Farmland across the world has potential to host a fantastically complex network of plants and animals, and this complexity provides many ecosystem services that we humans rely on: decomposing our waste, cleaning our water, and purifying our air. Invertebrates such as hoverflies, bees, moths and butterflies pollinate our crops, and others such as beetles, spiders, harvestmen, wasps and nematodes provide natural pest control.
To put it in financial terms: insect pollination is estimated to be worth £400 million to the UK economy, and predatory insects providing natural pest control are estimated to be worth $13.6 billion to the US economy! Biodiversity is also linked to productivity: increased farmland biodiversity is linked to increased plant growth above and below ground.
Despite all of these advantages, farmland biodiversity is suffering huge decline – new European data suggests 76% of species and 70% of habitats related to agriculture now have poor conservation status.
How to build biodiversity on your farm
Generally speaking, the best way to farm in tune with biodiversity is to imagine a mosaic of habitats across your farm – the more you variation you can create, the more you are mimicking nature’s natural state. This might mean field margins, wildflower borders, hedgerows, cover crops, multi-species herbal leys, woodland and grassland. Field margins and hedges are more appealing to wildlife when left a bit messy – if you can bear it, let your grasses become tussocky over summer and try to avoid cutting back your hedges more than once every three years to allow wildlife to establish itself amongst the branches. Land managed with varied pockets like this means your farm can become a wildlife corridor; a network of linking habitats for animals to migrate across as they move across the country!
As an example – farmland is home to over three quarters of British butterfly species – and many of these species have suffered real decline in recent years. Butterflies and moths have a complex life cycle, involving different life stages: from egg, to caterpillar, to pupa, to adult. Each of these stages require slightly different environments, and different species of butterfly and moth have different preferences on where to lay their eggs or feed on pollen. It’s easy to imagine how a monoculture doesn’t appeal to butterflies – they just don’t have the environment they need to get through their different life stages in these systems. So, the best way to reverse this is to create (where you can) a mosaic-esque range of habitats for the species on your farm.
In terms of management, your use of pesticides, insecticides and soil cultivation will also affect your farm’s biodiversity. We know that the use of insecticides and pesticides reduce plant and invertebrate biodiversity, which then has a knock on effect to the birds and mammals that rely on these species. Where there is low invertebrate diversity, there is no natural buffer of beneficial insects to control pests, increasing reliance on a chemical system, and so it goes on…
Reducing (or eliminating) usage of these chemicals can feel like a bit of a leap of faith, but building a resilient, biodiverse system is likely to reward you in the long term. If you currently spray insecticides across your whole cropping area, you can start by limiting usage to targeted areas, or choose to stop spraying during spring and summer, when beneficial invertebrates are most likely to be affected.
This quote from John Kempf’s blog on our human-centric view of what defines a pest perfectly explains our sentiment on this:
“If we are to be stewards of these ecosystems, we must acknowledge that it is our management of the environment that determines whether these organisms express themselves as a benign participant or as a pest…
Neither the wolf nor the rabbit is a pest. They are symbionts in the environment and are dependent on the greater ecosystems they are a part of to sustain themselves…
If we desire them to not be present to the point of causing economic damage, we only need to manage the ecosystem differently.”
It is possible to manage pest problems by healing the ecosystem to all it’s resilient glory – and all this depends on biodiversity. (Read the full John Kempf blog here.)
Minimising cultivation of your soil will protect species living below the ground, who are also incredibly important members of your farm’s food web (see our Earthworm Engineers series for more info on this). The standing crop residue left in no-till systems is an important habitat for farmland mammals, birds and insects. Keeping permanent cover in this way (and with over winter cover crops) greatly benefits your farm’s biodiversity, as well as your soil health.
We hope that our using our new Soilmentor biodiversity tool can empower you to think about how best to boost your biodiversity! Getting into the swing of monitoring which species are present on your farm is an important step in realising what might be missing, and what you might need to improve. Read how to use the tool on the biodiversity protocol page and get started recording on your farm now!
- Featured image source: FarmWildlife
- Tilman, D., Isbell, F., Cowles, J. (2014). Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. 45
- Losey, J., Vaughan, M. (2006). The economic value of ecological services provided by insects. Bioscience. 56(4)