I am not talking about a new haircut, but rather the hay and silage harvest which has been taking place up and down the Hebrides since May. Farmers spend most of their summer fretting about when their silage or hay crop needs to be cut and Conservation Advisors often spend most of their summers advocating a certain cutting method within a certain period of time, hoping that the farmers timings may coincide.
In most places across the UK the cattle farming system is set up for early cut silage. Stock are reared and fattened on the low ground in summers and wintered in sheds. This creates a need for protein rich forage and the most economical way of producing this is with one or two grass species, large fields, quite a lot of nitrogen and a couple of harvests per year. Unfortunately, this system isn’t particularly attractive to wildlife.
Monocrop silage - high protein levels, fermented and harvest less dependent on weather.
At the other end of the scale there is a system where cattle and sheep have been selected for outdoor living all year, large areas of upland are utilized for grazing and only a minimal amount of winter forage is needed. The grass crop is not heavily fertilized thus retaining many different species and can be cut later due to its structure and density. This system is generally more attractive to wildlife.
A more 'natural' system with diversity of plants within the landscape.
The above paragraphs are a simplification and most likely insulting to most people growing grass. They are two very different end products with differing uses. Weather, soil, exposure, climate, infrastructure, machinery and economic factors will contribute to the reasons behind which crop is grown. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages and ultimately it has to suit the farming system.
A silage pit - less plastic but a lot of infrastructure is needed.
However, can there be compromise? For some species like the corncrake there is little room for compromise when it comes to their ecology. They need undisturbed long vegetation to breed. Corncrakes arrive from Central Africa in April and they find areas of vegetation which is long enough to protect them predators (often nettle and iris patches – known and early & late cover in the corncrake business), they will then start to use hay and silage fields as soon as the vegetation is long enough and a food source is present . The first clutch of eggs is laid at the end of May and a second clutch is laid in July. Corncrakes are a short-lived birds, (2-3 years) and whilst allowing the birds to lay their first clutch without disturbance, this only allows the population to remain stable, a second brood is required in order for the population to grow.
Uncompromising corncrake ecology
A clear case of conflict, but again, can there be compromise? The word ‘biodiversity’ gives us a clue. Perhaps all fields don’t need to be cut at the same time, perhaps some can be left till later in the summer. Creating a diverse landscape will also cater for other species who live alongside the corncrake such as chough and lapwing. Even leaving small areas uncut can make a difference.
Not everything is cut at the same time
So, what if we don’t cut late but we cut ‘corncrake friendly’. Current mowing practices mow the field from the outside in. This is partly to do with fuel & time efficiency but also because large machinery is unable to manoeuvre as easily as the smaller mowers and tractors of 20 years ago. Corncrakes are reluctant to break the cover of grass, mowers working from the outside of a field inwards will trap chicks in the diminishing area of tall grass remaining in the center of the field. Eventually most will be killed by the mower. Each field is a different shape and a practical approach should be taken, mowing as slow as possible and towards and area of refuge can make a difference.
Corncrake Friendly Mowing
So what about this refuge? Creating pockets of long vegetation which is present from April to October is an important element of the habitat needs of this bird (see early & late cover) Females will nest in this cover in April and chicks will find refuge in it in September. Farms have got tidier and patches of nettles are not seen as desirable and often every bit of low ground is utilized for grazing. But what if just a little bit was left to grow wild and unruly, it would not only create good vegetation cover for corncrakes but over time plant and insect diversity would increase in these areas too.
Leaving space for wildlife
Switching to a whole new farming system may be a bit of an ask but not completely outwith the realms of the current reality in farming. To make any money in farming at the moment the savings have to come from the inputs, no one is getting much more from the other end. Efficiency savings are key. Many famers are questioning the suitability of breeds they are farming, hairy beasts are back in vogue. They can live out all year and need little supplementary feeding, therefore reducing the need for inputs. Carbon and cost savings can be made if pastures become permanent, a move to a hay or haylage could then be made.
Hairy but horny....
But lets not chuck the baby out with the bath water. Farmers & crofters know their land, they know their stock and they know what works. For long lasting solutions, a change in management has to suit both parties. But compromises can be made and small changes can make a big difference. If you know of anyone contemplating a change to their farm or croft management to accommodate some of our wilder neighbours, please get in touch. We have a number of Conservation Advisors up and down the UK ready to help!
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