Back in March, you may have seen mention of the RSPB purchasing land to expand Blacktoft Sands reserve. We look forward to visitors being able to see this area in time, but we need to do some work before it’s possible to do that safely and without disturbing wildlife. However, we’d like to tell you a bit more about it and have asked the previous owners, Andrew and Jiggy, to write a guest blog.

Island Farm is not huge – about 100 acres – but it already supports lots of wildlife and we hope that, under RSPB’s care, it will become even better. It lies alongside the River Trent, bordering the existing Blacktoft Sands reserve at its south-eastern limit, and across the river from Alkborough Flats. Until the 1820s, the Trent was much wider here; where our house now stands was a small island separated from the ‘mainland’ by a broad tidal channel – thus the farm’s name. The land was claimed for agriculture, and gradually the river was embanked into its current channel.

Rough location of Island farm with Alkborough flats opposite - Blacktoft is to the right of this picture

 

Blacktoft is to the right of the picture and this shows how Island farm adds to the land in Conservation in this area

When we arrived here, all the land except the river bank was in arable use, with crops right up to the ditch edges and the ditches themselves steep-banked and dry for most of the year. There were a few scattered trees, some of them with scorch marks from the days of stubble-burning. But it clearly had potential: it was low-lying and adjoined the uppermost parts of the Humber estuary, which we knew was outstandingly important for birds. And the arable land itself wasn’t without interest, holding reasonable numbers of Skylarks and Yellow wagtails for example.

Work to put in the fences in 2002 to allow grazing to take place on the farm.

 

And how the farm looks this year! A bit of video from October with the livestock in the fore and then thousands of golden plover and lapwing roosting on some of the arable

Our intention was always to continue farming the land, but to do that in a way that encouraged more wildlife. We knew that key factors in achieving that were to get water levels higher and to make the area more varied in terms of cropping, land use and habitats. We were helped in making those changes by financial support from successive agri-environment schemes, which – even if the paperwork was maddening – let us move forward quicker and more boldly than we would have done on our own.

 Here are some of the things we did:

 Changing arable land to pasture: about one third of the farm is now grassland, grazed by cattle in summer (and sometimes with sheep in autumn). The pastures were seeded with mixed grass species, excluding the aggressive rye-grass, and as time has passed, other species have moved in. There is now a lot of clover, which the cattle and bees love, and plenty of thistles, which we are not so keen on, though the Goldfinches and many insects feed on them, of course. We have even had orchids appearing (there have always been a few on the nearby river bank), with well over 100 Bee orchids in some years.

Cattle grazing to create a mixed sward, short in some areas for wintering waders and wildfowl but with tussock in others for nesting skylark and meadow pipits

 Raising water levels: several earth dams, with simple pipe sluices, were built to hold water back in the ditches. At the same time, we widened some ditches, pulling the banks back to make shallower slopes and thus wider zones at the water’s edge. A few shallow scrapes were made in the pastures, designed to hold water for longer than would happen on the level fields. We don’t have enough water here to keep ditches full throughout the year, but at least they are now wet most of the time and, importantly, well into the spring. When it’s wet enough, we can raise levels to allow water to spill out over the fields, creating ideal feeding conditions for waterfowl.

A nice splash of water last year on the wet grassland

And on the stubble fields - showing the potential for raising water levels across the farm into the future

 Creating new bird-rich habitats: a substantial part of the farm is still arable, but about 10% of the farm is now not cropped annually. Areas are left fallow over the summer, or sown with cereals that are not harvested but left for the birds. An acre of wild bird seed mix is grown each year, and most of the arable fields have wide grass margins. Two of the wider grass margins have been enriched with pollen and nectar-rich flowers, and are loud with bees and other insects in summer. More permanent is the reedbed, which we created by lowering the ground level in the lowest part of the farm and planting reeds: that three acre patch is now full of Reed buntings, Reed warblers and other such species, and is visited occasionally by the Blacktoft Sands Bitterns, looking for food. We also planted some small areas of scrubby woodland and hedges, making sure they were well away from areas favoured by, for example, nesting Lapwings and Skylarks, which prefer to be well away from habitats that might hold predators.

4m and 6m Grass margins provide vital refugia for insects and birds

Lapwing plot with anti-predator fence this year, if you look closely at the picture you can see 2 brood of lapwing with one fairly well grown youngster

Floristic margins add much needed nectar into the landscape and are always full of bees and butterflies 

Small area of woodland known as Quick Wood at one end of the farm alongside spring Barley

Managed reedbed - cut and then starting to be reflooded, reed warblers, reed buntings and even water rails breed here while lapwing chicks feed in the wet cur areas

 All this work has paid off. In the first three years that we were here, our breeding bird census found an average of 85 territories. After 15 years, it had reached 160 territories – and it is still rising. Notable successes have been Skylarks and Reed warblers (which have more than doubled in numbers) and Tree sparrows (none here when we arrived; now more than 25 pairs). Similarly, in winter, the farm is used by feeding flocks of waterfowl: the pastures are especially popular with Lapwings, Golden plovers and Curlews. Last winter, we counted 390 Curlew on the land. The seed crops attract large flocks of finches and buntings – up to 500 Linnets and 350 Reed buntings, for example. More than 160 bird species have now been recorded on the 100 acres of the farm (never mind the others using the Trent).

Curlew on the river bank - regionally important numbers now feed on the farm

Skylark - numbers have rocketed 

 

This October across the recently mown lapwing plot there were 51 ruff mixed in with the plovers - nationally significant numbers!

And it’s not all birds. One of the features that caught our eye when we first came to Island Farm was the group of mature native Black poplars: magnificent, gnarled trees. One was toppled by a gale (now replaced by suckers encouraged to grow into trees), and on the fallen trunk now grows a rare fungus Silky Rosegill. The riverbank grassland is quite rich botanically, especially on the steeper slopes, with masses of Cowslips. Our work in widening ditches and making them wetter has paid off by encouraging a range of aquatic plants: nothing rare, but including Floating pondweed, Water-crowfoot and so on. Water voles have been found occasionally and we hope with more work they will become permanent residents.

Black poplars in the snow - A rare tree indeed

Silky Rosegill - an uncommon fungi

 Grass snake, seemingly becoming more abundant in recent years

Nothing is perfect, of course. We managed to create suitable conditions for nesting Lapwings and Redshank in the early years, but wider pressures on them have meant the loss of Redshank and fewer Lapwing. We also lost our Grey Partridges, though it’s been a joy to find that a pair has re-appeared and raised no fewer than 14 young this year. We hoped to attract Corn buntings on to the farm from neighbouring land, where they bred – but it hasn’t happened, and numbers locally are now declining. It’s possible to do a lot on a small patch – but you can’t single-handedly reverse declines that have been happening for decades at a national and even wider scale.

 

But we knew we had achieved quite a lot and that every little helps. Several years ago, we started to talk to Pete Short at the reserve about how we might safeguard the improvements we had made to Island Farm’s wildlife in the long term; we didn’t want them to be lost if the land went back to conventional farming. And – to cut a long story short – he and many others in RSPB have worked wonders. Starting in 2018, the Banister Charitable Trust funded the purchase of the northern half of the farm and then, in March this year, a Biffa Award made it possible for RSPB to acquire the southern half as well. We and the RSPB are enormously grateful to those bodies for making the expansion of Blacktoft Sands possible.

 Island Farm forms a complementary set of habitats to the tidally flooded grassland, reedbeds and lagoons of Blacktoft Sands, which all lies outside the tidal flood bank. That is partly what attracted RSPB, who know that the terrestrial habitats are important in their own right – but crucially also provide feeding and roosting areas for many of the birds we think of as belonging to the estuary.

Joining the Humber back to its hinterland behind the sea walls is so important to try and give back what the Humber has lost through the Centuries of drainage and intensification of land use 

 

The RSPB plan to keep the mix of pasture and arable land, with patches of other habitats such as the reedbed. But they hope also to increase the areas which can be seasonally flooded, with a patchwork of shallow pools set among grassland. The project is a big one which will require planning permission. That will take time, but there’s no point in hurrying just for the sake of it; it’s sensible to plan carefully to make sure everything is done efficiently and effectively.

(Just to add from the Blacktoft Team in regards what Andrew has said above -  Below is one of our initial thoughts on habitat creation for the site but this is starting to evolve and change as we monitor the birds, wildlife and land use and start to see how some of this design can be delivered alongside a mixed farm. Its an exciting time for us all as we see the potential of what can be delivered on this small bit of land)

  

RSPB will also need to plan facilities for visitors with care. Most importantly, it is a relatively small area and very open. At present, it’s difficult to get into positions where birds can be viewed without disturbing them. The direct access route, over private land, is not brilliant (as we know from repair bills for car and bikes), there are no public rights of way and it’s a long walk from the main reserve car park. But those are problems that can be overcome, and we are sure that RSPB will come up with solutions before long.

 The recovery of nature from the huge declines it has suffered cannot be achieved by nature reserves alone. Encouraging other farms to make some of the changes we have made, while still running a productive operation, is something that we hope we have achieved in a small way. The RSPB with its far wider reach will, we are sure, be doing more of this, by inviting farmers and land managers to see what they are doing, and for Island Farm to be a showcase for nature-friendly farming.

 

We are still living here, on a small plot we have retained with the house – now an island within Island Farm! We look forward to seeing the work carried out, the next stage of the transformation of the farm from very ordinary farmland to an area rich in birds and wildlife of all sorts.

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