This week, That’s Farming looks at 5 ways to increase biodiversity on your farm, benefitting soil structure, soil fertility and grass growth.
The EU aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050 – that’s an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Increasing biodiversity on your land is one simple measure that you can take to contribute to the carbon-neutral pot.
What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity is the viability among living organisms from all sources; terrestrial, marine, aquatic and the ecological complexes of which they are part.
The natural Irish landscape is drenched in various life forms, shaped by millennia of agricultural activity and raw material. Irish farmland is populated with a broad range of habitats in many areas.
There are hedgerows, field margins, ponds, streams, native woodland, bogs and species-rich meadows and pastures. There are habitats in every farm corner that contribute to biodiversity. The basics are there; they just need to be enhanced.
Hedgerows serve an important role; they carry hundreds of species compared to a field of ryegrass, for example.
How can biodiversity combat climate change?
Greenhouse gases (GHGs) and air pollutants are the two main categories of agricultural emissions. Greenhouse gases have a negative impact on climate change because they impact on human and animal health.
According to the EPA, agriculture contributes over 30% of our national greenhouse gas emissions (Environmental Protection Agency).
A range of birds, mice, beetles, earthworms, various crops, hedges, trees, insects, pollinators, and microbes – each combat carbon outputs. Together, they provide several unique benefits to soil.
Plants and trees extract CO2, give off O2, recycle nutrients, provide competition, improve water quality, and reduce soil compaction.
Mammals and microorganisms keep farm pest numbers low, burrow to aerate soil, reduce compaction, maintain soil structure, and contribute nutrients.
So, how can you maximise the benefits of these species on your farm?
5 ways to increase biodiversity on your farm
Each of the measures describe a way to increase biodiversity that also benefits soil fertility and grass output.
Manage your hedgerows
The Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS) began in 1994 and facilitated the establishment of around 10,000km of new hedgerows.
If hedgerows are already on your farm, extend an invite to native birds by avoiding over-trimming. Allow them to grow 1.5m or higher. This makes them ideal for nesting, providing cover over and under the nest and protection from predators. Birds keep pest insects, rodents, and pest birds at bay.
Hawthorn, blackthorn, whitethorn, gorse, holly, dogrose, and bramble also provide flowers for bees and fruit for birds and small mammals.
Leave small, grassy areas unfertilised
Similarly, leaving unfertilised, unsprayed grassy corners or zones encourage the competitive growth of nettles, thistles, and docks.
These plants attract butterflies, bank voles, mice, shrews, linnet and meadow pipit. Plant these areas with a seed mix of grass, clover, herbs and wildflowers to make the most of awkward corners.
Planting catch crops
Catch crops are sown between two main crops when land would otherwise lie idle, also known as fodder crops.
They provide animal fodder, grow quickly, and fill the gap between autumn harvest time and spring.
Kale, oilseed rape, vetches and stubble turnip are suitable crops that provide dry matter grazing, high in crude protein.
Also, they prevent nitrogen leaching, reduce winter feed costs, and provide winter soil cover for microorganisms and small mammals.
Manage drainage effectively
Regularly waterlogged areas of a field and wet, compacted, poached areas deter organisms of all kinds, earthworms, beetles, birds, microbes.
Effective drainage systems maintain habitats for a range of species so that they can carry out their natural function. In addition, this increases grass growth, improves soil aeration, reduces soil compaction and attracts organisms to the area.
If soil air spaces are full of water due to a blockage, over time, this detracts organisms and soil fertility.
Leave a water buffer zone
When applying fertiliser, leave a 2m buffer zone if your land is next to a water body. This prevents pollution and algal blooms, as unnatural levels of nutrients entering a water body upsets water quality.
Leaving a buffer zone maintains the natural environment of earthworms, who contribute nutrient humus to soil.
In addition, fish and insect species can suffer if their habitat receives abnormal levels of nutrients, depleting oxygen rapidly.
By Nicole O’Malley
To read more on farming for water quality, click here.