Thursday, 21 October 2021 Jemma Batten, Black Sheep Countryside Management Managing for wildlife on the Salisbury Plain
Jemma Batten gave the talk which had been postponed from September. She explained how she was invited to work as a consultant by the Defence Estates Licensees and Tenants Association (DELTA). These tenant farmers of the MoD-owned Salisbury Plain have set up Plain Conservation https://plainconservation.co.uk/ to work together “to enhance habitats, and protect wildlife, historic and landscape features, water and soils.”
Jemma advises on how to deliver the key conservation objectives from the detailed plans drawn up by all the stakeholders. We saw examples on-screen of all the various mapping layers of Salisbury Plain. Areas are graded from low to high priority for land management reasons or the encouragement of native flora and wildlife. We were fascinated to see that there were also Super Plans which drilled down to field level detail where named plants such as horseshoe vetch and bastard toadflax on chalk downland and pheasant’s eye on arable fields were protected by sensitive management and where the wildflower field margins would stretch to 30 metres in places.
Fertilisers are no longer used and wilding practices of leaving mown areas for seed dropping have helped contribute to the increased appearance of Britain’s rarest butterflies like the marsh fritillary, adonis blue and brown hairstreak and the shrill carder bee, Britain’s rarest bumblebee. Birds such as the bittern, hen harrier and stone curlew are also being seen more widely as the marsh and grasslands improve in quality.
We learnt that staying on top of the fast-growing scrub needs to be actioned every two months, either by tractor or by mob grazing cattle. Grazing areas are marked out by erecting temporary electric fences that need moving every 2-3 days. A time-consuming task, so some farmers set up virtual fences and use radio activated collars on the cattle which bleep when they are within feet of a virtual fence and then administer a mild electric shock if they cross over the “line”. The cows soon learn! Being a military zone, not only are there pockets of dangerous or simply inaccessible places on Salisbury Plain, but farmers also have to respond immediately to commands to move their herds, often with zero notice.
We expressed awe in the face of what is obviously a complicated and heavily monitored way of farming on Salisbury Plain. There is no doubt that these chalk grasslands have benefited from the strict measures put in place over the last 20 years to bring a healthier bio-diversity to an area that, though never having had artificial fertilisers or pesticides, has in the past been neglected.
The passion for conservation runs deep with these farmers, so take a look at their DELTA website to learn more about their work https://plainconservation.co.uk/
Thursday, 16 September 2021 Peter Shallcross, TNHS Chairman Elm trees: past, present and future
This was the first of our 2021/22 series but sadly, we had to postpone the talk by Simon Smart of Black Sheep Countryside Management a consulting business for farmers across the downland landscape. Instead, our Chairman Peter Shallcross gave a talk about the work being done to restore disease-free elm trees to our countryside.
Most of you will know about the broad context of the topic: the decline of elm trees across the UK, ravaged by Dutch elm disease that has devastated huge areas of the countryside. If you’re unaware, or want to see an example of the disease progressing through a relatively young specimen, now is an ideal time. Dick Budden says that if you drive past his house (Chicksgrove Close, on the right hand side as you head out of Tisbury) you will see the elm in question growing out of the hedgerow just East of the entrance, with the leaves closest to the road prematurely withered while the rest of the tree still looks healthy – not merely an early sign of autumn’s approach. The tree may last another 12months or so, it seems, before it is completely dead and inevitably needs to be felled.
Peter described the origins and progress of the disease and its implications for wildlife. He talked about the initiative he's involved in to support the national programme for recovery and the re-population of our area that he is actively engaged in.
Thursday, 6 May 2021 Andrew Graham, TNHS Committee: Anyone can be a wildlife recorder
Andrew took over the late David Rear's responsibility for monitoring butterflies in the Oddford Vale and also monitors elsewhere in Wiltshire, he's been doing weekly counts of birds in his garden for several years and last summer extended this to using a trap provided by Butterfly Conservation to monitor moths in his garden as well - hence the stunning photographs posted on this website.
We are hoping to recruit volunteers to help us monitor the population of swifts in Tisbury, after the new nest boxes are installed in April. We already know of a number of nest sites that have been used until last year and it is vital that we check whether they are again this year.
For more about wildlife recording, go to that page.
Thursday, 15 April 2021 Tom Morath, Hawk Conservancy Trust
The work of the Hawk Conservancy Trust and the National Bird of Prey Hospital - an introduction for our Field Trip there on 13 June which is now sold out.
Thursday, 19 March 2021 PCSO Neil Tunbull & PC Richard Salter, Wiltshire Police Rural, wildlife and heritage crime
Tisbury's local PCSO Neil Turnbull, who is based at the Nadder Centre, and his colleague PC Richard Salter described how the Police are working against wildlife crime as part of a national policy that includes all kinds of rural and heritage crime.
The slides used for the presentation, including links to videos on Stopping badger crime, rural Theft and Hare coursing are here.
Wildlife crime includes badger, bat and raptor persecution, deer, fish and freshwater mussel poaching and hare coursing.
The statistics are of course pretty alarming in terms of the cost to businesses and homeowners in rural areas, and one of the problems is that it's under-reported. However, there is a nationwide policy agreed by the National Police Chiefs Council which is addressing the problem head on.
For example, Richard described the current Operation Artemis focusing on the A303 in the Hindon area. The A303 is popular as an access and potentially quick getaway route with criminals who come from all parts of the country. Because of this, the Police flood a one particular area with vehicles and officers and if they spot a car that fits a certain profile - eg a remote registration address or no insurance - they can take appropriate action to prevent the coursing or other crime. As well as the local Police, they can also call on the MOD Police for assistance, who have the same powers of arrest etc.
And we can help with reporting: I was once walking near Fovant, and saw a number of cars entering a field with dogs running about. I suspected it might be hare coursing but didn't know what to do. Now I do: I should have rung 999, which you do to report a suspected crime actually taking place.
Richard told the tale of a farmer in the Wylye Valley who had spotted hare coursing and did just that. A helicopter was called in that followed the cars up onto Salisbury Plain. There, the drivers swopped vehicles and set off down the A36 - into the arms of Salisbury Police who had been mobilised to catch them.
They also explained how on mainland Europe rivers and their stock are not generally in private ownership, so anyone can fish. Here, I guess most people know this isn't the case, and there are often signs saying such and such a location is only for members of a fly fishing club. The Police are working with the Angling Trust and Water Bailiffs to counter this.
Stone curlew with its chick. Photo: RSPB Ian Grier
Thursday, 18 February 2021 Nick Tomalin, RSPB Wessex Farmland Project Manager Stone Curlew Conservation
The stone curlew is a great conservation success and the species has been brought back from the brink. If you missed the talk or if you'd like to listen again, you can do so here but otherwise here is a brief summary.
If there's an endangered bird, be it cirl bunting, osprey, sea eagle or stone curlew, Nick Tomalin is most likely to be leading the team working to help populations recover. The Wessex Stone Curlew project has been running since 1985 and has seen the population increase from just 30 pairs to over 100 – one-third of the whole UK population of around 350 breeding pairs – and has the support of around 300 farmers.
Back in 1768, Gilbert White of Natural History of Selborne fame wrote that they weren't rare and probably 1-2,000 pairs were nesting on the well-drained chalk-land in the Purbecks and Wiltshire Downs, Chilterns and East Anglia. They migrate here from North Africa and Southern Europe, usually arriving in March and breeding in April. From laying to fledging takes 10 weeks, so there can be a second brood in August or even sometimes as late as October.
Stone curlew foraging. Photo: RSPB Ian Grier
All depends on habitat availability and the climate. Stone curlew eat surface invertebrates – their beaks can't dig into the ground, so if it's frozen they will starve. And changing wildlife populations such as fewer rabbits have reduced their preferred nesting ground in short grassland so they now pretty well depend on 'sacrifical' plots of around 2 hectares set aside in otherwise arable fields with grass 'buffer strips' needed for foraging not too far away. Farmers are compensated for the loss of income – from what unfortunately for them are often the most productive areas of the field!
There are of course many threats to ground-nesting birds. The team work with farmers not just to provide the nesting plots, but also to identify nests away from these, which are then marked so that tractors etc can avoid them. The stone curlew make it quite difficult to do this because when threatened they will creep away from the nest and the chicks will 'freeze', making it very difficult to see where the nest is as they are so extremely well camouflaged.
Because of changes in farming practice and wildlife populations, the Stone Curlew population in the UK is no longer self-sustaining and depends on projects such as the RSPB's and, of course, support from volunteers. Keep your eyes peeled especially in the early morning and at dusk when they're most active, if you're walking on the downs past arable fields and of course especially if you can spot a 'sacrificial' plot.
Thursday, 28 January 2021 Neil Harley: Organic farming in Tisbury
After four years the flowers exploded - how cattle should be grazing
The key concept that I took away from Neil's talk was that he has moved beyond 'sustainability' to 'regeneration'. We tended to look at the land and think that was how it always was and sustainability would keep it that way, but that's not enough.
This 'regenerative' approach was inspired by The Serengeti Rules, the book by Sean B Carrol subsequently made into a film, that explored the discovery that environmentalists today may be able to “upgrade” damaged ecosystems by understanding the rules that govern them. Nature was already doing everything that we needed and for a while we thought we knew better, but now it's becoming evident that's not the case.
And regenerative agriculture isn't just an attractive alternative to present methods. If we're to reduce or do without the chemicals which have been so damaging, we have to find substitutes and this may provide them.
After a wet potato harvest - using metal to cultivate soil is damaging
The basic principle is that using metal to cultivate the soil is damaging (we already know of 'no dig' for our gardens and allotments).
One alternative is 'Mob grazing' cattle on a small area at a time, with roughly a third of the pasture eaten and the same proportions trampled and left untouched. Neil pointed out that cattle have 'a mower at the front and a muck spreader at the back,' which puts intense pressure on the pasture for a short time but it then dies back and returns carbon to the soil, significantly reducing greenhouse gases from agriculture. The lush green pasture we're used to seeing becomes instead a flower-rich meadow, with butterflies everywhere in summer and noisy with the buzzing of bees.
This is known as permaculture, an approach to land management that adopts arrangements observed in flourishing natural ecosystems. The pasture is sown to provide more diversity – the first herbal ley includes chicory with roots that penetrate 8-10 feet down and so help restructure the soil and improve drainage, so is particularly useful for marginal, poorly-draining land. As many as 12-14 different grasses are included, along with clover, sainfoin, horse-shoe vetch and other herbs. Click on the photos to enlarge and see the captions.
It is in contrast to monoculture farming, which we've been used to until recently, growing only one type of crop at a time on a specific field.
Improved drainage means shorter time in the shed - these cattle are grazing on 15 December
The other advantage of mob grazing is that better drainage means that cattle can often be out all year round instead of having to be brought in and fed on corn produced with a high level of carbon input. They are also much healthier so need fewer antibiotics, worming only for lungworm (and there are even alternatives for that) because the pasture includes the natural wormer plantain, and sainfoin which is an effective anti-asthmatic. Although the pasture is slightly less productive, because no artificial fertiliser or medications are needed costs are reduced so on balance it is financially beneficial. And that mass of insects we used to see on cow pats but which disappeared with increasing use particularly of wormers, will now be back – and re-joining the food chain!
Under the old system, calves would have been brought into the sheds at 7-10 months and fed artificially, becoming prone to disease so requiring antibiotics and vaccinations (although some are still legally required). And what is the logic of growing wheat using fertilisers and other chemicals to feed cattle shut up in sheds, when all they actually need is good quality pasture out of doors?
Outdoor cattle are happy cattle - Neil's are Aberdeen Angus
The herds build up naturally - calves stay with their mothers until they are weaned a couple of months before the next birth, and females stay in the herd which now includes probably around five generations including aunts and uncles. After their second winter the steers will come to Tisbury for 'finishing' before slaughter. Some of the meat is sold through the website pastureforlife.org and it is also available at a London butcher. It obtains a premium price because this almost 'wild' beef is produced organically on a single farm (ie 'home bred') and is nearly as rich in eg Omega 3 as fish. This regenerative approach can probably be used not just for beef cattle so some farmers are trying it out for dairy as well, milking just once a day and often selling through farm vending machines. It may also work for poultry and is becoming quite widespread in the US, as it makes good economical use of the land. One of the leaders there is Joel Salatin (polyfacefarms.com). (We have previously been referred to the films Kiss the ground and Living Soil, similarly encouraging as to what can be and is being done 'across the Pond'.)
Finally, asked how the new Environmental Land Management System (ELMS) of financial support for agriculture would work, Neil confirmed that regenerative farming complied with its requirements but it would just take time to build up.
The end result (for the moment) - how a meadow should be.