N E W S F E E D S >>>
Action Plan Contents Index

Action Plan Front Page

Biodiversity Index

Nature & Environment Index Page

The Caithness Biodiversity Action Plan - February 2003
FARM AND CROFT LAND - Arable crops and field margins


Arable Crops and field margins

Habitats and species
Caithness is one of the few areas in the Highlands that still support mixed farming and crofting. The production of a range of crops along with the rearing of cattle and sheep is the key to the richness and variety of wildlife that we see on agricultural land in the county. If this system is lost, so too will be the diversity of habitats and there will be a detrimental change in the structure of the countryside.

The relatively uniform crop structure and low species diversity produced by intensive arable cropping provides a limited habitat for wildlife. If unsprayed areas are kept, cultivated fields can support a flora of annual weeds, including the nationally rare purple ramping fumitory, which provide seeds and attract insects for bird-life.

The prevalence of spring planted crops is beneficial to over-wintering birds due to the presence of stubble for much of the winter, acting like a giant bird table.

Field of Oats, Calder

The stubble left after the crop has been combined gives cover and a welcome source of food for small passerines such as brambling, chaffinch and greenfinch. Resident greylag and migrant Greenland white-fronted geese also benefit from the growing of oats or barley.

The field margins offer a wider range of habitats to wildlife and plantlife. Hedges and dykes provide a refuge for plants, insects and small mammals, as well as acting as wildlife corridors. Ditches and streams provide valuable habitats for flowering plants that in-turn support invertebrates such as butterflies and beetles.

Field margins such as conservation headlands - where the outermost strip of the crop is managed to control weeds rather than eradicate them, and grass margins - where an undisturbed grass strip is established around the field edge, are both valuable tools that improve biodiversity on arable and mixed farms. Birds such as quail and partridge benefit from such management.

Farm buildings also provide a roosting or nesting habitat for owls, swallows, swifts and house martins.

Farmland at Stemster

Main issues

  • Due to the current economic problems facing the agricultural industry, the rural population is declining and with it we are experiencing a closure of rural services, reduction in the work force and loss of traditional land management skills. Farmers and crofters are stewards of the environment and without them, the loss of habitats and associated species would be great.

  • In some areas, sheep have largely replaced cattle, and inbye croft land is becoming under managed. A continued decline in cattle, and the associated loss in cropping, will have particularly adverse effects on the area’s biodiversity.

  • Mechanisation and intensification of crop production is leaving less waste on the fields. A reduction in crop rotation and decline in under-sowing of cereal crops to produce a grass ley is leading to a reduction in the diversity of management both across the farm and through the year, leading to a corresponding reduction in biodiversity.

  • Nutrient run-off from fertilisers can cause problems far beyond the farm boundary. The widespread use of pesticides in some parts of the country has been associated with the severe decline in populations of farmland birds, largely due to the effects on their food supply.

  • It is no longer viable to employ a large workforce to maintain hedgerows, dykes and other features used by wildlife. This is leading to the loss and neglect of hedges and drystone and flagstone boundary walls.

Habitat Map

Current biodiversity projects
Many farmers and crofters continue to manage their land for wildlife as well as food production. The fact that Caithness has retained a number of small farmers and crofters, and that they continue to cultivate small fields, has benefited wildlife.

However, with increasing social and economic pressures on these small units, this type of agriculture is becoming more threatened.

Harvester, Quoys of Reiss

Agri-environmental schemes such as the Rural Stewardship Scheme provide some income for such management. However such schemes are, at present, drastically under-funded and biased towards larger farms with a more diverse range of habitats to the exclusion of smaller farms and crofts with only one or two important habitats.

Meadow pipit on gorse

Opportunities for action
  • Create ‘conservation headlands’ and wider grass margins around arable fields.
  • Plant game cover or seed-bearing crops such as linseed on set-aside land, to provide a source of food and cover for wintering birds.
  • Encourage traditional cropping methods (e.g. Spring crops, late ploughing) to provide valuable winter stubble. After establishment, allow weedy plants to remain in root crops as their seeds are a very valuable source of food for birds in winter.
  • Increase funding towards the establishment and upkeep of hedges and other countryside features, which provide shelter and wildlife corridors for many species, perhaps on a pilot, demonstration basis.
  • Encourage the retention of small farm quarries and ponds, and the repair and construction of vernacular buildings and flagstone and drystone dykes, both as landscape features and as valuable habitats for wildlife.
  • Encourage best practice for land managers allowing wildfowling on their land through the production of leaflets and site visits, and raise awareness of the protection of Greenland white-fronted geese.
  • Produce Caithness-specific advice on habitat management for locally important species, e.g. twite.
  • Investigate the relationship between biodiversity and bio-fuel crops through local trials.
  • Facilitate nutrient budgeting plans, to help farmers utilise manure and reduce dependence on fertilisers, encourage the return to clover rich pastures requiring less fertilisers.
  • Encourage sparrow counts around schools, villages and neighbouring farms.