Phacelia planted at Great Chishill, one of the development farms run by Bayer CropScience, has been so successful in attracting beneficial insects that its area is to double next year.
A single hectare of phacelia, sown in April, has both enhanced biodiversity at the farm and dealt effectively with a problem weed seed bank.
"As a cover crop, the phacelia is doing its job - preventing leaching of nitrogen and soil erosion, but allowing the black-grass to flush through," says farms manager Andy Blant.
"As a way of attracting wildlife, particularly bees, the phacelia is exceeding all our expectations," says Mr Blant. "Planted at the end of April, by July it was in full flower."
Phacelia requires little management. "We don’t let it flower for too long as it self-seeds," explains Mr Blant. "We apply glyphosate whilst it is flowering so as not to kill the beneficial insects and bees then mow it down once it has senesced ready for early ploughing for the autumn. It can also be used as a green mulch throughout autumn, before ploughing in winter in preparation for early spring drilling.
"We are delighted that it is achieving both the agronomic and conservation aims," he enthuses.
"We monitor the effects of our efforts and the bee counts show clearly the population explosion as the phacelia comes into flower," says Mike Read, field trials group manager. "Sheer numbers meant that trying to count them a week later was impossible."
Cover crops are just one aspect of the Biodiversity Project, which covers both Bayer’s developmental farms. "We take our environmental stewardship responsibilities seriously, working closely with FWAG and implementing many options within the Campaign for the Farmed Environment," says Mr Blant.
"What’s interesting is how we have found that they often require less effort than maintaining the trial plots on some areas. Compulsory set-aside would be a real nuisance, but by choosing these simple yet effective options we choose where and when land is taken out of production," explains Mr Blant.
"The work we’re doing here is giving a real boost to the organisations involved in the campaign, by helping provide the evidence that farmers don’t need compulsory measures to conserve and enhance the wildlife in this country."
Commenting upon Bayer’s involvement with the campaign, Elizabeth Ranelagh, CFE regional coordinator of East Anglia says, "The work that is going on at Bayer’s development farms is an excellent example of what farmers can do for wildlife and the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, whilst also undertaking work which is beneficial to the farm. The field margins and areas of wild bird mix can be entered into their Voluntary Measures booklet, or recorded online at the CFE website."
Mr Blant is amazed how effective such simple actions are. "By managing hedgerows, field margins and ditches sympathetically, we have enhanced a wide variety of habitats and attracted some rare species, including some of those on the RSPB’s ’red list’."
One such ’red-lister’ – defined as ’dwindling species’ – was the linnet, which during last January’s snowy cold snap visited the farm’s wild-bird plantings in flocks of up to 700.
"The UK’s breeding population of linnets has declined by 59% in just 40 years, largely due to the loss of weedy, scrubby areas on farms. But with very little effort needed to replant such areas, this instance shows how improvements to farmland biodiversity can produce rapid results," says Mr Blant.
Impressed by the double effectiveness of phacelia, Mr Blant intends to expand the area sown in 2011 to 2.5ha.