Spring crops growing at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) farm are showing the true value of biodiversity, attracting no fewer than five pairs of lapwings this year.

Two modest fields of minimum-tillage spring barley within a 30ha ryegrass block have been home to the nesting birds, according to a spokesperson for the college.

And with 17 chicks recorded, to date, there is great hope that this area could become a longer-term stronghold for this at-risk species.

Biodiversity technologist, Bryan Irvine explained: “Mixed farming has always been of greater benefit to wildlife as multiple habitats are needed throughout a season.”

Lapwing numbers have declined drastically over the past decades and are often now seen as solitary pairs that struggle to drive off high numbers of crows and magpies that raid their nests.

Last year, just one pair bred on the site and only one young was known to have fledged.

However, this year’s increased number of pairs has allowed these acrobatic and fearless birds to drive off predators successfully, the college spokesperson said.

Spring crops

Spring cereals in April and May provide open ground with easy access to soil invertebrates for adults and chicks, and the increasing cereal canopy then provides cover for the young chicks.

Minimum-tillage techniques have not only reduced inputs, but also improved soil structure and, consequently, increased soil life with an abundance of invertebrates.

The cropping fields also allow spring-sown conservation margins to be established.

Three modest but highly effective 0.1ha margins of winter feed crop for birds, annual wild flower margin and rough grass margin further enhance the biodiversity impact of the site, particularly for summer insect activity and for birds and bats feeding on insect prey.

Leaving the fields as winter stubble or with a light cover crop after harvest sees flocks of finches and mistle thrush forage through the winter.

Utilising spring cereals or spring beans can assist in reducing organic nitrogen loading on a livestock farm, providing a rotation break for reseeding or producing home grown feed.

While it adds to the risk and complexity of farm management, the biodiversity impact within a Northern Ireland monoculture of ryegrass is impressive.

Biodiversity on many lowland intensive grassland farms is often limited to hedge and woodland habitats; however, the integration of spring cropping at the CAFRE farm has added huge value to the biodiversity of the farm with little impact on productivity.

Camera trap video footage of the birds and chicks can be seen here