For Andy Roberts, the sound of skylarks singing is a sure sign that spring is on its way. A farmer fresh back onto the land, he outlines his thoughts on timeliness to provide barley, potatoes and birds.
When my brother and I plan to sow spring barley and plant potatoes, we have learnt over the years that it is foolish to be tied too closely to a specific calendar date.
Weather and soil conditions must be right to ensure our crops get off to the best possible start. Working in the countryside, you soon realise that nature operates in a similar way and provides plenty of indicators from which we can take our cue without jumping ahead.
Singing skylarks are one of the first signs of spring but are often heard early in the new year when there is still plenty of winter to come.
They are however a signal to begin preparing land for sowing. Seed-rich winter stubbles have provided food for several species from grey partridge to linnets, but agronomically this ‘green bridge’ of vegetation also allows pests and diseases to survive over winter, leading potentially to a greater use of pesticides in the following season. As part of an approach known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), it is important to destroy this ‘green bridge’ before establishing the next crop. This can be done by ploughing, but a judicious application of glyphosate does the job without burying the skylarks’ food source and disrupting valuable soil biology and structure.
I look forward to the tumbling display flights and ‘peewit’ calls of our returning lapwings, but despite our best efforts to provide fallow plots for them to nest in, they insist on using cropped fields. It’s a race against time to finish the tractor fieldwork before the birds start laying. The arrival of more summer migrants – wheatears and yellow wagtails – signifies spring’s progression, but one particular summer visitor spells trouble if the barley seed isn’t yet in the ground.
Crops sown after the cuckoo’s call, referred to as ‘cuckoo barley’, are at risk of yielding less at harvest time.
With farming and nature being so intertwined, conflict inevitably occurs at busy times. This can be mitigated to an extent by imposing regulations. The ban on cutting hedges to protect hedgerow nesting species originally between March 1st and July 31st, has now been extended to the 31st August to enable late broods of yellowhammer and linnet to fledge.
This clashes with the busy autumnal post-harvest season leaving little time to trim hedges before establishment of the next crop or risk compaction of soils during a wet autumn (a derogation can be sought for hedgecutting in August if planting oil seed rape or temporary grass). Farms with plenty of hedges to maintain for differing outcomes, some of which are required to be kept ‘tight’ to benefit songbirds, are the ones most affected by the narrowing of this management window.
The irony is that there are no rules to protect ground-nesting birds.
Irrespective of the farming system (zero-till, min-till, organic etc), any cultivation – from direct drilling to mechanical weeding – all pose a threat to species such as skylark, lapwing and yellow wagtail nesting in arable fields. Over years of eagle-eyed practice with my father, we do what we can to avoid the nests.
There are no restrictions, rightly, on these essential farming operations – but logic flies out the window when hedge cutting is arguably also an essential land management practice. I do my best to work around nature but wildlife must adapt to farming activity as well. Imagine if all farming operations on the field were banned until after the breeding season was over – I suspect we would end up with a monoculture of ‘cuckoo barley’.
Andy Roberts is an arable and beef farmer who tweets @handles4forks