Thursday, 11 June 2015

Conservation habitat needs and deserves the same care as arable crops!

by Dr Francis Buner, Senior Conservation Scientist, GWCT

We are very pleased to report our first brood of Grey partridge this season and cautiously take this as an early good omen for the other 28 pairs that we counted in the spring!

However, in order for the pair to bring their fragile brood through the crucial next few weeks, luck with the weather (see Peter Thompson’s most recent blog) combined with the provision of high quality insect-rich foraging habitat is most crucial.

Habitat mosaic where the first brood of Grey partridges hatched this year.
Insect-rich habitat, which must lie at the heart of any farmland bird conservation project, needs to be sparse enough to allow for easy foraging while still providing enough cover from aerial predators such as Kestrels (we of course encourage these elegant red-listed hunters as much as our gamebirds).

We therefore have gone through a great deal of effort and trouble to get where we need to be at this time of the year. To be honest, not all our habitat intended to provide foraging cover looks as it should do, but we are getting better every year as we learn from our mistakes. In conservation jargon we call this 'adaptive management'.

Location of habitat where first brood hatched from different angle.
At Rotherfield we don’t use conservation headlands as they can create a rat problem and attract extra pigeons if left unharvested (which they should be to provide winter food for farmland birds).

We do of course work hard to control rats all year round, but being located on a mix farm with more than 200 dairy cows, rats are always going to be around unfortunately. We therefore provide our foraging cover in form of uncropped cultivated margins and wild bird seed mixes. The latter also serve as the all essential winter cover.

Key for both types of habitats is that they remain relatively sparse during this time of year to allow the bumble bee-sized chicks easy and dry foraging access. To get things right, a well thought-out management plan needs to be in place.

The preparation of a good seed bed together with the right timing of drilling are key for the successful re-establishment of wild flower mixes, especially where they are grown at the same location over many years.
Ideally each field should have at least one hedge with a wild bird cover strip followed by a cultivated margin alongside one side of the field. As reality is often more complex than that, one should provide suitable nesting, escape and foraging cover within at least 100m to a potential grey partridge nest. So, think where they might nest and put your high quality habitat nearby.

When managing the habitat it is important to do this in a rotation. Never destroy all wild bird mixes in one year but try to re-establish around one third every year instead. At Rotherfield we just re-drilled our wild bird seed mixes last week in early June after some serious preparatory work.

Conservation habitat needs and deserves the same care as arable crops! Fingers crossed we get some more rain (but please not heavy rain!) and no flea beetles to get the habitat growing as it should.

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