As well as the Saynden farm’s main food crops, oil seed rape, cereals and beans, in 2021/22 twenty six hectares of land are being managed for conservation. 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.
The field alongside this path is planted with a crop that will be left 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, bramblings, 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!
The old orchard here is being deliberately left to become overgrown. In winter the dropped fruit attracts starlings, blackbirds and thrushes. It is particularly popular with redwings and fieldfares, Scandinavian thrushes that migrate here for the winter to avoid the cold and lack of food in northern Europe. Fieldfares are our largest thrush and flocks can be heard ‘chack-chacking’ loudly as they feed or fly over. Redwings look very similar to our native song thrush – but they are quieter, so look out for their distinctive white eye-stripe and the red patch under their wing. It also shelters wrens, treecreepers and the UK’s smallest bird, the goldcrest, weighing in at just 5g. Many of the goldcrests will also be winter visitors from Europe – having completed the North Sea crossing from Sweden to our east coast in a single flight.
In summer, the untidy orchard is excellent nesting habitat for warblers from the Mediterranean and Africa – common and lesser whitethroats for example – and particularly turtle doves. Threatened with global extinction, Kent now has the UK’s largest breeding population of these beautiful doves, and Marden is home to a large proportion of them. Additional seed is provided to help them recover when they arrive back from sub-Saharan Africa to breed here.
Uncultivated (and chemical free) patches provide space for farmland weeds. These include knapweed, bird’s-foot trefoil, ox-eye daisy, clover, hawkbit and vetch. As well as bees and butterflies, moths too are highly important for pollinating food plants and their populations will be boosted by these wild flowers. We have recorded four hundred moth 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
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.