Guest blog by Gethin Davies (RSPB Senior agricultural adviser)

A group of Welsh dairy farmers have recently started a project working with conservation organisations to find out how they can do more for wildlife on their farms.

The Calon wen organic dairy farmers cooperative have developed the ‘Pasture for Pollinators’ project with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the RSPB to identify practical ways to help bees and other pollinators on their farms. The three-year project is being supported by the European Innovation Partnership, a programme which puts farmers at the centre of research and development, and managed by Menter a Busnes under the Rural Development Plan for Wales.

Pollination is one of the most critical services that nature provides, underpinning food production and biodiversity. Around a third of the global food crop and three-quarters of British wild plants are dependent on pollination. Much less attention has been given to how grass-based livestock farming, such as dairying, can benefit pollinator populations compared to horticultural and arable systems. It is hoped that the outputs of this project will be of interest to many farmers.

Image: Sinead Lynch, Bumblebee Conservation Trust

The project is aiming to show that some simple changes to grassland management can go hand in hand with boosting pollen and nectar resources for bumblebees and other pollinators. The main options being looked at include: 

  • Using specialised grass ley seed mixtures, formulated by Cotswold seeds. These will include species known to benefit pollinators, such as bird’s-foot trefoil, alongside standard legume species
  • Leaving uncut field margins when harvesting silage
  • Deferring grazing of flower-rich/semi improved pastures until flowering is over

With farmers at the heart of developing the solutions, it’s hoped there is a greater prospect of developing solutions that go on to be widely taken up for the long-term. 

Image: Cotswold Seeds

The farmers in the Calon wen partnership are all organic with legumes such as red and white clover at the centre of their business. This offers a great foundation for benefiting nature, but the farmers know that to go the extra mile for wildlife, they need to ensure they provide the whole lifecycle needs of bees and pollinators. In doing this they will also benefit wildlife further along the food chain such as farmland birds. Making the most of non-farmed areas such field boundaries is important, but it's critical to also find ways for the farmed area to contribute solutions. This will add to previous research that has shown the benefits that wholecrop cereals and leniently grazed fields can have for wildlife, helping dairy farmers provide the key elements wildlife need to thrive on farmland.

The dairy industry sometimes receives criticism for its negative environmental impacts. It’s an industry often under intense commercial pressure to make their farming as productive and efficient as possible. But like all sectors, there is great variability in the systems being employed by farmers on the ground. Calon wen are playing a leading role in developing solutions to environmental issues, and through their branded dairy products offer people the opportunity to buy into a progressive vision for UK dairying.

Image: Calon wen

We’ll keep you posted on further developments from the project in future blogs.