Little Mill Farm – Conservation Farming

Jul 30, 2021

Most of the land along the length of this footpath is pear and apple orchard on one side. On the other, with the exception of a small plum orchard and one small field, it is given over almost entirely to conservation farming. This means that crops have been specifically planted for two important purposes. One is to provide seed as winter food for farmland birds – a time when many starve if natural food becomes scarce. The other is to provide nectar and pollen during the summer to support the many insects needed to pollinate nearby fruit and other food crops, and that also provide essential food for breeding birds to feed their chicks.

In the summer, therefore, you will find many flowering ‘farmland weeds’. These include knapweed, bird’s-foot trefoil, ox-eye daisy, clover, hawkbit and vetch that have been deliberately sown. Others will have arrived naturally and allowed to flourish, such as smooth tare and Yorkshire fog grass. As well as bees, butterflies abound in sunny weather. Moths too are highly important for pollinating our food plants and their populations will be boosted by these ‘nectar and pollen’ crops. We have recorded nearly four hundred species in Marden. If you look closely at knapweed for example, you may see 6-spot burnet, silver Y, dusky sallow and yellow shell moths

You will also find a field planted with a crop that will be left specially to provide seed for birds in the winter. Late winter is a time of high mortality in wild birds as seeds and insects in the natural environment have been exhausted, so these winter seed crops provide an important lifeline. Look out for yellowhammers, reed buntings, house sparrows , chaffinches and linnets. In really cold weather you may see flocks of many hundreds of birds swirling around the field. When that happens, expect to see kestrel, sparrowhawk or even peregrine falcon: winter starvation is just as much a problem for predators too.

If you have a dog, please keep it very close to you, preferably on a lead, on this section of path. Short winter days reduce the time available for birds to feed, so disturbance leaves them vulnerable to overnight starvation in cold weather. In the summer, birds will be nesting or feeding fledglings in the long grass along the bottom of the hedgerows and in the crop itself; if flushed by a dog their nests and young are vulnerable to predation by crows and magpies.

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