ROSEMARY CHAMPION, AKA THE ACCIDENTAL SMALLHOLDER, SHARES HER ADVICE ON SUPPORTING BIODIVERSITY

Working in harmony with plant and animal life is a goal many smallholders strive for. In the fourth of a six-part series in partnership with NFU Mutual, Rosemary Champion shares her advice on how to achieve this.

"Having a smallholding is a great privilege, so I’ve always thought that we smallholders should try to work with nature and to support biodiversity, which is defined as the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is usually considered to be important and desirable. So what can the smallholder do to make a contribution?

"Well, there are lots of things we can do – every little helps – and there are lots of organisations out there that can help.

1. Plant trees and hedges

"Trees and hedges, especially native species, provide shelter and food for wildlife – from lichens and fungi, through bugs and beasties, to birds and mammals. Hedges can make natural highways for small wildlife to move from one place to another.

"And your livestock will also benefit from the shelter provided, the scratching opportunities and the cornucopia of treats for browsing. And if you like foraging for food, then planting an edible hedge will provide you with plenty of opportunities to get out with your basket and bag a few treats for yourself.

"The Woodland Trust has lots of information on its website and can sometimes offer grant funding to help with planting. The trust lists its top 10 trees as:

  • Blackthorn
  • Elder
  • Silver Birch
  • Crab apple
  • Goat Willow
  • Hawthorn
  • Hazel
  • Holly
  • Rowan
  • Wild Cherry

"Some of these can be grown as part of a native hedge; in fact most native hedges are a mixture of hawthorn (50%) and blackthorn (25%), with the addition of, for example, field maple, holly, wild privet, guelder rose, dog rose or buckthorn in much smaller proportions and you can vary this to suit your own tastes and the locality. Also worth considering are oak and hornbeam – these, along with field maple, can be allowed to grow through your hedge as tall trees.

2. Sow a wildflower meadow or diversify your grassland

Many gardeners now have a patch or two of native wildflowers to encourage pollinator and other beneficial insects. With a smallholding, you have a bit more scope. If you don’t want to sow a wildflower meadow, then consider diversifying your grazing land with the introduction of herbs into the sward. You can do this if you are reseeding or by overseeding existing pasture. Many of these pasture herbs – plantain, clover and chicory – will also benefit your livestock.

3. Reduce or eliminate chemical use

It’s not always possible to eliminate all chemical use but if you can reduce it, then do. Some weeds, like ragwort and spear thistle, are relatively easy (if tedious) to dig out by hand – have a digging party, bonfire (to burn the ragwort) and BBQ! Others, like thistles, nettles, docks and rushes can be reduced by correcting soil nutrient status, pH and drainage – and by cutting.

Nettles can be composted into a great liquid fertiliser and made into beer. Always look on the bright side! The Soil Association is a great source of information on reducing chemical use.

4. Leave wild areas

Few, if any smallholdings, don’t have a wild area (or several). Look on these as a positive thing and preserve them - these wild areas provide a great habitat for overwintering insects.

5. Create or preserve a wet area

Ponds and wetlands are a great support for biodiversity, providing both habitat and a source of water. Interest in creating ponds and wetlands to reduce the harm done by run-off from farms is growing, but there’s the added benefit of creating a wildlife habitat. If you are going to create a pond of any size, you’ll need professional advice and should consult your local authority and your environmental protection agency.

6. Put up bird and bat boxes

There are 17 species of bat breeding in the UK. Although bats are protected in law, their numbers have suffered, probably due to changes in farming practices. As smallholders, we can help to encourage an increase in bat populations. The Bat Conservation Trust has information about how we can help – with ponds (see above), with hedgerows (highways for bats – see above) and providing safe roosting sites.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds also has information and a regular newsletter to help farmers and landowners encourage birds (and other wildlife).

7. Support rare breeds of farm livestock

Maybe slightly different to the suggestions above, but you can help support biodiversity by supporting rare breeds of farm livestock.

Britain is blessed with many, many wonderful breeds that have developed over centuries to suit the climate and landscape here. Sadly, some no longer fit with more intensive farming practices and have suffered a severe decline in numbers. If you keep livestock, please consider keeping a rare breed – if you can’t or don’t wish to keep a particular type of livestock, you can still help by supporting other breeders – often by buying the meat that they produce.

The Rare Breed Survival Trust is a good source of information about rare and traditional breeds, as are the respective breed societies. 

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