Making the most of the SFI arable actions

Environment and climate
Claire Robinson

Claire Robinson

Senior Countryside Adviser

Pollen and nectar margin

In the next instalment of her deep dives into the SFI options, NFU Senior Countryside adviser Claire Robinson goes back to basics on how the arable actions can support farmland wildlife.

There are actions to provide nectar and pollen sources for insect pollinators and insect-rich foraging for birds.  The SFI has a specific action to provide winter food for seed-eating birds. Across the SFI wider offer there are actions that provide additional resources for wildlife – good management of hedgerows for example.

When reviewing the actions for farmland wildlife on arable and horticultural land you do need to think about how it fits into your rotation. When should it be planted and how long is it in the ground?

Many of the SFI arable actions are rotational, even when the norm is for the action to be in place for two years (for example, legume fallow NUM3). This flexibility is to allow the location of the action to change during the three-year SFI agreement.

To deliver SFI aims you need to think about ‘crop’ management, the same as any other crop on the farm. There is much to be learnt from your neighbours and seed suppliers. Seed companies can advise on the best planting conditions.

Below we capture some of the basics for the suite of SFI arable actions for farmland wildlife. If you want to go a step further you can provide for farmland wildlife throughout the year by delivering nesting and foraging habitats, winter food and additional resources. There are suggested SFI and CS actions that deliver for each of these.

The options:

AHL1 – Pollen and nectar mix


The name of this action says exactly what it is trying to achieve – provide a mix of flowering plants from late spring and during the summer.

The basic requirement is that you must sow a grass-free seed mix containing at least six flower species. No single species must exceed 50% of the mix.

You can choose a seed mix to suit your land. The mix does need to contain two of the following common knapweed, musk mallow, oxeye daisy, wild carrot and yarrow.

Pollen and nectar mixes need to be planted into warm ground i.e. between May and mid-September. Mix longevity can be from two to five years. When the mix has run its course, SFI does allow you to change its location.

Did you know?

If you plant pollen and nectar mix this spring and follow with a winter crop in September it is unlikely to meet the actions’ aims – it’s unlikely to flower this summer.

AHL2 – Arable winter bird food


This is all about providing small seeds for birds during the winter hungry gap.

You are required to plant six different crops, with large, seeded crops excluded such as maize and giant sorghum. The mix can be chosen to suit your land. The mixes can be annual or last two years.

The Countryside Stewardship equivalent option suggests planting between mid-February and mid-June to get good results.

Did you know?

Planting a winter bird food mix after harvest will not deliver small seeds for the winter period.

The plants will not have the opportunity to flower and set seed before winter arrives.

AHL3 – Grassy field corners or blocks


This action provides year-round habitat for a variety of wildlife. You need to create an intact sward throughout the year, without tracks, compacted areas or poaching, so tussocky grass can develop.

The grass areas can be created by sowing or through natural regeneration. These areas will stay in place until the end of the agreement.

This action needs minimum management. After the grass has established you should not be grazing if it undermines achieving the action’s aims.

You can only cut or use herbicides in exceptional circumstances to control injurious weeds or invasive non-natives, nettles and bracken. There’s no fertiliser, lime or manure allowed.

Did you know?

You can establish the grass area in the first 12 months. You must maintain the grass area until the last day of your agreement. Depending on your agreement end date this may impact on the following crop.

If you’ve used the grassy area for turning or as a track then you will not be meeting the aims of the action not to have tracks or compaction.

AHL4 – Grass buffer strips on arable land


As well as delivering for wildlife year-round this action protects features (e.g. hedges) prevents surface water run-off and can help IPM delivery. You need to create an intact grass sward without tracks, compaction or poaching.

The buffer strip needs to be next to a feature such as a hedge, watercourse or ditch. You must cut the strip next to the crop during late summer to provide a range of habitat types and not disturb breeding birds or damage nests.

The management requirements prevent the use of fertilisers or manures. Herbicides can only be used for spot treatment of injurious non-natives, nettles and bracken.

Did you know?

The width of the buffer can fluctuate over its length, but it must not drop below the minimum of 4m at any point. It can be over 12m wide, but you’ll only get paid for the 12m width.

Option capping

Please be aware that Defra has put an area limit on a number of SFI options. These include the options set out in this article, AHL1, AHL2, AHL3, along with taking improved grassland field corners or blocks out of management (IGL1), winter bird food on improved grassland (IGL2) and flower-rich grass margins, blocks, or in-field strips (IPM2).

The RPA will not accept applications where the amount of land in total that is entered into any combination of those six actions is above 25% of a farm’s total land.

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