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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Barn Owls down the road.

One of the success stories for me this summer has been at West Hall Farm, Rickinghall. The farmer, David Pettitt is very keen on his wildlife and shares the same view as us that modern, intensive, profitable farming and nature conservation can go hand in hand. David has 4 Barn Owl boxes up around his farm and in previous years has had the disappointment that I have with plenty of Stock Doves and being able to watch Barn Owls all winter to find that they have gone elsewhere to breed. This year however there has been success!

David had a good feeling that the Owls were present as he had seen a pair hunting throughout the hay making over his meadows and on the first visit to the boxes this year, on the 6th June this is what I saw:

By my rough guestimations there was at least 3 chicks and they were between 1 and 2 weeks old. David continued watching the adults hunting morning and night until 12 July when I felt the chicks should be about the ideal age for ringing.

I revisited the box on the 12th July full of anticipation and it was a pleasant surprise to find that there was actually 4 healthy baby Barn Owls present. They all felt well fed and well looked after by the adult both of which were making the most of the good weather by hunting as much as they could. I was able to ring these chicks so we will know what happens to them after they fledge the nest if they are found or caught again.


On 2nd September I returned to the farm to see whether the chicks had fledged and to check for any evidence of second broods. There was nothing in the box, so all 4 made it out into the world and just to top off a fantastic breeding season at the farm, the box on the adjoining meadow contained two adult birds which is fair to assume were the parents and maybe were thinking about breeding again. I have booked in a visit in early October to check but for now we know that one live and well pair raised 4 healthy chicks, all 6 now with rings on so any movement, dispersal and longevity data will all add to the database and ultimately add to the pool of knowledge we have about Barn Owls. With the success of the Barn Owl project we are getting to a stage where many of the Barn Owls in Suffolk are ringed so the dataset that is being built up is enormous. Using this data in the future we will learn so much about the movement, size and weight changes through their lives, distribution and longevity of this species and the more we know about them the more we are able to do help them.

The success of the Barn Owls at this farm is testament to the hard work that David Pettitt puts into his conservation. Species like Barn Owls can only thrive if there is a good population of voles, mice and shrews which are only present through good management of his grassland. Only taking a hay cut, no unnecessary topping and not over-grazing all allow the meadows to benefit both his business and his wildlife. PJB

Friday, 23 September 2011

Barn Owl Boxes

One of the most interesting projects that we as a farm are involved with is the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project http://www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/. The project covers the whole county with over 1200 boxes or natural nest sites monitored by over 100 people throughout the breeding season and is administered by the trust.

On our farms we started with 5 boxes in 2006 and now have 12 spread over the farms in areas that we feel have the best natural habitat to sustain our target species, Barn Owls. Since 2006 I have been through the schedule 1 species disturbance course, ladder training and my ringing training to allow me to inspect the boxes safely and with as little disturbance to any breeding birds as possible. When visiting boxes we are very careful to minimise any disturbance and take all measures to avoid upsetting any birds which can cause abandonment of eggs.
Tawny Owls 2010
Once chicks are hatched it is incredibly rare for a pair to abandon and in fact, the male is not allowed to roost in the box by the female as we believe she does not trust him not to eat them. This process of checking boxes includes blocking the hole before approaching with a ladder or telehandler and when done properly, after looking in a box the birds remain in situ quickly forgetting that they have just someone peering in at them.
This year's adult female at Kiln Farm

In previous years we have had Kestrels, Tawny Owls, Stock Doves and Jackdaws breeding, as well as Barn Owls roosting during the winter but until this year the Barn Owls have gone elsewhere to find a mate or to breed. This year I first inspected the two boxes at Kiln Farm in early June and found 2 adult Barn Owls in one of the boxes there. The female was already proudly wearing a ring and had been ringed as a chick in a nest box by John Walshe in Wetherden in June 2008, making her 3 years old.  The male was not ringed so I did the honours and we will know if he appears anywhere else. I had high hopes for this pair breeding but was disappointed to find an empty box when I re-visited in mid July.

At Westhorpe I was aware of Barn Owls in residence in one of the barns and was hoping they would stay to breed. The barn was out of bounds to everyone from March and I did not check the box until early June to avoid any unnecessary disturbance.
The view inside the box
On my first visit there was one adult, at least a couple of young chicks and two unhatched eggs which I was very pleased with. My second visit was on 12th July and revealed only one chick with 2 dead ones in the box and having watched the barn for a while, only one adult which I have later found to be a female. I am confident that the chick fledged successfully but believe that either the male left or was killed whilst the chicks were young, leaving the female to try to hunt for 3 and herself.

The Westhorpe Female
I am a little disappointed to go from great optimism early in the season to only one chick fledging but it is one more Barn Owl chick than we have had in previous years so fingers are already crossed for next year! In the other boxes around Lodge Farm, Westhorpe, Stock Doves have been breeding in at least 4 of the boxes almost continuously from April and are still going and one of the boxes is about to fledge it’s 5th pair of chicks for the year! In the other boxes there was a brood of 3 Jackdaws at Westhorpe Hall, a pair of Tawny Owl chicks near the church. The box on Kiln Lane contained a family of Kestrels, one adult female and 4 chicks. The adult was already ringed and was one that I had ringed at the same stage a year earlier. Last year she raised 3 chicks at Westhorpe Hall and went one better this year.

The round of late visits looking for any second or late broods to all of these boxes have showed that all the chicks fledged successfully.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Wild on Wednesday

Today was my next contribution to BBC Radio Suffolk's Wild on Wednesdays slot. To listen to the link click on - http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p00k5177 and go to 1hour 57 mins. The link is only available for 7 days.

 A clue to the topics I was talking about are in the pictures below. PJB

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Taking stock of harvest

On the last Tuesday of August, the combine finally gathered in the last crops of harvest. The spring beans had been left till last, as they stayed green in the stem and there was a large amount of spring-germinated bindweed growing in them, which required spraying off to help combine smoothly. We finally got them in the shed and were pleasantly surprised to find that they yielded considerably higher than anyone had expected, with the hardship of the spring that they had to contend with.
So now everything is safely gathered in, we can take stock of what has been a difficult year and see how we faired and what improvements we can make for next year.
Winter wheat is our main crop. The lack of rain through the spring had caused significant stress to the plants across the county and we were not the only ones to experience up and down yields. The fields planted early, yielded as expected, with all the crops producing over 10 Ton/ha. This is the magic number that we try and average over our whole wheat crop. In the average year - which the last was not - our first rotation wheat, (i.e. in fields that in the previous year have not been planted with wheat) would hopefully yield 11 T or 12 T/ha+. This is because the soil and plants would have benefited from a break-crop like beans, grass or oil seed rape in the intervening year, so there would be more natural nutrients available and yields would be up.  Again, our early planted second wheats (i.e. fields planted with wheat, following on the first year’s wheat) were up in the high 9 t/ha and some were over 10 t/ha which is what we would expect on our heavy clay soils which help maintain high wheat yields.
However, where the planting date had been late due to wet soil conditions in October and the soil conditions at planting were not as good as hoped, the crops always looked like they were under-performing on their potential. This was what we experienced when we combined them. Yields were down and in some cases really down. We were experiencing average yields of 7 T/ha plus, with no late field bettering 9 T/ha. We are very glad that we had two thirds of the farm planted before the weather changed in October. Once we pulled together all the GPS yield data off the SD card in the combine, we actually averaged smack on 9 T/ha over the whole wheat crop. This was as we had expected with the spring weather but some other farmers suffered much worse yields, due to even less rain, on lighter soils. We heard reports of a farmer averaging 3 t/ha near Newmarket!!
The Oil Seed Rape crops were the stand-out crop of the year, benefitting from the early drill date and the deep strong tap root development of brassica plants. The crop never really looked like it would suffer in the spring wilt. The only problem we had was actually killing it! We spray it off before we combine it, so that it is uniformly dry over the whole field but once we sprayed it we had no sunshine, just grey overcast conditions and this made the drying process a very long and frustrating one. We actually had to wait a month until we could combine it at a sensible moisture level, which set us behind in getting the store full, so we then got held up  clearing the store, which had later repercussions when we needed to bring the wheat in. The rape yield was very pleasing and we averaged over 5 t/ha and we now have two extra lorry loads left in store to be sold later in the year, a nice problem to have.
The Spring Oats and Beans were drilled in one of the driest springs in history but they somehow found moisture and produced very good crops. The Spring Oats and next year’s grass looked healthy all the way up to harvest. They were combined a little damp, so we have had to dry them a little bit, to prevent the seed going mouldy on the floor. The straw was also a problem as the oat plants were dead on top but had sent out new growth from the bottom with new green leaf.  Because of this mixture of dry dead straw and sappy growing shoots,  the straw would have been unsellable. We took a brave and unusual decision to chop the straw on to the layer of new grass growing underneath. This is dangerous as we could smother out the little grass plants, it was a uneasy wait but with a few showers of rain the grass soon got growing with the help of the late August Sunshine.
The Bean crop was even more surprising as the plants were heavily podded once we got into the field. The yield was close to 4.5 t/ha. The harvest was delayed by a week due to the crop requiring to be sprayed off, as there was a lot of spring germinated black bindweed staying green and this would have made combining difficult. We had to spray them off with a special chemical due to the beans being harvested for a seed grower’s contract, so ‘Round Up’ could not be used, as it may affect the germination of the seed because that particular spray is absorbed into the plant and kills from the inside. The special chemical we had to use basically scorches the green leaf, so it just burns off everywhere that it touches and kills the plant from the outside, not affecting the germination of the seed.
All in all, we are very happy with the harvest, everything ran smoothly and we avoided any accidents. A few ideas have been logged for next year and we will see how they develop, the major one being a possible redesign of the barn doors and trailer unloading area.
Work is now in full swing to prepare all the fields for next year’s crops. Hopefully the weather stays fair and we can get next year’s production off to a good start in nice, damp, fine, seed beds.              BWB  

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

From Green Bins - to Compost - to our Fields

Most people in their back gardens have a compost heap of lawn cuttings, veg peel and plant matter. Hard work goes into turning and maturing the compost before it is moved back on to the vegetable patch to produce a bumper crop of home grown vegetables. The compost adds vital trace element nutrients such as Sulphur, Potassium, Potash and Magnesium but also the rich organic matter helps the soil structure.  The worms get to work, moving up and down the soil profile feeding on the decaying compost, which helps with drainage and in turn, the organic matter in dry periods, retains more moisture so that the soil does not dry out as quickly. For these reasons, all gardens love good quality compost and farmers are no different.

Organic compost or farmland manures are highly sought after by farmers for the same reasons. Livestock manures are in limited supply due to the reduction in livestock herds around the countryside because of the weak market for British meat being out-competed by cheaper imports from Europe. We are one of those farms that have stopped livestock production due to it being 7 days work for 4 days pay. So, of course, in stopping livestock production we have stopped our pig muck production. The pig muck gave us this extra organic matter that helped our heavy clay soil to be more workable and give us these extra trace elements and some cheap added Nitrogen.
In the few years, since we stopped pig production we have been fortunate enough to have secured a supply of organic compost. This organic compost comes from material that the residents of Mid Suffolk District Council put out in the green waste bins collection. The material in every household gets collected and taken to special sorting sites. When it arrives is looks like rubbish, plastic bags and other non degradable objects are contaminating it but due to developments in special equipment at these sites, the rubbish is sorted and the organic matter is left. The plastic bags are unwanted, difficult and expensive to remove so please try and reduce the amount that you put in your green waste bins. The waste then goes through a series of graders, mulches, crushers and heaters to start the breaking down process.  The compost is then left to mature in long clamps of a few thousand tons being turned and viewed from time to time. Once it is fully matured and all the unwanted plastic removed, it is ready to be delivered to local farmers.
The farmers pay for delivery of the compost to the farm and it is stored in specially registered sites on there. The sites are registered with the Environment Agency so that any effluent that may be lost does not end up in any sensitive watercourses. The compost is then applied to the fields in between crops by a contractor or the farmer themselves.
We hire in muck spreaders and do the spreading ourselves as we have the labour to do so. With two spreaders and one loader, we can spread about 800tons a day depending on how far the spreaders have to travel. The fields for the compost are chosen by the farmer, usually being fields that have poor soil structure or are lacking in some nutrients. We apply the compost nice and thick, the rate is about 30-50t/ha we have to be careful not to apply too much to some parts of the field that are naturally richer than others. We have to look at the Nutrient maps of the field that we have in the office before we apply the compost and the maps show which areas are weaker and need a little boost.
The compost then is incorporated into the soil so that the goodness and benefits can sustain the ground for the next few years.  We apply about 3000t of compost a year depending on its production and availability, during this year’s very dry spring we saw the benefits of last years compost. The fields on which we spread the compost last autumn faired much better in the dry spring. We believe that the compost with is high organic matter absorbed more water when it was available and held on to it longer in the drying spring. The crop then benefitted from it, as this extra water was absorbed when the plant needed it most and we saw higher yielding crops in the fields post-compost due to this and the wealth of trace elements that it brings as well.
The compost is a vital source of nutrients and organic matter but also you do sometimes get a flush of unusual weeds! This caught us out in the first few years but we now plan against that in our herbicide plan.
So please keep putting out your green waste, try and reduce the plastic bags in it and we will keep taking it and putting it back into the soil to help produce high quality food for you all. Our soil is certainly much better off for this compost! BWB