Insect-friendly farming in Suffolk

Hoverfly - Chris Gomersall 2020 Vision

Sam Hanks, Farmland Wildlife Advisor, explores how insects are in decline globally, and that the UK is sadly no exception. Both abundance and diversity are reducing at alarming rates. In the highly agricultural Suffolk landscape, the way we manage our farmland is vital in helping reduce this negative trend.

Why should we care?

Quite simply, the world relies on the actions of insects and other invertebrates to maintain the functioning of our environment. Without their pollination services, we would not be able to grow many crops effectively. Without their decomposition services, soils would not be generated and nutrients not cycled effectively. If we were to lose insect predators, pest species could be uncontrollable. Humans generally, and farming as a business, rely on the actions of insects for existence.

Southern cuckoo bee on knapweed - Chris Gomersall/2020Vision

Southern cuckoo bee on knapweed - Chris Gomersall/2020Vision

Why is there a problem?

This is not an easy question to answer. It is almost certainly a combination of factors and aiming blame at any one industry or activity is too simple an answer. Insects are declining on a global scale. Climate change and toxic chemical use are almost certainly two of the top causes. Other factors such as habitat loss and fragmentation have compounding effects. Everyone has a responsibility to do something to make this situation better, but those with an active role in managing the landscape — farmers, conservationists, amenity land managers — can make the biggest difference.

Buff tailed bumblebee on poppies - Chris Gomersall/2020vision

Buff tailed bumblebee on poppies - Chris Gomersall/2020vision

What is the picture on farmland in Suffolk?

Farmland can be a harsh and inhospitable place to be an insect. Crops grown as monocultures treated with a cocktail of chemical agents can mean that there is no food across a large area for a long time, nesting and reproduction opportunities are limited and fitness reduced. However, farmland can also provide everything that insects need in abundance, alongside productive agriculture that benefits from the increased diversity. There are examples of both systems in Suffolk and no clear line between the two. Many of Suffolk’s farmers are already doing great work for insects and their environment. Suffolk Wildlife Trust is working with farms across the county to improve the situation for insects. You can find out more here.

Conservation margin with poppies and ox-eye daisies - Chris Gomersall/2020vision

Conservation margin with poppies and ox-eye daisies - Chris Gomersall/2020vision

What can be done?

There are a wide range of easy-to-adopt actions that benefit insects and many other groups of wildlife on farmland. Most are supported in agri-environment schemes and all are achievable for every farm. Here are my top actions:

  1. Reduce pesticide and herbicide use: However you do it, through organic methods, integrated pest management methods or simply leaving headlands unsprayed, insects will benefit from the greater flowering resource at the 'messier' field edges and the lower toxic load within their populations and the environment as a whole. You might even save some money on inputs as a bonus.
  2. Good quality water: Wherever in Suffolk you farm, there would historically have been a water source integral to your operation. Very often, these were farmland ponds in field corners used for watering the stock working the land. These days, most farmland ponds are in a poor state, scrubbed over or filled in, losing the diverse array of wildlife that they support. Bringing a pond back to life can be a very rewarding thing to do. The benefits are quickly evident, and ponds support a vast array of insect life. Many hoverfly species — significant crop pollinators — spend much of their lives in water. The golden rules are: keep it mostly open and keep it buffered from field operations.
  3. Hedgerows: Bushy hedgerows with many flowering species and thick basal vegetation, a mixture of growth stages and plenty of deadwood are the homes and highways of insects in the farmed landscape. Insects and many other animals move through your landscape and complete their life cycles in safety within these nature corridors. The best thing you can do? Manage hedges less frequently, trimming every third year or regenerating every 10 – 20 years will be far better than the all too common annual autumn cutback. Add a wide margin managed for native wildflowers along your hedgerows for the best possible benefits.
  4. Mature and veteran trees: Known to support a huge array of insect life, managing veteran field trees sympathetically is a great way to improve the landscape for insects. There is often an historical link with pollards on parish boundaries, as well. The best ways to make these trees reach their insect supporting potential: remove cultivation around the roots, retain deadwood in-situ or as close to where it falls as possible, and if necessary, release from shading. Don’t have veteran trees on your farm? Consider creating future veterans by pollarding some younger oaks, or plant some grown from local seed for future generations to enjoy!
  5. Pollen and nectar mixes: a favourite of agri-environment schemes everywhere, they can be big and showy in the summer and great for bees and other pollinators. Keep them as organic as you can and near to suitable nesting habitat (see hedgerows above) and you can quickly realise the benefits of these areas. Cutting half of an established mix in the early summer can help to provide a food resource throughout the later summer period. Ensure your mix has a range of plants with different flowering times to get the best from it.
Hawthorn hedge - Chris Gomersall/2020vision

Hawthorn hedge - Chris Gomersall/2020vision

There are many other opportunities for improving your farm for insects. To discuss the actions you can take and how Suffolk Wildlife Trust can help you to realise these, call or email Sam and read more here.

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