the Welsh name for which is Tir Goval, mainly because we decided it was marginally worth our while taking advantage of the payments, which were obviously conditional on the management constraints which we undertook to observe during its 10 year duration.
To be honest, now the scheme is over, it has come as a great relief that we will be able to take action to improve the fertility of some of the fields which were included in these management agreements, through a combination of lime application sub-soiling, and some remedial drainage.
I am convinced that the impact of these measures on the affected pastures, in terms of lost biodiversity will be marginal, especially since I am taking active measures in other parts of the farm to create wetland habitats, including ponds, which will act as reservoirs for a whole range of species that would otherwise not thrive in our field environments.
On the other hand, the real benefit of mixed farming systems, which include growing and milling oats and peas as the staple concentrate diet for the cows in winter, is that inevitably these practises are always accompanied by a degree of leakage!
By this I mean that when we wash down the milking parlour in the morning, traces of cow muesli, mixed with cow poo of course, are flushed out to the concrete yard, attracting flocks of sparrows, starlings, chaffinches and crows, plus robins and blackbirds, who quickly hoover up the these grains before they are flushed down the drain.
Since these washings are termed as “dirty water” the birds then get a second chance to eat them as they reappear in our lagoon, but by this time the remains of the muesli have been supplemented with small fat particles which are included in the whey from the cheese making. These fat particles attract most of the aforementioned suspects, but also wagtails, three species of tits and occasional other visitors.
All this activity is entirely by default and nothing to do with complex bureaucratic stewardship schemes designed, in most cases, by civil servants who have little practical knowledge of agriculture.
I am not blaming the bureaucrats, honest, but it does seem to me that if the environmental stewardship payments could be redirected to encourage more farmers to adopt a self-sufficient approach towards livestock feeding, that the benefits to biodiversity in general and birdlife in particular would be immense.
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