Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Saving wildlife with fields of peas and beans

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

It’s not often that I’m rendered utterly speechless by Defra, but last week I struggled to make sense of what I was reading. I genuinely checked that the date wasn’t April 1st. Defra has announced that farmers can now receive public money, originally intended to conserve farm wildlife, for growing crops of peas and beans. The idea is that this will help pollinators.

As I read Roger Harrabins BBC article it got worse. While acknowledging the lack of biodiversity compared to pasture, the National Farmers Union actually provided the following quote: “Anyone with broad beans in their garden will see they are full of pollinators at the moment. Wildflower meadows tend to have quite a limited flowering season but some legumes are flowering from April to June, and others much later in summer. We think including this measure is very positive for the environment."

We think Defra and NFU need to visit a wildflower meadow. This decision clearly demonstrates the lack of understanding that Defra and NFU have of farmland wildlife, a disconnect with the reality of nature and ecology. Just to put the record straight:

  • Many wildflower meadows begin their provision of nectar and pollen in February and March with flowers such as primroses, violets and celandines . The supply peaks in June and July and continues into September and beyond with late-flowering knapweed (Centaurea nigra), betony (Stachys officinalis) and devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis). I’d call it a good and varied diet over a very long season indeed. 
  • Research indicates that not many pollinators will actually benefit from peas and beans. In her excellent blog on nectar provision by legumes, Lynn Dicks shows that while bumblebees might benefit from beans for a short period, solitary bees are unable to feed from the chunky flowers. For peas, there is less evidence, but some studies show that solitary bees don’t find related clover and alfalfa crops particularly attractive either.
  • A meadow sustains a wide range of important pollinators, such as butterflies and moths, beetles, wasps, hoverflies and other flies. Despite the focus of attention at the moment, it’s not just all about the bees. This is a simple ecological lesson; maybe Defra and NFU should study Buglife’s Pollinator Identification Chart.
  • It’s also about plants providing food for invertebrates. A field of peas or beans will support just over 40 invertebrate species. A meadow with just nine of the most common meadow flowers, like bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), red clover (Trifolium pratense), knapweed and Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus), can support over ten times this number (422 in total). And remember, all these inverts are what farmland birds feed on; it’s about sustaining the complete food chain from the roots up. 
  • With no restrictions on the use of pesticides and fertilizers on these crops, these chemicals can be freely applied with consequent effects on wildlife.  So even those 40 invertebrate species are likely to be wiped out, while the fertilizer will scupper any chance for cornfield flowers, like nectar and pollen rich poppies and dead nettles, to grow amongst the crop, further reducing benefits to wildlife. 

The Government's own biodiversity strategy is about the multiple benefits that intact, semi-natural habitats can bring in providing a range of 'ecosystem services'. But Defra are failing to appreciate these benefits. Instead, they seem to be focusing solely on pollinating bumblebees and providing them with a quick, cheap, sugar rush. A bee will feed on a bean flower in the same way that you and I might occasionally eat a MacDonalds, but that’s not a healthy, long-term solution to declining farmland wildlife. And, of course, it does nothing at all for Britain’s declining wild flowers.

The decision also turns back the clock to the headage payments and crop subsidies of yesteryear, something that the government is meant to be moving away from. Since peas and beans are a crop, taxpayers money will directly supplement farm income, rather than supporting wildlife in the public good.

In order to get maximum value from public money, Defra must place the focus of CAP reform back on to semi-natural habitats with their constituent species and the diversity of these habitats in the farmed landscape. This aim should be underpinned with good, evidence-based habitat management. Habitat restoration can’t be rushed, there are no quick fixes, and it should be done with the wild in mind; naturally regenerating set-aside fields can have three times as many nesting bee species as clover fields and arable field margins come from soil seed banks, not from seed packets.  

How any right thinking person can accept that an intensively farmed crop is as good for wildlife as a meadow bursting with wild flowers and alive with all of its attendant birds, butterflies and bees is a bit scary.  There are many alternative and ecologically rigorous measures that could be put in place, perhaps as part of a National Certification Scheme, including ecological set-aside, creation of "buffer zones" for high nature value areas, management of uncultivated strips and field margins and conversion of arable land into extensive low-input grassland. All of these will allow our wild plants to do their thing, bringing colour back to the countryside and ultimately providing food and shelter for all our other farmland wildlife.

We ask that Defra reconsider this decision.


  1. Defra continues its support for large commercial entities (as does NFU) at the expense of real life! With this lot in charge this will never change. Perhaps they are waiting for the genetic engineers to find a way of dipensing with the need for pollinators all together!

  2. Thanks for this Trevor. Great pictures. I agree - this is crazy. We do need more legumes in arable rotations and on livestock farms, to reduce the homogeneity of landscapes, improve the soil and manage weeds and diseases better. But this is NOT a wildlife measure.

  3. I agree Trevor. Great pictures. We do need more legumes in arable rotations, to improve soil, reduce weed problems (black grass, for instance), and improve landscape heterogeneity. But this should not be seen as a measure to help wildlife, in place of semi-natural habitat provision.

  4. This is seriously worrying! Thanks for the thoughtful response and highlighting this important issue. So sad to hear about it.

  5. We need to stand up against this. Not only is really stupid and pointless, it will cost every houshold £400.

  6. For decades hay meadows were grazed by mainly cattle and in June a cut of hay was taken to provide winter feed for the cattle. Then more intensive grass management systems evolved.More cattle could be grazed per acre. More hay was produced per acre without being contaminated by wildflowers. Farmers made more profit . Some of this filtered into the wider agricultural economy. Farmers who adopted these more advance techniques survived. Those who did not adapt did not .This continues today across the planet. At the expense of flora and fauna. The scale in less developed areas is faster and more extensive with the technology available today. The UK has been through this phase many decades ago, but still as in ancient times it is not possible to maintain a status quo with any system. Protein producing crops are being encouraged. Farmers will follow the profit opportunities as we live in a commercial environment. Low input farming is long gone it was not sustainable. They are not making any more farmland and land values are at an all time high. Great idea to promote a state of agriculture and land management that previously existed for a limited time. But that is the point, nothing remains the same in the natural world. Why not go back to to when most of the land was a forest ? I still have equisetum in my garden,sometimes used by the Romans as a pot scourer. It existed a long time before most wildflower mixtures out of a pcket.

  7. Frankly, I'm often rendered speechless by DEFRA and this government in general.

  8. Leaves me speechless too! I think we also need to remind Defra, the NFU & all local authorities that crop harvesting, grass cutting etc should be done from the inside outwards so the small mammals & nesting birds that live there can escape. I still see famers & local authority grass cutters starting with a circle around the outside & then moving progressively inwards, without doubt killing many animals & chicks in the process. I thought this had been accepted as a principle of good wildlife management some years ago but it seems not - unless it is the new generation that do not know or do not care!

  9. Trevor, I think that you will find the legume crops are on arable farms, where there is no grass (let alone meadows), and so they will contribute to added crop diversity, and maybe overwinter stubbles as well. To really benefit biodiversity wildflower rich field margins have been shown to be very effective on arable farms.
    Peter Sutton

  10. Anon.
    I think the key issue with regard to the loss of hay meadows was the switch from hay to silage as a more effective way of producing winter fodder.
    Also really not sure why there is such criticism of "seed packets". In my experience tot get farmers into leaving pollen and nectar plots around the farm they need to see something for their effort. For this reason seed mixes containing species such as red clover and birds foot trefoil are excellent

  11. Can someone who is a bit more computer savvy than I am please set up a petition on Care2 to show DEFRA the depth of feeling in this country. please.