by Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education
6 minute read
There is a little field right next to an old Kentish farmhouse that regales in the name “First Horse Marsh”. In its heyday, it produced enough grazing for one working horse, and being close to the house, it was used to graze the best (ie First) horse overnight, so that it would be quickest into harness in the morning.
That name serves as a reminder that even in mainly arable country, there would always have been some grass fields to pasture the horses. Indeed, I have heard it said that at the peak of horse powered agriculture, a fifth of the land needed to be devoted to feeding them.
Today, we tend to think of grass as rather barren, and even hostile, in terms of its value to game and shooting. In the most intensive of livestock systems there can be precious little cover for game. Worse still, intensively managed silage grass is a recipe for cut out nests, if there are any ground nesting birds left on the farm concerned.
With an early spring choice of either short turf where the stock are grazing, or the fast growing silage fields, any birds that look for taller cover in which to lay are likely to make the wrong decision, with dire consequences come mowing time.
A Finely Tuned Balance
But, its not so long ago that our management and use of grass offered a living for a range of birds some of which have all but gone from the modern countryside. The corncrake is perhaps the most dramatic example, for it was once so common that, according to Mrs Beeton in the 1860s it was a regular feature in the poulterer’s shops from 12th August to mid-September.
By the 1920s, when my dad was a boy, it was much declined, but its rasping ‘song’ was still a feature of warm summer nights in rural Kent. Today there are just a few left, mostly in crofting areas of the Outer Hebrides and it is completely absent from most of the country.
In many ways the name is a misnomer, for it was never really a bird of the cornfields. Haycrake, or Meadowcrake would be nearer the mark, for it was beautifully adapted to life in the meadows. Arriving from Africa in spring, when the fields had been ‘shut up’ for hay, the birds would nest in the growing crop, and the chicks would then forage for invertebrates in the open sward, hidden from predators under the grass stems and wild flowers, and fledging in time to be safe when the mowers came with their hand operated scythes, sometime in July.
This routine of late cutting was usually followed by low intensity grazing of the aftermath, by many fewer animals than you would expect to see today. This combination produced a perfect environment for them, and would surely have supported broods of pheasants and grey partridges too. Sadly, even in Victorian times, things began to go wrong for the corncrakes, with new horse drawn grass cutting machinery allowing earlier mowing, and subtly changing the fine balance that had suited them so well.
Lapwings, curlews, redshanks and other waders are amongst the many species that have all also suffered from the intensification of grass management, as well as the loss of pasture to arable cropping. However, there seems to be a bit of a move to reverse some of this, and I have recently been to several shoots where some of the wetter arable fields are being put back to grass, mostly as part of Countryside Stewardship Schemes.
With a bit of financial support through the scheme for its conservation value, and as compensation for lost production, a low input grass and livestock approach is likely to be a better earner than some might anticipate. It also has less risk of bare patches and crop failure due to waterlogging, because grass is more tolerant of this than cereals. Then, as the soil structure rebuilds after the cessation of ploughing and cultivation, there will be significant carbon sequestration as the organic matter increases.
While a return to late cutting of hay and grazing the aftermath is not likely to happen very widely, low intensity grazing is still an option. Go to the hill edge pastures of our uplands, and you will often find a wonderful mosaic of grass and rushes, mixed in with the likes of ragged robin and other meadow flowers.
These fields are usually grazed by a mix of cattle and sheep, with each using the ground slightly differently. This mixed stocking is likely to add up to more than could be achieved with either species alone, due to their different grazing patterns. This applies both in terms of production and biodiversity gain.
If these pastures happen to be alongside a well keepered grouse moor, with good control of predation in place, then there is very likely to be a huge bonus in terms of ground nesting birds, with waders in particular benefitting. In many such areas, I have also seen good populations of wild pheasants and grey partridges. In their case the more open rush pastures are the main brood rearing habitat. They mirror the structure of the more well known weedy cereal crop, with abundant sawfly larvae and other creepy crawlies providing food.
So, what happens if we transfer this approach to lowland situations? As far as I can see, there is no reason why a low input grassland approach could not offer a better game habitat than intensive arable. I’d hate to see a whole shoot reverted to grass, but swapping back some of the heavier land, and returning to a more mixed agriculture, will surely have broader conservation value than pure arable. I would also expect there to be a benefit for wild pheasants and partridges in terms of both extra nesting cover, and potentially decent brood rearing habitat in the lightly grazed pastures, especially if some rushy patches develop.
Under cover of darkness
Permanent pasture is likely to benefit the shoot in other ways too. If you drive your birds, a grass field is a much pleasanter place to stand at your peg than heavy plough, or soggy winter wheat. Also, if you value your woodcock as I do, think on this; permanent pasture is a preferred night time feeding habitat for them. Add in the extra worms that are encouraged by the cow pats, and you could expect a significant increase in the numbers that winter in your woods.
This benefit can go further too. One shoot that I know suddenly found itself with a couple of snipe drives where there had been none before, when they reverted a couple of wetter arable fields as part of the old setaside scheme. This was before they even began grazing the ground concerned, but now that there are some cattle, the number of wintering snipe has grown still further.
Grass may not be as valuable a pheasant and partridge habitat as low input cereals, but adding some to the mix will not undermine your shoot. Meanwhile, it is likely to bring significant broader conservation benefit, and make for a more interesting countryside for everyone.
This article first appeared in Shooting Times