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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, Jan 28 2017 10:50PM

This week it was revealed that scientists have teamed up with supermarket bosses to ‘encourage’ us all to replace red meat with more vegetables and fruit. That’s right, supermarkets have only taken about 70 years to start caring about our health and that of our environment - but do they really?


Now, some farmers rely entirely on supermarkets to sell their produce for them and they have to be rather careful about what they say for fear of losing their contracts. Here at Rosewood our only contract is with you, the consumer, so we don’t need to skirt around the issues. The only thing we have to fear is a court case but to be honest, the publicity of the supermarkets stamping on a small ethical producer would be a gift!


Firstly, let’s look at some stats. By 1961 there were already 572 supermarkets established in the UK, and they continued to grow, with the biggest four, Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons & ASDA accounting for 76.4% of the UK grocery market by 2011. At the same time the amount consumers spend on food has declined from just under £1 in every 3 in 1961 [pdf] to just over £1 in every 10 by 2011 [pdf].


It’s not only the way we buy food and how much we pay for it that has changed; over the same 50 year timespan what we eat has also been transformed. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) keeps track of global food consumption levels and the figures make for some interesting reading.


Changing patterns of UK food consumption over half a century
Changing patterns of UK food consumption over half a century

As we can see, fruit & veg has seen huge increases in consumption of 52%, almost five times that of meat. And they want us to eat even more despite the UK already importing some 65% of our fruit & veg. There is nothing in the announcement about stocking more British or sustainably grown food so we can only assume that the plan is to ship in even more produce from water-stressed regions of the world, despite the obvious issues.



Meanwhile, levels of red meat consumption, most commonly blamed for both declines in health and climate change, have in fact already dropped by 1657 tonnes or 25% of daily consumption. Bearing in mind that over the same period the UK population has risen by almost 20%, individually we are eating 37% less beef & lamb. Hardly a compelling argument for skyrocketing demand.



Here in the Lower Derwent Valley, we are experiencing the direct consequences of this shift in food patterns. The floodplain meadows have been annually grazed the same way for at least 1,000 years but this traditional practise is coming to an end quicker than you might think as people move away from eating grazed meat. In line with the common trend of falling cattle numbers, our area has seen its own decline, leaving us as the last cattle farmers left standing on the floodplains.

UK cattle numbers continue to decline significantly from the mid-1970's
UK cattle numbers continue to decline significantly from the mid-1970's

Reproduced from; Agriculture; historical statistics [pdf]


It’s not just the decline in red meat consumption driving the change of land use, we have also severed our links with animals as workmates - once upon a time we relied upon animals, cattle and horses, to provide the power to grow all our food and they required large areas of pasture in order to harvest the sun's energy and turn it into work. Since the 1930’s, when fossil fuels started to replace draught animals in earnest, the UK has lost more than 97% of these grasslands to either intensification, drainage and/or the plough.


Some of the measly 3% which remains does have significant protected status but the one thing that legislation can’t protect against is now their biggest threat - neglect.

Whimbrel; rare wading birds depend upon cattle grazing for habitat and food
Whimbrel; rare wading birds depend upon cattle grazing for habitat and food

Farmland birds and small mammals thrived in the patchwork we used to have of short grasslands, wet woodlands, marshes and waterways and so too did migratory winter visitors which rely on cattle grazing these pastures for food and habitat. Grasslands provide resilient crops that can withstand and protect the soil from being washed away in the seasonal floods. The one thing that underpins this diversity of life is the annual removal of the grass crop by mowing and/or grazing, without that the fragile ecosystem becomes much more homogenous, with the more delicate plant species, and the animals that rely upon them for food, outcompeted by coarser, rank vegetation.


Coarse vegetation, lacking in diversity, takes over if left ungrazed
Coarse vegetation, lacking in diversity, takes over if left ungrazed

It’s not that environmentalists and farmers don’t recognise the need for grazing animals to maintain biodiversity, but it’s just that they can no longer [financially] afford to do it because demand has dropped and what demand there is does not want a beef supply that ebbs and flows with the seasons.


We can see this if we revisit our consumption graph - although it shows an almost 40% reduction in red meat consumption, the figures DO show that individual total meat consumption has risen by 11%, largely driven by the almost 5-fold increase in poultry (not red meat) alongside a 6% increase in pork. The scientists & supermarkets didn’t mention that, perhaps because it runs counter to their conclusions or maybe it was because the supermarkets are responsible for the massive increase in chicken consumption in the first place.


Chicken is a wonderful meat for supermarkets. They have grown their market entirely on the back of convenience, and what that means in practise is predictability - you want to walk into a supermarket and know that your 300g packet of chicken breast will be there every week, year round. Throw a load of cheap fossil fuels at chickens and you get quick, predictable results. Because mother chickens don’t need to rear their own young like mammals, we can ramp up egg production, bang those eggs in a machine, move the hatchlings into a climate controlled shed and have them oven ready in just 40 days, when you just scoop them up off the barn floor and pack them in to crates on a lorry.


Imagine trying to sell a supermarket a bunch of wether lambs which had to live out on a mountain for a couple of years before being ready, each reared by mothers of differing abilities and shaped by good or bad weather - lol!


Veg is even easier to manipulate. There are no pesky welfare concerns to bother yourself with and soil erosion is an unedifying thing for consumers to learn and protest about compared to animal cruelty. The production of them rides on the coat tails of the idea that vegetable growing is a wholesome activity and not actually completely reliant on fossil fuels to provide its machinery and chemicals, especially moreso as they involvement of animals in their production recedes. Entire trailerloads that don’t meet the spec can be rejected without a second thought.


It’s great that consumers are now concerned enough about preserving our environment to let it influence their buying habits - this is proven by the fact that supermarkets are using this as the excuse to try making us more reliant on crops. It’s great that consumers want to support small farmers, evidenced by the popularity of supermarkets faking this on their labelling. What is crushingly disappointing for us is that the message designed to encourage us to eat a more sustainable diet is now having the exact opposite effect.


Gone is our varied mosaic of farmland, gone are the cattle grazing the pastures, chicken is king and vegetables can get away with murder.


The Alternative?


If Sainsburys really does want ideas to encourage us to eat less meat, rather than just maximise it’s own profits, I have a suggestion - they should stop selling it! Before the rise of supermarkets our meat came either directly from farmers and/or butchers, we valued it more and we ate slightly less chicken, pork and seafood and more grazed meats which maintained higher levels of wildlife and more variety in the countryside, simultaneously offsetting the damage caused by crop production. Farmers were able to make a living and our traditional meadows were grazed properly. Today the consumer has been separated from the land where their food has been produced and the people who produce it, and both have suffered as a result. Without supermarkets exerting their desperate need for predictability and uniformity we could make better use of our natural resources again.


So c’mon Sainsburys, go the whole hog, ditch the meat altogether and let consumers, the environment, animals and farmers get a better deal.





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