Steeple Bumpstead
Agricultural Discussion Society

Established 1929

Newsletter February 1996

December 4th....... Peter Thompson

The Game Conservancy is a research charity set up originally to study the decline in the grey partridge population. Most of their finance comes from “shooting people” so most of their work is based on game species, but they also study other species that live in the same environmental niches as the game birds. As they have grown their work has gained the respect of both politicians and environmentalists. Mr Thompson is currently employed by the Game Conservancy but he has also worked as an agronomist so he knows that for farmingjto survive the crops must be profitable.

Their early studies of the grey partridge pointed to the primary cause of it’s decline being the failure of the young to survive, and mortality was usually due to starvation. Studying their diet they found that in the early days of a grey partridge chick’s life it needs small insects as a food source (compared to the french partridge which ate more vegetation ate the same stage and did not seem to be in decline). The answer must be that the wicked farmers were spraying too many insecticides about. But it turned out that it is not just insecticides, it is the need to keep the crops clear of weeds that was also causing a decline in insect numbers. this is because the broad leafed arable weeds are host to insects that the partridges eat. Most farmers enjoy a bit of shooting but it is only the real enthusiast who would turn a blind eye to weedy fields an rejected loads of grain because it was good for the partridges, so it was necessary to devise a strategy that would help the game birds without too great an effect on the main business of producing a good clean crop of grain.

The answer that they have come up with is what they call a conservation headland. This basically means allowing weeds to grow in a 6 metre strip around the field. But even this is more complicated than it at first sounds because if we just stop spraying this headland strip we get a build up of blackgrass, wild oats and cleavers which are not the type of weeds that the birds need. They have , therefore developed a specific spray programme that controls these pernicious weeds but allows the less competitive broad leafed weeds to survive. On the farm that the Game Conservancy runs they have been doing this for a few years now and they have seen an increase in grey partridge numbers , but they have also seen an increase in other wildlife species such ad the skylark and also seen some rare wild flowers growing in the 6 metre strip.

Another practice that has become popular on farms over the last decade or so is creating a sterile strip about 1 metre wide around the field to stop the spread of weeds from the hedge base into the crop. Mr Thompson tried to discourage this practice because the sterile strip is more often in the base of the hedge than on the edge of the field. this is important to the game birds and other wild life because they like a tufty grass base to a hedge for nesting and also to give them camouflage for protection from predators. There is one major problem because this sterile strip spraying is a bit addictive like a drug ; once you start you cannot stop because as soon as you do the strip becomes smothered with cleavers and brome grasses which are a real threat to the crop. These weeds become established because the natural perennial grasses have been removed by the regular spraying. Realising that no farmers want to face such a period of “cold turkey” he showed us how we could re-establish a grassy base to a hedge by sowing a mixture of different perennial grasses into the sterile strip.

To summarise the talk into one sentence: A bit of untidiness around the field margins will benefit game birds and other wildlife greatly, as long as we can put up with sarcastic comments about being a “weedy farmer”.

January 8th....... Barney Holbeche

Mr Holbeche is the NFU’s political lobbyist and he gave us an excellent insight into the job he does and the workings of parliament. I am sure that any NFU member hearing him talk was happy that at least part of our membership fee is well spent. ( I wish that could be said for all of it !). The second part of his talk was a review of legislation that is before parliament that may have an effect on farmers, and a bit of crystal-ball gazing beyond the next election and how a change of government may affect agriculture. The impression that I got was that there was very little in the Labour party’s plans for agriculture that would come as a surprise if the Tories proposed it.

When talking about the legislation it became obvious that Mr Holbeche must be ever vigilant because rules that affect farming can crop up in the most unlikely places. A case in point is a Bill to compel people to clear up their dog mess in parks and on the pavement. If it had gone unnoticed the law would have meant shepherds following their dogs with a “poop scoop” when they are working on common land. This would make for some very interesting commentary by Robin Page on “One Man and His Dog”.

Stephen Graves (Secretary)

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