17 March 2022

Defra-approved 10-year Wildlife Plot mix will help farmers make space for nature

A new wildlife cover crop seed mix, which promises to be one of the best yet for biodiversity, has been developed by scientists at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT). The ‘Wildlife Plot’ mix is available through the government-funded Sustainable Farming Incentive Test and Trial pilot scheme and is expected to be incorporated into the future Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), enabling farmers to make space for nature alongside modern farming.

Dr Francis Buner, GWCT senior conservation scientist, who co-designed and trialled the seed mix at the GWCT’s PARTRIDGE project at Rotherfield Estate in Hampshire, in collaboration with Oakbank Game and Conservation, said:

“I’m delighted that Defra has recognised the potential for this measure to significantly boost biodiversity. Many of the wild bird and pollinator mixes currently available are limited in what they can deliver. They often contain less than 10 species of plant, predominantly non-natives or cultivars, and need to be re-established at least every other year, leaving a big gap with no cover, food or shelter in spring and into early summer. Whereas the Wildlife Plot has a minimum of 20 species, mostly native perennials, providing food and nesting habitat for insects and birds all year round.

“If they are established correctly, Wildlife Plots will be good for up to ten years, avoiding the time and expense of cleaning the ground and drilling every one to two years.”

The seed mix is based on years of research across Europe into the ideal combination of plants to maximise biodiversity. In studies carried out by GWCT ecologists, the ‘Advanced PARTRIDGE mix’, which was the prototype for the Wildlife Plot mix, was the best wild bird seed mix in the country for insects, both in quantity and variety of species.

Steve Moreby from the GWCT’s Farmland Ecology Unit said: “Both first- and second-year plots contained more of the key grey partridge chick food insects when compared to other mixes. This looks to be a very promising mix and we hope to sample more sites in 2022 to see how it performs on different soils, field and farm types.”

Making space for nature

Wildlife PlotThe Wildlife Plot mix can be sown in 1ha blocks or minimum 15m wide strips on the edges of arable or grass fields. As well as providing year-round food, its structure has been carefully designed to create ideal habitats for a wide range of farmland wildlife. Francis Buner explained:

“I’ve seen nesting whitethroat, stonechat and skylark in the mix, watched kestrel, barn owl and long-eared owls hunting for mice and small warblers, whinchat and redstart use it during migration. I’ve even spotted a red-listed grasshopper warbler in there.”

Plants such as teasel, sweet fennel and greater mullein give songbirds, gamebirds and hares overhead protection from raptors and crows and offer dense escape cover from sparrowhawks and hen harriers. In addition, plots that are wider than 15m have been shown to reduce the risk of grey partridge nest predation by foxes. Importantly, once partridge chicks are hatched there is 20-30% open ground to enable them and other ground-foraging birds to move freely, while insect-attracting wildflowers such as wild red clover, birdsfoot trefoil and wild carrot provide food at pecking height.

Wildlife Plot seed mixes will last far longer than existing options and offer different benefits as they develop, giving great value for money both for the farmer and the taxpayer. Insect abundance has been shown to peak at six years, so land managers are encouraged to have sections of the plot at different stages.

The secret to the option’s longevity is the native plants that come back every year. Perennial sources of winter bird food include teasel, sweet fennel and chicory. Lucerne and perennial rye provide long-lasting nesting cover in spring, while red and white campion, St John’s wort, yarrow and vipers bugloss are among the wide range of native wildflowers, which produce pollen and nectar for insects including endangered butterflies, hoverflies and wild bees from early spring into late autumn. The predominance of these perennials provides a haven of food and protection from where wildlife can make use of other more temporary mixes on the farm.

A recognised option under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI)

The 'Advanced PARTRIDGE' seed mix developed at Rotherfield can be ordered from Oakbank. A similar mix is available from Kings. Both qualify as a wild bird mix option AB9, but those in or about to apply for Mid-Tier schemes will currently require a derogation from Natural England to manage them as Wildlife Plots. The Sustainable Farming Incentive Test and Trial pilot scheme (SFI), has the Wildlife Plot as a recognised option and this new option is likely to be available to all farmers in the near future without the need for a derogation.

“Until then, we would encourage farmers to trial this new option to increase uptake,” said Francis. “Please talk to your Natural England advisor or contact the GWCT advisory service for more information.”

GWCT science is behind 30 out of the 37 arable agri-environment options currently available to farmers, many of which will continue in a new form through SFI. The addition of the Wildlife Plot continues the Trust’s track-record of turning scientific research into practical, farmer-friendly solutions to the biodiversity crisis.

For more details on species in the mix and its maintenance, visit the Defra website or watch our short video below.

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Notes to editors

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust – providing research-led conservation for a thriving countryside. The GWCT is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.

ISDN radio broadcast line – at our Fordingbridge HQ we have an ISDN radio broadcast line, allowing us to conduct interviews remotely.

For information, contact:
Kate Williams
Telephone: 01425 651000
Email: press@gwct.org.uk

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