Then came clear skies and a cool easterly wind. It was time to plough, and I turned to the stubble field with mixed feelings. Last year’s oat crop has exceeded every hope and expectation I could’ve held for it. It’s impossible to overstate what a boon this field has been for wild birds, even since it was first ploughed fourteen months ago. In a landscape of improved grassland, these few small acres have been a magnet for wild birds. I can’t point to any formal monitoring or survey work, but I can say that I’ve been rocked on my heels by the quantity and variety of wildlife I’ve seen in the oats over the last year.
The tractor ambled into the field and flushed two dozen skylarks from their pickings in the weedy residues of last year’s crop. There were pheasants and partridges in the close-nipped spread of old litter, and they rushed for cover as I lowered the plough with a wince and began to ruin that enormous bird table.
The oats were an accident. I always wanted to grow turnips in this field, and I bought all the equipment I’d need to make that happen in the autumn of 2017. But then I realised that you can’t drill turnips into freshly ploughed grass. I’d have to grow something else for a year until the old turf had rotted away, and cereals were chosen to fill a gap at short notice. But now I’ve seen the staggering power of oats, it seems almost impossible that turnips can ever live up to them.
It’s easy to plough in a stubble field. The soil has nothing to bind it together and so the ground boils up in a crumbly mess as you pass. It’s not pretty, but I flew through the job and was done in a few hours. Of course I hooked into a few new stones and brought them up like snarling ogres in my wake. Some of these could be manhandled out of the way, but others will call for a hydraulic lift and I had good cause to remember the warnings of ploughing too much, and the risk of lifting stones which might otherwise lie unwoken. I even wondered if the work of ploughing was overkill. I have a cultivator which might have done the job of weeding just as well, but then I remembered the patches of oats which were left unharvested and knew that they’d have to be properly buried to keep the new crop clean.
I kept these stubbles for as long as I could because I knew they’d be valuable for birds in March and early April. Most people plough the stubbles in after harvesting in the autumn, readying the ground for winter crops. The difficult reality is that my field was only bearing a crop and pulling its weight for five months in the last fourteen. If this was only a commercial operation, I could hardly afford that idleness. So the last few oats were buried underground at last while curlews sang in the high skies and a pair of short eared owls circled on the edge of sight. I couldn’t hear them above the tractor’s din, but I imagined the sound of their clapping wings and the deep, drowsy hoot of the yellow-eyed birds.
I left a few thin streaks of the old crop to see what will become of it, but the majority is dark and fresh. The larks instantly lost their love for that place, and now they scurry like mice in the unploughed margins. But the lark’s loss has been the wagtail’s gain; the crumbly furrows are filled with nodding white faces, and the wheatears are piqued by the possibilities of bare soil. And less than twelve hours later, I’ve found the dusting bowls where pheasants and partridges have already bathed.
Here is my greatest weakness. I’m working a three phase rotation on a single field; oats, turnips and clover. If I had a dozen fields, I’d stagger that pattern so there would always be somewhere for birds to go. I’d be able to sustain the larks and the lovers of weeded stubble and bring turnip lovers along with me too. I suppose the larks will now dissipate and I’ll see a boom in some other species, but I’ve been forced to trade some birds for others.
And now the reality of this work is more compelling than ever. See what I’ve been able to do on a single small field, then expand that to a farm. Then expand it again to a parish or a county which nowadays lies in an unbroken mat of monotonous, nitrogenous grass.
There’s no mystery in the decline of farmland birds.