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Boost your biodiversity

SCOTLAND'S VOLUNTARY Initiative on responsible pesticide use has produced a 'straightforward environmental action list' to help arable farmers meet their biodiversity targets.

A UK version, which is relevant to both England and Scotland, will shortly be published in the UK Pesticide Guide, but the VI Scotland cross-industry steering group has adapted that advice with the specific needs of our own arable sector in mind.

Simply put, there are now eight environmental land management actions that Scottish arable farmers should consider adopting as their contribution to the progress of the VI in 2013.

"Choosing the right measures, putting them in the right place, and managing them in the right way will make all the difference to your farm environment," said the Scottish group. "The general principles given here should be considered in conjunction with local priorities for soil and water protection and wildlife conservation. This approach complements best practice in soil, crop, fertiliser and pesticide management.

"An improved farm environment can be achieved by maintaining, buffering and creating high quality habitats. The actual area required on your farm will vary and depend on farm size, topography, non-cropped areas already present, the condition of soils and watercourses.

It is important to have a balance of environmental measures that contribute to each of the relevant points below to achieve improved environmental benefits," stressed the group.

# Look after established wildlife habitats –

Start by assessing what you already have on the farm! Maintaining, or where necessary, restoring any existing wildlife habitats, such as woodland, ponds, flower-rich grassland or field margins, is critical to the survival of much of the wildlife on the farm, and may count towards some of the following measures without the need to create new habitats. Unproductive land can be used to create new habitats to complement what you already have.

# Maximise the environmental value of field boundaries –

Hedgerow management and ditch management on a two to three year rotation boosts flowers, fruit and refuges for wildlife. This is most suited to hedges dominated by hawthorn and blackthorn, and ditches where rotational management will not compromise the drainage function. Establish new hedgerow trees to maintain or restore former numbers within the landscape.

# Create a network of grass margins –

The highest priority is to buffer watercourses, ideally with a minimum of 5m buffer strips. Grass margins can also be used to boost beneficial insects and small mammals, and buffer hedges, ponds and other environmental features. Beetle banks can be used to reduce soil erosion and run-off on slopes greater than 1:20 and boost beneficial insects in fields greater than 20 ha.

# Establish flower rich habitats –

Flower-rich margins on at least 1% of arable land will help support beneficial insects and a wealth of wildlife that feeds on insects. Assess whether this is best done by allowing arable plants in the seed bank to germinate, establishing perennial margins with a native grass and wildflower mix, or using nectar-rich flower mixtures. Improving the linkages between these features on the farm will also help wildlife move across the landscape.

# Provide winter food for birds with weedy over-wintered stubbles or wild bird cover –

Provision of seed for wildlife is best achieved by leaving over-wintered stubbles unsprayed and uncultivated until at least mid-February on at least 5% of arable land, or growing seed-rich crops – left unharvested – as wild bird cover on 2% of arable land.

# Use of spring cropping or in-field measures to help ground-nesting birds –

Spring crops provide better habitat for a range of plants and insects, and birds such as lapwings and skylarks.

# Leave stubbles or consider winter cover crops to protect water –

Leaving over-wintered stubbles unsprayed and uncultivated until at least mid-February to form a green cover will reduce run-off. If practical, you may consider establishing a winter cover crop to capture residual nitrogen on cultivated land which would otherwise be left fallow.

# Establish in-field grass areas to reduce soil erosion and run-off –

Land liable to act as channels for soil erosion or run-off – steep slopes or field corners – should be converted to in-field grass areas.

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