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 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.