Wildlife friendly conservation farming focuses protecting, managing and establishing diverse habitats to support and encourage plant species which support and encourage birds, reptiles, small mammals and insects, especially those fed to fledglings during nesting season. In addition to establishing year-round food supplies, sites for roosting and nesting are protected, developed and sometimes provided – as in barn owl boxes. The whole life cycle must be considered; skylarks, for instance, need seeds and weeds throughout the year, insects and spiders in the spring and summer and open ground (they prefer extensive grassland) as a nesting habitat to produce up to three broods every year. Pollinators also benefit from our managed approach to creating habitats. Butterflies and bees respond to an increase in pollen and nectar in the landscape which attracts pollinators and helps increase populations which is good news for birds and bats.
Farming for Nature
Sheepdrove has records of 25 species of butterfly, 10 species of bee, 6 species of bat and 104 species of birds (including 5 types of owl). Qualified BTO bird ringers John Swallow and Captain Jerry Woodham look after the owls and owl boxes at Sheepdrove. Barn owls are traditionally associated with old barns and hollow trees but take readily to the many nest boxes placed in our farm buildings and trees. The patchwork of downland habitats at Sheepdrove – chalk grassland, scrub, dew ponds and woodland – is home to many of the characteristic birds and mammals of the North Wessex Downs, including the brown hare, skylark, corn bunting and grey partridge. Our organic farm also supports wide range of nationally and regionally important species associated with arable farmland with safe breeding and nesting habitats for ground-nesting birds. Every winter we station bird feeders around the farm and every year we sow wild bird food mix strips to sustain songbirds through winter into the breeding season with additional food and shelter.
These circular pools are a traditional feature of chalk downland which Sheepdrove has recreated around the farm. In bygone days shepherds would line their dewponds with clay to prevent water from seeping away into the porous chalk of the downs and provide a reliable source of water for their sheep. Dew ponds gradually became redundant, replaced by galvanised troughs connected to piped water and a great many ponds fell into neglect, with others being destroyed altogether. Animals enjoy drinking from the ponds in our fields, but they also support a surprisingly rich aquatic life including newts, frogs, beetles, pond skaters, water boatman, backswimmers, caddis and damselflies.
Our wetland habitats were created in spring 2002 but have already proved a magnet for wildlife. We installed a reedbed purification system to treat all the waste water from the farm which consists of variety of wetland areas including a vertical flow reedbed, a settling pond, a stream, a wildlife pond, an open lake with reeds and rushes all along the margins and a willow plantation where the water from the lake overflows in times of heavy rain.
Our wildlife pond is home to frogs, toads, newts, rudd and perch, along with freshwater shrimp and a plethora of other insect larvae. The water of the lake is clean enough to swim in and even exceeds European bathing standards and is home to the great diving beetle, mayflies, caddisflies, damselflies and dragonflies. We have nesting pairs of reed bunting, sedge warbler, wren, moorhen, mallard and coot while grey heron and lapwing are frequent visitors.
Scrub and Woodland
In the past, grazing by large herbivores would have opened up areas of woodland where scrub could grow and this scrubland was vital for local people who would use it for fuel, medicine, basketry, thatching, animal fodder and countless other traditional practices. Since World War II scrub was often grubbed out to allow for more intensive farming and where land was poor and thus unsuitable for modern agriculture and animals were no longer put out to graze, scrub grew up to woodland and another vital element in our biodiverse landscape was lost. Here at Sheepdrove pigs play an important role in our scrubland management as their rootling clears areas to allow tall herbs and grasses to grow up in the sunny margins of the scrub edge. A successful scrub for wildlife is one with diverse habitats and all growth stages, from bare ground through young and old growth to decaying wood.
Sheepdrove is also home to two areas of ancient woodland composed of veteran oaks and ash. Britain’s area of ancient woodland is minuscule at just 1.2 % of the UK and Sheepdrove is honoured to be home to two areas composed of veteran oaks and ancient ashes, one of which has swathes (or “droves”) of native bluebells in glades of coppiced nut trees under the giant trees.
Sheepdrove’s chalk grassland is a very precious habitat for a wide range of butterflies including some of Britain’s rarest. The chalk absorbs the heat from sunshine and the thin soil supports the wild weeds and flowers required for breeding and feeding. Our butterfly banks provides an open, sunny area rich in the early successional herbs while our chalk scrape at Cockcrow Bottom hosts a variety of chalk grassland wildflowers, including Devil’s-bit Scabious – the caterpillar food plant for Marsh Fritillary. The grassland humps and hollows in Lynchets (the field takes it name from its medieval ridges and furrows) create a variety of microclimates for a wider range of plants and insects than flat field surfaces due to machine cultivation.
Bats at Sheepdrove
Bat activity is significantly higher on organic farms than on conventional farms. The abundance of nectar and pollen producing plants at Sheepdrove also provides an excellent source of food for insects and this increased insect abundance benefits our resident bat populations. In the woodlands and along the field margins both Common and Soprano Pipistrelles are often sighted. A Common Pipistrelle will consume over 3,000 small insects a night! Sheepdrove is also home to Serotine bats, one of the UK’s largest bats, which favours small flies and moths, and is one of the first to emerge in the evening. Natterer’s bats have been recorded in the woods at Sheepdrove. These medium sized bats are slower fliers than the Pipistrelles and because of their broad wings, they are able to manoeuvre through foliage, plucking larger insects off as they fly – they even take spiders from webs! Daubenton’s Bat, a water specialist, which skims its insect prey off the water’s surface with specially adapted membranous tail and large feet, has been sighted at the long lake and reedbed system.
There can be no life without soil and no soil without life. A single teaspoon of Sheepdrove soil contains thousands of species, millions of individuals and a hundred metres of fungal networks. Scientists estimate that at least about one-quarter of species on Earth live in soil. Soil is alive – it breathes and needs air and water to live. Healthy, living soil supports micro-organisms, insects, animals and plants and provides us with our everyday needs. Organic farming builds living soils rich in organic matter through grazing animals, crop rotations, limiting tillage, using cover crops and mulches and spreading compost and aged animal manures. Soils rich in organic matter inhibit soil erosion and hold more air, water and carbon – and carbon that is tied up in the soil isn’t in the atmosphere, where rising levels may be destabilizing our climate. A recent report on soil carbon found that soils on organic farms have 28 percent higher levels of carbon than conventionally farmed soils in Northern Europe. Higher levels of carbon stored in a healthy, living fertile soil may reduce greenhouse gases and help reverse climate change.