A Walk on the Wildside

Many of you will be members of, or at least know of, Plantlife. They say “Wild flowers , plants and fungi are the life support for all our wildlife and their colour and character light up our landscapes. But without our help , this priceless natural heritage is in danger of being lost. From the open spaces of our nature reserves to the corridors of government , we work nationally and internationally to raise their profile, celebrate their beauty, and to protect their future.”

Plantlife Walk at Snap Farm
Plantlife Walk at Alderbourne Chase Estate

On a blazing hot Saturday at the end of June, Jan and I had the opportunity to join a Plantlife guided tour of Snap Farm on the Alderbourne Chase Estate just outside Marlborough, Wiltshire. This was not an organic, eco-friendly, small scale farm based on self-sufficiency and with a philanthropist hobby farmer owner. This is a large-scale hard-nosed business operation which makes sure it survives by providing the crops the world market needs, and other high value services to generate the income for the farm.

A green (and pleasant?) land

But when Brian Kingham, the current owner, bought the farm 20 years ago he was genuinely surprised at the reduction of wildlife that he saw and heard since he previously lived in the area and determined to do something about it. Whilst the large agri-fields remain, the field margins aren’t the grass tracks you may be used to seeing elsewhere. Here they are 10 metre wide strips of wildflower sowings which are managed each year to monitor and improve the diversity of plant life.

Across the farm three, two hectare, patches are left bare in the centre of large arable fields to allow safe havens for ground nesting birds and over 60 hectares are left for over-wintering stubble. Along with with enhanced wildflower planting targeted at Tree Sparrows, Corn Buntings and, it has to be said, Partridge for the managed shoots which the farm runs has produced a dramatic increase in the diversity recorded across the farm.

Constructed puddled clay ponds provide little sparkling jewels of habitat every few hundred metres along the managed wildflower strips.

The walk was guided by members of staff from Plantlife as well as from the farm. It was interesting to hear the discussion between some of the guests and farm managers. In many ways it was predictable from the guests – ‘too much oil-seed rape’, ‘too much insecticide’, ‘fields too big’. From the farm managers the responses were thoughtful and considered but very robust, particularly given the likely massive reduction in subsidies post-Brexit. The farm needs to make money and oil-seed rape provides the economic base which allows the farm to succeed – and therefore to develop initiatives to enhance the environment. Brian Kingham is clear that he wants his farm to be a welcome home to wildlife. But he must make his farm pay its way to achieve that.

Away from the discussion there was plenty to look at, and it was particularly interesting to see how many plant species had found their way into to the field margins apart from those already included in the wild-flower mix. A particular treat was a wild bank a few hundred metres long where the wild thyme was a reminder of the joint work between Plantlife and Butterfly Conservation to reintroduce the Large Blue in the neighbouring county.

Musk mallow (Malva moschata)
Wild Thyme (Thymus polytrichus)
If you get a chance, either with Plantlife or some other open day, It’s worth taking a look at how large scale farming can play a part in rewilding even the bits of Britain we want to continue to provide us with cheap food.

Here are just some of the statistics from the farm:

Total farmed area875 hectares
Total entry and higher level Environmental Stewardship delivery 140 hectares
Managed hedgerows25,000 metres
Over winter stubbles60.0 hectares
Low nutrient input grassland22.0 hectares
Wild bird food mix plots20.0 hectares
Nectar mix plots17.6 hectares
Uncultivated areas for ground nesters6.0 hectares
Unharvested fertiliser free headlands6.0 hectares
Arable field corners left for wildlife3.1 hectares
Grass field margins2.5 hectares

And for me – I counted some butterflies : Large White 59; Small White 21; Meadow Brown 38; Speckled Wood 3; Red Admiral 2; Comma 2;
Small Skipper 2; Brimstone 3; Marbled White 31; Small Tortoiseshell 8; Dark Green Fritillary 9.

 

Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia)
Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia)
Hop Trefoil (Trifolium campestre)
Hop Trefoil (Trifolium campestre)
Wild Clary (Salvia verbenaca)
Wild Clary (Salvia verbenaca)

There's some Wild Thyme in there somewhere...
There’s some Wild Thyme in there somewhere…
© Plantlife UK
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