At Lee Greens we work with a network of fantastic organic farmers to source fresh seasonal vegetables. Organic farming practices are crucial to maintaining the longevity and sustainability of agricultural ecosystems in the UK and across the rest of the world. In this article, we look at the wildlife organic farming supports in the UK.
For millennia, since the development of farming, agricultural systems were chemical free and used natural fertilisers and pest control to produce crops. Following the industrial revolution, and the development of chemical manufacture the way land was farmed changed drastically. To increase production and feed growing populations, in the mid-19th-century artificial fertilisers were introduced. It was then in the 1940s when rapid intensification of farming began, and more chemicals were introduced to farming systems using artificial pesticides. Intensification of farming in the post-war years produced high crop yields in the short term, but much to the detriment the natural habitat and biodiversity. Soils, waterways, field margins and hedgerows all suffer through chemical use and so too does the wildlife these vital habitats support. Organic farming provides a means to work with nature in the production of food, supporting ecosystems, caring for wildlife and encouraging biodiversity.
Unlike conventional industrial farming methods, organic farming relies on a diverse ecosystem of insect pollinators and natural predators to thrive. Chemical use on farms can rapidly send populations of natural pollinators and predators in to decline, having a knock-on effect on complex food webs which support wildlife. By farming organically, set aside habitat and field margins creates biodiverse farms which are rich in natural predators of crop pests such as ladybirds and lacewings. These little creatures act as a natural control on pests harmful to crop production, such as aphids. Set aside schemes, where land is left uncultivated, creates a rich abundance of wild grasses and flowers which attract pollinating insects crucial to maintain populations of some of Britain’s most endangered plants. Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper butterflies are common sites on farmland and Common Blue butterflies add a flash of colour on the field margin. Butterflies suffer through intensive farming; however, a UK study has found that organic farms can support up to twice as many butterflies than non-organic farms.
With the abundance in insect habitat on organic farms, comes a variety of bird life. The rural landscape provides homes for some beautiful farmland birds, including turtle doves, yellowhammers, Skylarks and corn bunting. Farmland birds are a good indicator of the health of the ecosystem as they are often near the top of the food chain. Diversity of habitats and plants on organic farms provides birds with plentiful mixed foraging habitat containing insect and seeds to feast on. Organic farms also tend to have smaller field sizes, with hedgerows segregating boundaries. This provides important nesting habitat and cover from predators. As birds are often at the top of food chains, they can be sensitive to bioaccumulation of pesticides, therefore healthy populations succeed in areas of low chemical use. In the past some chemicals used on farms have had disastrous effects on birds, one example being pesticide impacts on the Red Kite. Through illegal poisoning by game keepers, loss of prey availability caused by the myxomatosis outbreak and poor breeding success thought to be due to the use of organochlorine pesticides, numbers in the UK dropped to as few as 20 breeding pairs in the 1960’s. Red Kites however have now become a success story across British farmland, through careful management and the prohibition of organochlorine pesticides. Between 1995 and 2014 Red Kite numbers increased by 1026%(1) and now these magnificent birds are a common site in the UK, soaring high above farmland.
It’s not just flying wildlife which healthy farms support, mammals, amphibians and reptiles seek refuge in rich farmland habitat. The Brown Hare is a majestic site and favours a mosaic of farmland habitat, with lots of vegetation and grasses to shelter in and graze on. As with birds, finding stoats, weasels and badgers on farm land is a good indicator of the health of the land as these carnivorous mammals sit at the top of the food chain and help maintain population dynamics in ecosystems. Amphibians on farmland show that water courses are in top condition and are not being affected by chemical run off from fields. There are species of frogs, toads and newts which are all native to the UK and can be found living in ponds, ditches and streams in UK farmland. Reptiles too can be found in the UK and if you’re lucky grass snakes can be seen during the spring and summer months basking in the sun on grassland, field margins or near water.
Healthy environments are crucial for the future for sustainable food production and choosing organic produce supports farmers helping to protect our wildlife. If you would like more information on farmland wildlife the Wildlife Trust has a great directory on UK plant and animal species and where to find them. More information on organic farming can be found on the Soil Association website and check out the Lee Greens ‘farmers’ page to see which farmers we work with and their organic farming techniques.
By Joanna Kimber, environmentalist