CFE advice for Grassland Conservation Management
7 Simple Steps for Grassland Farmers.
• Identifying the important habitats on your farm
And then look at how you can:
• Enhance water and soil quality
• Provide a year-round food supply for wildlife.
On any farm, the steps below complement best practice in soil management, nutrient management (fertilisers and manures) and pesticide use to improve the environment, and most are supported by agrienvironment schemes. There is no ‘blueprint’ for how to deliver improved environmental management on lowland livestock farms. It needs a tailored approach based on your own soils, landscape and environmental features. Addressing local environmental priorities can improve the benefits of these measures further, e.g. focussing on local populations of declining species or checking if you are within a priority water catchment.
Generally, wildlife benefits from livestock systems that provide a diverse range of habitats with a variety of vegetation and heights through the season. The ideal includes a mix of long-term permanent grassland and arable crops rotated with temporary grass leys.
1. Look after established wildlife habitats
Start by assessing what important wildlife habitats are on your farm. Look for features, such as established grassland of wildlife or historic importance, rivers, ditches, ponds, veteran trees and woodland, or just ungrazed areas.
Give priority to grassland that has not been heavily improved, for example through re-seeding or nutrient inputs. Under the right management, such grassland can benefit wildlife, provide carbon storage and protect water. Flower-rich grassland or wet grassland are a very high priority and can be supported by agri-environment funding – seek advice from an environmental adviser.
2. Maximise the value of field boundaries
Hedges, ditches and walls are important for wildlife. Making the most of these features is a simple way to help wildlife without affecting your farming business. Trimming hedges (within permitted dates) and managing ditches on a 2-3 year rotation boosts flowers, fruit and refuges for wildlife. This approach is most suited to thorn-dominated hedges and ditches where rotational management will not compromise field drainage. Plant a wide range of hedgerow trees to maintain or restore former numbers in the landscape.
A wide diversity of grasses and flowers is often found in ditches and beside hedges. Avoid inputs drifting into field boundaries and keep an uncultivated buffer strip if the field is re-seeded or cropped. Fence off hedgerows to allow a dense base to develop. Rather than tightly following the curves of a hedge, consider fencing longer straight runs. This uses fewer posts and allows some rough grass to grow where the fence is further from the hedge.*
* If placing a fence beyond 3 metres of the centre of the hedge, please refer to the current SPS guidance which explains the impact on field boundaries and your SPS claim
3. Create small areas of rough grassland at the edges and corners of fields
Areas of rough grass offer a range of benefits. They can be used to buffer important features, and offer habitats for small mammals and beneficial insects, and if located correctly, help slow down erosion and run-off from fields. Create strips of rough grass where they can deliver multiple benefits (e.g. along a watercourse). Establishing rough grass where surface water channels through fields or creating strips across long unbroken slopes also helps. Simply leaving the back-swath or awkward corners uncut when mowing will provide some taller vegetation for wildlife.
4. Create flower rich habitats
Flowering plants are essential for many beneficial insects and a wealth of wildlife. Priority should be given to any older grassland with a range of native flowers.
Consider increasing plant diversity sown in grass leys on areas such as headlands or where there will be short runs when mowing. Legumes, such as clovers, can reduce use of inorganic fertiliser, boost protein and mineral supply for livestock and benefit soil structure. Some flowering herbs, such as plantains and chicory, can be productive in grass leys.
Alternatively, establish small flower-rich areas. This may include encouraging native plants on less fertile grassland areas or cultivating margins to stimulate germination of arable plants in the seed bank.
5. Create a varied sward on some of your grassland
Grazing practices have a big effect on wildlife. Variation in vegetation structure (short to tall; sparse to tussocky) offers greater wildlife benefits than short swards. Grazing is vital to maintain diversity of structure. Any grassland management practice that allows plants to flower and seed, even if only for a short period, will be beneficial. Grazing a taller average sward height (9-12cm), deferred grazing systems, or leaving small areas uncut in mown or topped fields will greatly boost wildlife opportunities and improve water infiltration into soil. Target this approach on less productive grassland areas (either whole fields or to awkward corners, wet areas and buffer strips). Ground nesting birds (e.g. skylark) benefit from at least six weeks between stock turnout and mowing.
6. Use a mix of forage crops to help wildlife
Mixed arable and livestock farms generally benefit wildlife (more than specialist enterprises) and can improve nutrient use efficiency and soil structure. Mixed farms can offer increased diversity of plants, insects and mobile species such as birds. Crops and management affect wildlife value. Grain and weed seeds are essential winter food for many farmland birds. Growing cereals for wholecrop (silage) or crimping provides valuable alternative forage for livestock and an entry into grass.
7. Avoid soil erosion from forage crops
Crops that provide little ground cover in autumn and winter make land vulnerable to soil erosion, as well as nutrient and pesticide leaching. To reduce these risks, identify land liable to soil erosion (e.g. steep areas) or pathways for run-off (e.g. valley bottoms,) and maintain these as grassland. Maize stubbles, grazed roots and brassica crops pose particular risks:
• Maize stubble – use rough cultivation to improve water infiltration or sow a green cover to protect soil and capture residual nitrogen after harvest.
• Grazed brassica/root crops – maintain wide buffer strips next to watercourses, provide run-back areas and strip grazing down the slope.