On Lark Rise Farm in Cambridgeshire, relentless rainfall has meant some fields haven't been dry enough to sow crops and many of the seeds they did manage to plant failed to germinate in the saturated soil.

Crops have also been attacked by slugs, whose numbers boomed in the unseasonably warm, wet weather. The farm's beetle banks and field margins and no insecticide use provides the perfect conditions for predatory insects, which usually keep the slugs' numbers in check, but the balance was tipped by the unusual conditions this winter.

The farm will now be reliant on spring sown crops, which have a shorter period to get established before summer heat arrives, so are more vulnerable if there is a drought. They also tend to produce less grain than winter sown crops, as they have less time to grow before harvest.

CRT Trustee and Tenant Farmer Tim Scott has been forced by the exceptionally wet weather to plough a few fields where the heavy clay has become waterlogged, to aerate the soil and allow water to drain away before sowing spring crops. He usually avoids turning over the soil with a plough to prevent the complex web of life underground being disturbed.

Tim said: "Regenerative farming techniques, like using a direct drill to cut a thin channel to sow crops instead of turning over the whole field with a plough, aim to protect the underground ecosystem. Over time this will improve soil quality and water drainage as worms and microorganisms can thrive and arable 'weeds' are left undisturbed, so are able to put down deeper roots, breaking up the soil and adding more organic matter. But it takes many years to re-establish this delicately balanced soil system a journey we are still on at Lark Rise Farm, as are other farms across the country.

"The situation this winter highlights that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to nature-friendly farming. Farmers must constantly adjust how they manage land according to a multitude of variables.

"Nature thrives on variety. For example, many rare arable weeds benefit from the soil being turned over by a plough in some places because it gives them a chance to set seed. So, managing each field individually to create a mosaic of different crops cultivated using a variety of techniques is a good way to boost biodiversity and enables farmers to adapt to challenges."

On the upside, hundreds of Red-listed birds were glad to see the plough in action – watch the video below of lapwings and starlings feeding on worms and insects in the healthy soil.

Published: 24th January 2024

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