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By Rosewood Farm, Aug 28 2017 03:00PM


The Corncrake (Crex crex) was once a common species in the UK and it’s hard to deny that modern farming methods are responsible for pushing the species to the north western fringes of our islands. They spend only the summer months in Western Europe, breeding here before returning to winter in sub-Saharan Africa. They are one of three globally-threatened species identified by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.


Corncrake (Crex crex); on the verge of extinction by the late 1960's
Corncrake (Crex crex); on the verge of extinction by the late 1960's

A secretive bird, the corncrake is more often heard than it is seen, preferring to creep and hide in long vegetation to avoid danger rather than flying away or crossing open ground. This is particularly the case when nesting or with young chicks that are unable to fly. This characteristic behaviour is the major reason why corncrakes have been so vulnerable to modern farming practises. Traditional hay cutting by scythe would start at one side of the field and continue to the opposite side. This, along with the time taken to mow a meadow, allowed the birds to escape through the uncut crop. Unfortunately the introduction of mechanical mowing, first by horses or oxen, and later the tractor, changed the way meadows were cut with continuous initial mowing around the outside creating open ground and cutting off their escape route.


Further changes included the cutting of meadows creeping forward into June or earlier, particularly as the technology developed to make silage, which requires less continuous dry weather, rather than hay. Although, as their name suggest, corncrakes were once associated with cornfields too, feeding on the seeds & insects in weedy crops, the advent of pesticides completely removed this habitat.


In 1992 a reintroduction programme was started by the RSPB on its reserve in Cambridgeshire. Along with conservation efforts in the Western Isles of Scotland, the numbers rose but their range remains limited. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Ings was the only place in England that managed to hold on to its natural breeding population, despite almost becoming extinct here in the late 1960’s, this has continued to the present day through legal protection of the habitat in the Lower Derwent Valley SPA.


Photo credit: David Hopley
Photo credit: David Hopley

- The photo shows method 1 in the centre with conventional mowing in the two fields to the right of the picture -


Modern day land management presents new threats for the Corncrake which protection alone is unable to address. The loss of cattle farming in Scotland seriously threatens the corncrake recovery and we are now in danger of finally experiencing the same effect here in Yorkshire. Although the birds prefer cover, they favour lighter vegetation that is removed at least annually by either cutting or grazing. Cattle grazing near hay meadows provides areas of longer vegetation for the birds to inhabit between the hay cut and migration. The recent decline of cattle grazing in the valley puts further pressure on the birds.


The good news is that while chick mortality is high, this provides plenty of potential for recovery of numbers by improving survival rates & encouraging fledging of second broods. Our cattle grazing in & surrounding the ings provides some safeguard against habitat loss but as we also manage traditional hay meadows we didn’t want to contribute to their declines. An internet search revealed very little practical advice or experience of ‘corncrake friendly mowing’ (CFM) techniques from anyone who had actually carried it out. All of the available guides contained simplistic diagrams of mowing patterns that didn’t really represent real-world scenarios. It was clear that if farmers like ourselves are to be encouraged to adopt corncrake friendly management then providing practical advice on how to go about it is an absolute necessity, so we decided to document our experiences.


Now, a word of warning to the casual reader who isn’t interested in carrying out CFM themselves- you may want to skip to the end as this is the boring technical bit;


The conventional methods begins by mowing a headland around the perimeter
The conventional methods begins by mowing a headland around the perimeter

We began mowing in mid-july using a four-wheel drive 72hp tractor and offset 1.64m drum mower. The traditional straight lines are easier to set & maintain by using the field edges as a guide when operating machinery. Starting in the middle and working outwards is a tractor driver’s nightmare but this was the first of three techniques we tried in an almost-square field of 12.77 ac (5.17 ha). We marked out a centre point by pacing across the field in a north-south and east-west direction, returning half the way back, then following the opposite trajectory to find where the two points met.




Cutting began by forming a spiral around an initial small square
Cutting began by forming a spiral around an initial small square

Cutting started with three passes on either side of the centre point in straight lines to create a central block of approx 10 m by 10 m. The next pass started on the right and continued around in an anti-clockwise direction and proceeded in a spiral until the edges of the field were reached. On three sides of the field this was reached at the same point, but the remaining side required several more passes. In order to avoid long distances of travel while not mowing, we took the decision to mow in either direction on the corners, returning passes in a clockwise direction requiring driving on the uncut crop. The field margins were cut as a traditional headland in an anticlockwise direction to maintain the uncut margins. The crop was spread after mowing then turned and rowed up conventionally for baling.


Method 1
Method 1

Although cut in a spiral, turning & baling were carried out conventionally
Although cut in a spiral, turning & baling were carried out conventionally

The second method involved a smaller 5.35 ac (2.16 ha) field of almost square shape with some trees and bushes within. Cutting a traditional headland on two opposing sides created an area for turning while the other two margins were kept intact. A mid point was cut between the two headlands forming a central opening followed by passes on either side in each direction. At first this approach involved some tight turns, and ended with some very long turns on the later passes. Although this makes for efficient method for very long, narrow fields, the square shape reduced the turning:mowing ratio to unsustainable levels.


Method 2
Method 2

As per the RSPB guide to CFM a round field containing a central pond or copse is the ideal shape for most efficient mowing but also one of the least likely shapes encountered, so I question its value as an example. Our final field contained a pond close to the margins of the south-eastern corner and was also the most challenging. Beginning by circling the pond in a clockwise direction, followed by subsequent anti-clockwise passes was reminiscent of the first example, however this created a large irregular area on the north & western sides of the field. With a conventional headland created on the western side and the pond margins on which to turn along the eastern side, we proceeded to mow conventionally, subsequently opening up several sections and mowing until a narrow strip was left in each. These were left overnight to give the birds chance to escape to the larger field margins under the cover of darkness.


Method 3
Method 3

This represented the most conventional method and followed a technique suggested by farmers on the Cowal peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Although differing little in terms of time and efficiency compared to conventional mowing, the break in mowing, depending upon the layout of the farm, may not be practical for efficient working. This may be avoided by flushing any birds manually, on foot, before completion of mowing.


Uncut strips were left overnight for corncrakes to disperse before mowing
Uncut strips were left overnight for corncrakes to disperse before mowing

It is commonly accepted that delaying mowing until August negates the need for CFM, giving breeding birds the chance to fledge before mowing commences. However this may not be possible later in the season due to time constraints. Staggering cutting dates also allows for a greater variety of vegetation lengths across breeding habitats, as preferred by post-breeding corncrakes and other ground nesting birds, than clear cutting over a shorter period of time. It is also less desirable for farmers to sit-out periods of favourable haymaking weather whilst awaiting an uncertain August.


Given the small numbers of birds present it is not possible to quantify the effectiveness of either method in terms of chick survival but RSPB figures suggest that survival rates increase from 40 to at least 80% with CFM. However, with knowledge of corncrake behaviour it is reasonable to assume that method 1 gives the greatest opportunity for escape. Whilst this represents a reasonable efficiency compromise, it may be less desirable to tractor drivers having to work in the round. The method is also limited to largely square fields containing few obstacles.


Efficiency of mowing by CFM method
Efficiency of mowing by CFM method

Method 2 is largely only practical for narrow fields, in which case it is likely that efficiency would rise significantly to almost 100% and the method does still provide good opportunity for escape.


In terms of efficiency method 3 seems hard to beat but it does still force corncrakes into an ever-decreasing island of grass and creates open ground, therefore increasing the chances of mortality. Flushing birds on foot before mowing also gives an opportunity to survey numbers for a relatively small decrease in efficiency. In this case 0.5 hours spent flushing would represent 87.5% efficiency.


If the breeding success and spread of corncrakes it is to improve it is important that farmers and land managers are encouraged to consider methods to reduce mortality alongside habitat provision. Any losses in efficiency also represent a financial cost to the farmer which must be taken into consideration otherwise this might lead to further abandonment and loss of favourable corncrake habitat.



If you know of any alternative methods or experience of CFM please share & discuss them using the comments below;


By Rosewood Farm, May 15 2017 10:43PM


The week started on an enormous nature-high for us here at Rosewood. The biggest breakthrough yet in our entire time here; an unexpected vindication that we were correct in our hunch that ditching the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which in theory paid us to do better things for nature, was the right decision.


Elsewhere, things aren’t going so well as two pieces of news show. The first story made The Times when People Need Nature founder Miles King flagged up the destruction of a piece of precious chalk downland grass - the stuff that’s famous for its rare and delicate butterflies and flowers. It was sprayed and reseeded with a far less diverse grass mixture that will feed livestock better, but can’t ever hope to play host to said butterflies.


The news has reached the national press!
The news has reached the national press!

This isn’t unusual of course, as the second story showed - the much less widely reported output from the Organic Research Centre which spoke of the abandonment by farmers of High Nature Value (HNV) grasslands [pdf] over the next five years. I almost spat my tea out when I read that, as I have been witnessing and talking about this exodus for the last five years! We’ve already lost 97% of our unimproved grasslands but it’s just not as newsworthy to neglect them as to spray and grub them up, so few notice the loss.


High Nature Value grasslands are pretty self explanatory, they provide a lot of nature bang for your buck….the trouble is, they don’t provide much buck for your bang! They’ve been around for a few thousand years though, what’s changed? My answer would be that there’s a piece of the puzzle missing - you guys! In the past, these grasslands fed us, they produced our beef, cheese, woollens and mutton, making a good stab at providing a good portion of our diet and clothing. They were important to all of us.



Moving away from these old fashioned products made a lot of money for importers, oil companies and so forth, but the loss of the old grasslands was noticed, you can rest assured. The government and conservation bodies have tried to plug the gap left by consumers by subsidising these grasslands, giving farmers money to keep them going - so long as we stuck to the rules, we could have some money. I think after about 20yrs of that though we’re finally realising it hasn’t worked. We can come up with complex reasoning about it but basically, we’ve run out of money. The taxpayer can’t afford to buy food AND keep throwing money at keeping all these habitats going, not with the NHS buckling under pressure and economies slowing down and so on aswell.


So why not put them back together? Food and conservation? Our grasslands are lost without you!


In 2013, we didn’t renew our Countryside Stewardship Scheme when it ended, and we didn’t replace it with any other subsidy. Our home land at Rosewood is not under any protection and is now not subsidised either, we’re totally reliant on you. Under the scheme, we had to stick to a hard and fast rule of not grazing before a certain date in the year. We had been chafing against this for a few years but still, we were hesitant to graze any earlier even after it ended - we’re supposed to be nature farmers and it felt naughty, even though we know our grazing system is gentle on the land. This year, we finally plucked up the courage and grazed the land concerned unprecedentedly early, and due to the size of our herd, we were able to graze it quickly, 100 Dexter cows getting 20 acres trimmed, fertilised by dung and moistened by pee in a matter of days.


1% of the UK population of Whimbrels on a single field
1% of the UK population of Whimbrels on a single field

And what happened? That nature high I was talking about. The whimbrels came. Whimbrels are a red list species, they’re like a smaller version of the curlew and pass through on their way to Iceland from Africa every year. We know they visit the nature reserve we graze and that they are extremely fussy about where they eat and frankly, it wasn’t even on our radar that they would come to us - we have never even laid eyes on one on the reserve - so we were bowled over to spot 31, a full 1% of the passage population, poking about among the cowpats on our land.


Or should that be your land? Because let’s face it, one day, no matter how rich we might be, our grip on the land will loosen and we’ll be gone forever. The land will remain, and if it keeps its value to the public the incentive will be there for some other human to come along and keep doing what we did, and the whimbrels can keep coming. When a farmer sprays off some HNV grassland, he’s not acting alone.




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