Counting flocking farmland birds individually is never easy or exact, but at the start of November CRT wildlife officer Vince Lea was surprised, but delighted, to see about 200 yellowhammers, 50 skylarks, and some reed bunting, meadow pipit, linnet and dunnock, all congregating in the smallest field at Lark Rise Farm.

The seven larger arable fields, by contrast, held about 14 yellowhammers and 80 skylarks. The simple question is, why was this one field, called Six Acres, proving such a bird-attractor? To answer it, we must look back at this year’s weather and the results of an experiment.

Above: Yellowhammers in the hedgerows around the field.

A very hot dry June accelerated the ripening of the crops, but yields were smaller than hoped, as grains did not fill well in the near drought conditions. The weather changed as soon as crops were ready to harvest, making a poor situation worse as crops were flattened by heavy rain and lost quality as the damp set in.

Winter barley that was sown in late autumn 2022 and started its growth during winter months, was the first crop to be ready to harvest. This was harvested in early July and, as an experiment, Lark Rise farmer, Tim Scott, decided to try sowing a second crop of barley in Nine Acres. The seeds were sown soon after harvest and in less than a week the new shoots started to appear between the rows of stubble of the previously harvested crop.

The plants were rather sparse, so establishment was not great, and only one or two tillers were produced per plant. With no fertiliser applied, growth was not as luxurious as a ‘normal’ spring-sown crop. It is also possible that Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus could have infected these plants. The virus is spread by aphids and the new plants would have been very attractive to any aphids at this time of year when most crops are dry and being harvested.

The best growth was seen in areas where the previous crop would have received double doses of fertiliser at the locations where an overlap occurs in the fertiliser application process, so soil fertility is likely to be a restriction on growth and yield in this experiment. From a food production point of view, the experiment failed. Tim had hoped to get a harvestable crop from the field after seeing someone achieving two crops in one year featured on BBC Countryfile. However, Tim’s crop did not form a dense stand and the grain failed to ripen in time to be harvested.

The weather turned cool and wet into October, with some early frost, and while development did not go through to complete ripeness, the grains did set and started to fill out with starch. Although the crop was sparse, the grains were full of soft starch so easily fed on by buntings and larks, as shown by the large flocks recorded at the start of November. Therefore, for a wildlife-friendly farm it was a huge success, producing a vast resource of grain in a form that was very accessible to farmland birds.

Above: The field of 'failed' winter barley, and inset, the ears nibbled by the large number of visiting birds.

There is still potential for this method to produce a harvestable crop with a few tweaks and perhaps better luck with the weather at the end of the autumn. Tim intends to refine the method next year by putting more effort into getting the crop established, trying a faster-growing variety of barley, and applying fertiliser.

Of course, if we get a late summer drought like 2022, germination and establishment would not be possible, but the changing climate is now giving us earlier harvests and longer growing seasons, making this a possibility if conditions align favourably. Whether this will be a commercial benefit in the future remains to be seen but even if the experiment continues to fail, it looks like it might offer a new benefit to our wild birds.

How you can help

We can’t do it without you. If you want to help us protect local wildlife you can support the CRT in any number of ways, from joining as a CRT Friend to volunteering on one of our farms and attending our events. You can also sign-up to our monthly newsletter 'CRT News' for regular updates from our farms, straight to your in-box.

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 Published: 22nd November 2023