Sandy Heath is an active sand and gravel quarry, adjacent to the RSPB’s headquarters and nature reserve at The Lodge in Bedfordshire.
Cover crops for seed-eating birds and wildflower strips for insects on non-operational land
Seed-bearing cover crops
Nectar flower mix
Turtle dove strip
Sandy Heath is an active sand and gravel quarry, adjacent to the RSPB’s headquarters and nature reserve at The Lodge in Bedfordshire. The RSPB has a management agreement with the operator, Lafarge Tarmac, for the continued conservation management of the site (including active involvement in the heathland restoration of the worked areas) and a Farm Business Tenancy (FBT) over an area of non-operational land to the west of the active quarry.
The area of land under the FBT will eventually be worked for mineral. However, in the interim, there is an opportunity to create a ‘nature before minerals’ area for birds and insects by sowing a mix of seed-bearing crops, nectar strips and turtle dove strips and retaining patches of bare ground. Seed-bearing ‘cover crops’ provide vital food for a wide range of birds, particularly during winter, in areas where traditional food sources, such as weedy stubbles, spilt grain and cereals are no longer available.
Cover crops are re-sewn every 1-2 years depending on whether annual or biennial crops are used which makes them an ideal short-term conservation measure on land earmarked for future extraction. In addition, there is little risk of attracting European Protected Species as cover crops and pollen/nectar mixes provide foraging habitat as opposed to nesting habitat.
Habitat creation details
The RSPB employed a contractor to undertake the work, which commenced in late 2013. Areas were selected for various seed mixes and the ground prepared according to requirements - including topping, ploughing, spraying and treating with a low input of fertilizer where necessary.
- The bird cover crop was sown in May 2014 and should provide good feeding opportunities until late spring 2015.
- The nectar and turtle dove strips will be sown in autumn 2014 and should last 3-4 years before needing to be re-sown.
- Some areas of the existing rough grassland and scrub have been retained.
- One area has been ploughed and left as bare ground. The hope is that woodlark might find the bare ground attractive during the winter, encouraging them to extend their current range from The Lodge heathland.
Bird cover crop mix
|White / red millet
|@50kg per ha
|Plus 2.5kg/ha of Phacelia
Nectar flower mix
|@6kg per acre
|Turtle dove mix
|Early english common vetch
|Early white clover
|Early red clover
The nectar flower mix is designed to attract nectar-feeding insects. Many of these insects will then lay eggs nearby and thus increase the numbers of insect larvae available to birds as food. Hoverflies are especially attracted to the flowering plant strips and will lay eggs wherever there is an abundance of aphids for their larvae to feed on, thus helping to reduce numbers of these pests in nearby crops.
Turtle doves have suffered dramatic declines in population and range thought to be linked to a lack of seed and grain and food for adults and chicks during the breeding season. The sown turtle dove mix is designed to provide ideal foraging habitat as it contains a mix of species once common in the turtle dove’s diet, including fumitory and clover.
Cover crops have been a widely available option under agri-environment schemes and their creation could be funded by ELS and HLS. Because the period of tenure on the FBT land is uncertain and is dependent on future extraction rates, RSPB have been unable thus far to obtain external funding (e.g. HLS) for works undertaken and have funded the work themselves.
- Initial ploughing and ground prep 2013/14: approx £ 500- £600
- Contractor costs 2014/15: approx £2000-3000
- Seed cost (for spring and autumn 2014): approx: £900
The work at Sandy heath is providing an opportunity for the RSPB to experiment with and demonstrate wildlife-friendly farming initiatives close to their headquarters. Once established, it is hoped the cover crops will attract tree sparrows, corn buntings and of course turtle dove. There is a footpath along the edge of the newly sown area that is popular with local people and dog walkers. RSPB have put up signage to explain the work underway and the importance of keeping dogs under control to prevent them bounding off into the cover crops and disturbing any birds present.
With thanks to Peter Bradley, RSPB Senior Sites Manager, The Lodge