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Cereal Field Margins

Cereal field margins refer to strips of land lying between cereal crops and field boundaries, which are managed to create conditions of benefit to key farmland species. These can take many forms including uncropped ‘wildlife strips’; ‘conservation headlands’ which are managed with reduced inputs of pesticides; and game crops, stubble or grassland fallows left between crops and field boundaries.

Research has shown that the retention of field margins is of benefit to many plant and animal species. They provide a valuable refuge and source of prey items for species that were formerly widespread in Britain but which have suffered heavy declines in recent years. These include grey partridge, skylark, corn bunting, tree sparrow and brown hare, all of which are identified as priorities for action in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Many annual plants that were associated with traditional agricultural cropping systems, such as shepherd’s needle Scandix pecten-veneris, broadleaved spurge Euphorbia platyphyllos and cornflower Centaurea cyanus, have also suffered a massive national decline in recent years due to changes in farming practices and are now largely restricted to the edges of fields.

Cereal field margins may also provide valuable buffer zones for watercourses and wetlands against diffuse pollution.

Current status

Cereals account for 51% of the arable land in Great Britain. Estimating the average national field size to be 12 ha suggests that there are 400 000 km of cereal field edges in the UK. If all such boundaries included a 6 m managed margin, some 200 000 ha of land would be brought into sensitive management.

Within the North East cereal production accounts for an area of 131 673 ha, which represents 80% of the arable land in the region. The presence and extent of cereal field margins vary from year to year depending on choices made by individual farmers.

The Country Stewardship Scheme run by DEFRA makes payments for the management of field boundaries. Among the options for cereal field margins available under the scheme are an uncropped 6m arable margin, and an uncropped 2m arable margin which can be sown along field boundaries and streams and rivers to buffer them from agricultural operations. Data from DEFRA shows that within the Region 645 km of arable margins are managed through Countryside Stewardship.

The area of cereal field margins which are of value to wildlife but exist outside of Countryside Stewardship is not known. However, it is likely to be minor in comparison.

Threats

The main factors that have reduced the wildlife value of cereal fields are:

  • Intensification of cereal production, including the use of herbicides to ensure a weed free monoculture, and summer use of insecticides.
  • The shift to winter cropping and the associated loss of winter stubble.
  • The reduction in rotation of cereal crops with other land covers (including grass leys and fallows).
  • The reduction in the undersown area associated with the shift to winter cropping.

Opportunities for protection and enhancement

  • The Environmental Stewardship Scheme offers payments for the retention and management of arable field margins..
  • Identifying the location of rare arable plants and birds within the region would allow action to be targeted effectively.