OAKLEY FARMS LANDSCAPE AND NATURE ENHANCEMENT PLAN:

Oakley Farms will bring together the key elements of the Environmental, Conservation & Wildlife Enhancement Policy, the Environmental, Conservation & Wildlife Enhancement Plan & the Oakley Farms Conservation Audit, 2021 to bring together a plan which will focus on creating a diverse environment with as many crop species combined with headgerows, wild flower mixes, unmoved field margins & banks & strips to act as corridors for the chosen species to use as access routes.

The ultimate aim is to be able to show a continual renewal or addition to the chose species & to ensure farming practices remain viable but also sympathetic to the needs of flora & fauna on the farm.

To achieve this we will take the following practical steps:

We have set up four wind turbines at Beaupre Manor, & are now establishing wildflower mixes around this area. We also have solar panels on the rooves of the packhouse at Outwell & store at Hall Road. Collectively, the business generates in excess of 200% of its own power requirements annually.

We have an area of pheasant cover near the wind turbines, & this has limited woodland, which we are leaving so that small bird & mammal species can thrive there.

The company has a stewardship scheme in operation for wildflower mix & cover crops.

From 2020, the following fields have margins put down for wild flower mixes: Lambing (TF51049563), Harrisons (TF52051504), Farm RH (TF5004193) & NDHA BK (TF49052115): Total field area: 32.085 hectares (3.84 ha as Flower rich margins & plots) & Bottom field (TF504384) 11.9272 hectares (0.81 hectares winter bird food). In addition, there is around 8 to 10% of the farm area as ditches & woodland.

There are other well-established Hawthorn hedges that are trimmed every 2 – 3 years to avoid leaving too much young wood as birds and insects prefer to feed on older wood. We also try to stagger the hedge trimming, do the sides one year and the top another, this is carried out in late Winter, after the berries are over, an important source of food for birds, or in early Spring before nesting time. There are also a series of large Ash trees on the farm, which provide ideal nesting facilities for a variety of birds.

There is a small pond near the packhouse facility. This is being left to develop naturally, to encourage more aquatic species to develop in this area.

We are aware of the impact that bee decline is having on UK cropping in general. We therefore encourage bee populations in our production fields & do all we can to reduce sprays, so that bees have the pollen from our courgettes & pumpkins to deed on, in July to September, at a time when there is little alternative sources of pollen in the countryside.

From 2020, the company has introduced commercial bee hives into the courgette crops to see if there is either a benefit to more even maturity & quality, while flowers act as a source of pollen for the crop. In 2021, we will be looking to use Agrisound’s Bee monitoring & recording devices placed in the field near courgettes & also in pumpkins, to assess bee activity there. This will be during August 2021.

We have been working with Elizabeth Ranelagh of FWAG, as part of an M&S pilot on LEAF & sustainable stewardship since Jan 2021. As part of this work we have identified pollinators as key species for monitoring as well as barn Owls near Needham’s Barns on Needham Bank. We are also monitoring 2 pairs of skylarks in fields between the woodlands & Needham’s Barns, to the left of the roadway to woodlands, as you drive towards wooded area. A plan is to be prepared by FWAG, which will also give guidance on selected species monitoring.

The integration of conservation features and farming has increased our awareness when applying pesticides, particularly near hedgerows. We are also mindful when applying fertilisers and now use only liquid fertiliser, which can be applied more accurately, to prevent fertilisers reaching the hedge bottoms and waterways.

We are looking at alternative agronomic strategies, based around the biological or regenerative approach, so we can further reduce our fertiliser / pesticide use. At the same time, we have been looking at different cover crops, to see if we can ultimately interplant crops, so we can have a natural rhythm between pests & predators, & also reduce the need for black plastic mulches. So far, even the slowest growing white clover is too vigorous for courgette crops. In 2021, we have covered courgette beds with black plastic which is biodegradable / photodegradable, so that the covers that are used are not having to be removed to go to land fill, as the material cannot be cleaned once it has been on the soil. One can see the benefits of less crop splashing, quicker growth, due to effect of plastic warming soils & moisture retention during dry periods at the same time, compared to uncovered crops.

Some of our crops are grown on land rented on a yearly basis so we are unable to make a contribution to this land, but, we do make a point of trimming dykes in the winter when there are no birds nesting.

We are also LEAF Members & currently hold a LEAF Marque Standard Certification.

Beaupre Hall Farm:

Outwell Road Farm:

PHOTOS:

Photo 1: The typical hedgerows & dykes around the farm:

Pheasant cover & hedgerows at Beaupre Hall:

Left top photo shows cover crop typically drilled in early June & right photo shows bird feeder near area of cover crop. Bottom photo is the cages for young birds.

Typical Dyke with one side moved & second side left. Note native species in hedgerows in background, left natural looking. This is atypical for fenland farms.

Managed dyke: Trimmed on one side, other side left natural for pruning the following year.

Wind turbines & area of wild flower mix around turbines:

Wind power generation on the farm. Photo from 2019. The areas around the base of the turbines has been planted with wildflower mixes, so we can encourage bees & other beneficial species to migrate into these areas. Please see below:

Since its establishment, the area has been mown to keep the invasive weeds down & in the time since planting we are now seeing the first flush of such as Oxeye Daises, clovers, mayweeds, plantains, etc. in 2021. Its now in its third year.

Note trees on left, which act as a natural windbreak / screen to adjacent properties, & the dykes & windmills in the background.

Hedges & boundaries around Needham’s Barns:

Entrance to Needham’s Barns & well-established tree line along roadway, with small natural meadow behind trees. This has not been disturbed for many years so is a good source of wild insects & flowers.

Far boundary at Needham’s showing established trees & the woodland at far end of roadway. To the left of the photo on the right is the field where 2 pairs of skylarks are nesting. Typical skylark on the left & Barn Owl on right. Typical roosting location in un-used barn for barn owls.

Field boundary with pond. Note the vegetation around pond is left in its natural state, so there is a corridor for wildlife species to travel around the field to the pond.

Weed control: The Company will only remove competitive weed species & will allow natural vegetation to grow so as there are habitats for natural predators to survive. It also provides an alternative host range for some of the pest species. We have reduced the need for spraying because of this strategy in recent years.

In more environmentally sensitive areas, we are leaving bigger strips around fields. Here there is also a Bank of vegetation around the pond, so we can encourage a green corridor for fauna to thrive while we continue with day to day agricultural practices. We hope this will reduce the impact of our production on the native wildlife & also help us build up our use of natural services.

Pumpkin field, with another example of hedgerow in the background. Also note the presence of mildew on crop. Towards the end of the season, as crop dies away as pumpkins mature, we do not treat plants, allowing them to senesce instead. This reduces our number of treatments & impact on the environment.

The 2020 Wildflower rich border / plot plans & bird winter feed site maps:

This photo shows the above field in full flower in early June. High bee activity noted in this field at time of visit.

Taking information from the Conservation audit, we have identified the key species to encourage on the farm are bees, brown hares, barn owls & skylarks.

To do this, we will:

Be proactive in management of habitats:

Bees:

To encourage bee species we have left areas of woodland & wild flower banks so that there are strips of natural vegetation for the bees to forage but also left old buildings where species such as the Mason bee can live. There are also old wooded areas where some species will be able to live in trees also. We have ensured that the pumpkin & courgette crops are close to areas of known bee habitats, so there is a good source of pollen for them, far later in the season than normal as pumpkins continue to flower well into September, when natural flowering vegetation around the fens is scarce.

Additionally, we have place commercial hives onto the site at Needham’s Barns near shaded area next to the old yard, so that the bees can move between three to four fields of courgettes, as well as the old paddock & wooded area with its wild flower mixes. There is also a Stewardship scheme in

Scheme AB8, opposite Needham Barns entrance. This is planted with a wildflower mix & has had a heavy flush of mayweeds, oxeye daisies etc. this summer, further enhancing the bee activity, especially when it has been windy & cold in June / July.

Skylarks & Brown Hares:

FARMING PRACTICES FAVOURABLE TO SKYLARKS

Skylark populations are declining or depleted in most EU Member States and intensification of agriculture is thought to be the main cause. Although this intensification is less progressed in Eastern Europe than further west, implementation of skylark friendly farming practices is important across the EU-27, in order to maintain healthy populations in the east and restore depleted populations in the west. The following practices will help:

  • Promote organic farming: Organic farming tackles several of the issues associated with current conventional practices such as low crop diversity, low sward heterogeneity and high levels of pesticide and inorganic fertilizer use. Although some elements of organic farming, especially mechanical weeding, may affect skylarks negatively, the overall effect of a conversion is positive;
  • Maintain or increase crop diversity: The presence of different crops, with different structure and phenology, ensures that suitable breeding conditions for skylarks exist over a long period;
  • Maintain or increase spring-sowing of cereals: Contrary to autumn-sown cereals, spring-sown crops offer a vegetation structure which is suitable for skylarks during most of the summer and thus allow more than one breeding attempt;
  • Leave cereal stubbles over winter: Stubble fields are very important feeding habitats in autumn, winter and early spring, especially when left untreated (no harrowing, no pesticides) until spring;
  • Promote extensive grassland management: Slow-growing grasslands with a heterogeneous sward may hold high densities of skylark, but reseeding, increased fertilization, frequent mowing or increased stocking rates severely impairs their value as a breeding habitat;
  • Leave areas as set-aside: in large blocks (e.g. 16-24 m²) away from field boundaries and tractor tracks, this creates suitable foraging areas for the skylark (e.g. ‘beetle banks’). Such areas should not be close to hedgerows or other vertical structures. Management should keep them with an open, low vegetation structure but they should be left untreated (no harrowing, no cutting etc.) from March-April to August. In the UK it was found that just two such skylark plots per ha can have significant benefits for sky larks;
  • Leave unsown patches in cereals: Even small, unsown patches (e.g.: 30 m2 each) in cereal fields may increase nest density and breeding success by offering a vegetation structure that is suitable for skylarks and giving the birds easy access to the surrounding crop. This is particularly important in autumn-sown cereals;
  • Reduce pesticide use: to provide more weeds, weed seeds and insects as food for skylarks;
  • Reduce irrigation to the minimum amount necessary: to avoid that nests are flooded and nestlings are soaked and die from cold;

Control exploitation: Hunting of skylarks occurs in several countries from August to February: France, Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus (and probably also in northern Spain). It is carried out partly for food, partly as a cultural and leisure activity. The level of hunting however needs to be regulated in accordance with the provisions of the Birds Directive to ensure that it does not affect the conservation status of the species

Barn Owls:

Beneficial Management

Maintaining and creating field margins will provide good hunting areas. Areas of uncut grass for a year or more will hold good numbers of prey species.

Unfertilized grass, buffer strips and rough grazing will also provide excellent hunting grounds.

Retaining old, mature trees will provide prime nesting opportunities, also consider putting up nest boxes in prominent trees or farm buildings.

Barn owls can be vulnerable to poisoning to rodenticides, therefore care must be taken when baiting.

Enhance existing habitats & populations:

Bees:

We have created wild flower areas & are focusing on area around Needham Barns initially, where there is a good mix of microenvironments for nesting & foraging for bees. Additionally, there are corridors for bees to travel & from research we know they can travel up to 27 miles. So, having access to routes is key for many bee species.

Bumble bees will fly more often than honey bees, when it is windier & colder. The Fens are naturally open & field sizes are quite large. So, by creating a bee environment that has a mix of buildings, trees, wooded areas open fields, wild flower mixes, grassy strips & flowering crop, we are creating a better environment for more species of bees to live & work in.

Skylarks:

We are working to create a more diverse cropping pattern on our farm by rotating with other growers, so there is a mix of crops on the land at any one time.

The stubble will be left in some fields over winter & at the same time.

We also actively reduce the use of fertilisers (more especially N) & are focused on pesticide reduction strategies through more active & timely crop nutrient management.

We have strips of wild flower mixes which are typically not tall growing which will suite the skylark population & will typically not be operating heavy equipment near the area where the current pairs are nesting for most of the season.

The site where the current 2 pairs were nesting were left undisturbed until October / November, 2021 & 2022, allowing for more than one brood of chicks a year. We are looking for the pair from last season which survived in 2023 will continue in the area & continue to breed here.

Barn Owls:

We have deliberately left hedgerows, grass margins, wooded areas, open fields & wildflower mixes so there is a diversity of habitat for the barn owls & their chicks.

Additionally, the site at Needham’s Barns has old disused buildings which are ideal nesting areas for barn owls along with older trees.

Although there are crop stores in the same location, there is no need to disturb the owls when they are nesting as the crop stores are away from the nesting sites.

Current areas of habitat for key species:

Effective site where monitoring for Bees, Skylarks & Barn Owls can take place: Needham’s Barns & surrounding fields, hedges & woods:

In 2022, we have seen evidence of Little Owl activity in Needhams barns so are looking out for this species also in 2023.

In 2022, we had located bee hives at Beaupre in the courgette fieldareas & also on the 16-foot, near some of the courgette fields there. There were also hives on the field at the outskirts of Wisbech. We now have the hives at Euximoor, for example in 2023.

There are extensive areas of open fields, ranging from potatoes, to maize, cereals to courgettes & pumpkins, allowing owls to forage on rodents, voles, & other small creatures. Within the habitat there is extensive well established wooded areas, permanent grassland, & stewardship wild flower areas, as well as an extensive network of large drains, which are sympathetically managed to that wildlife can flourish there.

Currently, there is a minimum of one pair of owls in the barn area.

Other Developments:

The company is looking at more SFI developments for the farm, to enhance the work we currently do within the LEAF Marque & M&S Plan A work that we are doing. It also builds on our commitment to the net zero initiative & builds on our plans within the Manufacture 2030 commitment. We will also be one of the lead farms on cover crop & soil management development going forward.