Restoring arable land to a wildlife rich oasis

Harvest Mouse

April showers continued to stop work on our Roundhouse. So this post will consider the science of turning a species-poor field into a beautiful, sustainable community space.

Whistlewood enjoys mixed blessings. Five years have passed since anyone sprayed pesticides on the land. Making our field ‘organic’ since 2015. And lots of British native plants thrive in well-fertilised soil. However, all that nitrogen helps weeds as well as flowers. And the grass likes it too, shooting up and crowding out fragile plants. Our other difficulty is that we have grassy margins. So any colonising plants have further to ‘travel’.

If you want to learn about The State of Nature in the UK, please follow this link to the RSPB’s website.

But we are committed to turning this around. Whistlewood employs permaculture principles to create a rewarding experience now and for future generations. You may have taken part in a bug hunt, by counting mammals and, of course, planting trees. These simple actions help us make our site a haven for wildlife.

Please let me introduce Gaelle. She is a professional ecologist and Whistlewood board member. With the help of a GPS system, she has mapped the entire site. Recording every tree, banks of weeds and evidence of animals.

Site Survey
The site survey from 2017 showing our trees (except the plantation of native species).

The science of attracting wildlife

The NERC Act* identifies 943 species of principal importance. These priority species include the brown hare, harvest mice, song thrush, toads and hedgehogs.

Surveying the site is an ideal tool for planning, managing and demonstrating the restoration. Our goal is to give many species from frogs to bats a safe habitat. And to support national biodiversity goals by attracting priority species. To draw such magnificent animals could be difficult. Not only must we make our site a safe home, we need these animals to be nearby. So as well as surveying our site, Gaelle has reviewed local records to see which species we could lure into Whistlewood.

Thanks to Gaelle’s diligence we know song thrush, brown hare, common pipistrelle, pale eggar (a moth living in open woodland, hedgerows, scrub and gardens) and wall (a butterfly living in short, open grassland, where turf is broken or stony) lived within one km of Whistlewood in the last 10 years. And we will focus on these species to increase our biodiversity. Our next step is to make Whistlewood even more hospitable.

Based on her findings Gaelle has recommended several changes. For instance, our southern boundary is a five-metre high hawthorn hedge. Left unattended the hedge will shoot ever upwards. With time, it will form a line of trees and we will lose our natural windbreak. So we will be adding hedge trimming to our maintenance activities. She also recommends that we make the brook more meandering. And that we cut even less grass.

A new mowing regime

new mowing regime
Cutting less grass will encourage more mammals, create a lovely walk down to our wedding site and save money.

The image above shows the new cutting regime. The red paths must stay closely shorn. But we will drop the frequency of mowing in the bright green areas to once a year. Timing the annual cut will be critical. Mammals must have finished weaning their young, but we need to catch the grass before flowering ends.

Before we head back to the trees, we need to get into the weeds. We have some invasive species and will be focusing on Creeping Thistle this summer. It rapidly propagates by root growth and seeds, and the roots are brittle making it hard to remove by digging. But birds and many insects rely on the seeds for food. We do not want to use herbicide in Whistlewood. So cutting down the plants before they seed and introducing competing species may be the only way we can eliminate this pest and offer nourishment to our wildlife.

Thistle Management
Creeping Thistle is starting to take over parts of the site.

And back to the trees. We can use surveys to watch their progress. Then take action to prevent disease and plan our harvest. Better yet, surveys help us show sponsors and funding bodies the incredible transformation we are achieving.

If you would like to help us with site surveys or the inevitable work they bring – please contact Whistlewood.

*The NERC Act is the Natural Environment and Rural Committees Act. It obliges the Secretary of State to publish a list of habitats and species which are of principal importance for the conservation of biodiversity in England.

Photo credit: Sue Cro on Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) without modifications.

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