Modern, intensive agriculture tends to leave little in the way of food and shelter for wildlife. A large, un-hedged field of arable crops, sprayed with pesticides, is a virtual desert to insects, birds and wildflowers. However, all is not lost and, especially with new agri-environment grant schemes, things have been improving in recent years.
Around the field margins, trees, hedges and unsprayed headlands (field verges) can be oases of wildlife. Food such as black berries and elder berries are available for birds and small mammals. Birds nest in hedges and larger broadleaf trees. Foxes, stoats, owls and kestrels hunt for voles and mice along the hedge bottom and grass headland. Where farmers leave the field margins unsprayed with pesticides wildflowers often abound, providing pollen and nectar for butterflies and bumblebees; and slugs, snails and insects provide food for hedgehogs and badgers.
Natural England run a Stewardship grant scheme (Entry- and Higher Level) which encourages landowners to practise wildlife friendly farming, including less use of artificial chemicals and proper maintenance of hedges, dry stone walls, meadows and the like. As uptake of these grants increases, the countryside as a whole becomes a better place for our native species of plants and animals.
Old farm buildings are often important for wildlife, too. Barn owls, as the name suggests, favour such sites for nesting, as do many species of bat. Birds like robins, swallows, pied wagtails and house martins also nest in quiet farm buildings with lots of nooks and crannies where they can rear their young in peace. When such buildings are found near woodland, species-rich meadows and hedgerows of the type described above, these birds, and others like them, will thrive. Natural Englands Stewardship schemes help to fund the retention and conservation of these man-made features.
In the fields themselves, we find an array of bird, mammal, insect and plant life. Pasture land can be of particularly high value for biodiversity. In instances where the fields have been pasture for many years, or cropped for hay, we often find a wide range of wildflowers e.g. poppy, buttercup, forget-me-not, knapweed, speedwell, daisy, clover, field pansy, cowslip supporting butterflies, beetles and bees, with hoverflies, swallows, house martins and swifts feeding on mosquitoes, midges and other small flying insects. The predators mentioned above will hunt for food here as well as along field margins. There will be rabbit warrens in the hedge bottoms and pasture, and hares will range far and wide across the open fields. Where farmers restrict their use of chemicals and maintain their hedges, woods and headlands etc., with help from grant schemes, this coexistence of wildlife and agriculture is possible and increasingly common. There is, however, still a long way to go.