Saturday, June 13, 2015

Are our farmers finally seeding with wild flowers alongside their commercial crops? If so - hearty thanks. If not, why not?

Or should that be wildflowers (one word) in the title?

Wikipedia says it can be either:

This blogger is basically a townie, and has been most all his life. He  knows next to nothing about farming and agriculture. There’s still crop rotation, that much is clear, which at school we were taught maintains soil fertility –though I’ve yet to see a field left fallow, like being planted with textbook clover or green manure (nitrogen fixing!) that is then supposedly ploughed in to benefit the following year's crop.

But yesterday, while on a countryside walk (well, semi-rural) something new struck me, despite having done the same route several times before. There was a surprising amount of colour along the strip that separates the pedestrian/bicycle/dog walkers’ track from the crop. 

Wild flower edging separates country foot/cycle path from farmer's crop. 30 or so miles from London,  UK, June 12th 2015

 By colour I mean wild flowers -  not just one here, one there- but a border several metres wide that looked for all intents and purposes like a linear wild flower meadow. Now there’s always been a bit of “rough” there with wild flowers, and I’ve assumed it was there for a reason, about which more later. But yesterday, seeing all that colour, running hundreds of metres, a sudden thought struck me: that’s not the attractive spectacle one expects to find simply as a result of accident surely.  Wild flowers do not suddenly appear in such high density via sudden colonization via windblown seed , even if a farmer has decided to create a buffer between his anuual crop, whatever that happens to be, and the public footpath or cycle trail.

Crop (left) meets wild flower border (right) parallel to footpath (out of picture, right)

 It would surely take years for colonization, and I would surely have noticed the gradual  buildup of colour.

As I progressed, one thing became apparent. Despite the range of colours,it was deceptive: there was actually a relatively small number of specific wild flower species with some being better represented than others. What’s more ther were in roughly  the same proportions for quite sizeable stretches, bar the far end where there seemed a concentration of a single type.  Was the wild flower meadow look entirely natural I asked myself? Or had the farmer purchased a mix of wild flower seeds, and deliberately introduced some biodiversity into the local countryside? If the latter, why? Was it entirely altruistic, for the benefit of countryside walkers. Or was there  some science there, like encouraging bees and other pollinating insects? Does our serial monoculture (crop rotation) need pollinating insects anyway? Which is where we came in – acknowledging my profound ignorance of agriculttural practice.

I saw other differences along the way that caused me to think that a new pre-planned  policy was operating where crop meets human thoroughfare. When I got home, I grabbed my camera and decided to record all I had seen, but in reverse order, urban to rural.  The reason for that should shortly become apparent.  It was to do with nailing an impression that there was finally change afoot in our otherwise conservative farming practices, summed up as "intensive agriculture"  with the focus on yields and profits.  Might we be seeing the colour-adding  result of a new initiative operating, one to promote a welcome biodiversity?  Or was that burst of colour just  happenstance, restricted possibly  to my own neck of the woods. Either way, it seemed an opportunity to document the changes taking places in the above locality - capture it in stages, hopefully season by season.

Start walk afresh. See season's new crop (wheat). But why the unplanted (unseeded?) wide new border between crop and path (right)

 That bare strip is new, serving no obvious purpose, with precious little sign so far of recolonization. What's the evidence that it's new - apart from this writer's memory?

Answer: there are still remnants (highly decayed) of last year's root crop - beet(?) (Presumably sugar beet, but they could have been plain old turnips for feeding to sheep for all I know).

Not a pretty sight. Remnant of last year's root crop.

 Here's a better idea of the width of that new buffer strip:

Am no fan of cow parsley - subject of a posting on this site last year, but it beats that desert to the left  of the path.
What's that unsightly ploughed-up strip for? Is it too much to hope that it will be a mass of wild flowers this time next year? if so, why is there no sign of it having been seeded? (Watch this space, at annual intervals).

Here we are at the end of the desert strip. There's some touches of blue colour at last - if one looks hard -  in the old established edging at the back.

In close-up. Species? Dunno.Species identification will be added as a rider to this posting - which may take some time.
Late addition: it seems to be tansy-leaved phacelia.

Here's a close-up from image archives.

Tansy-leaved phacelia

Bagged off for later identification, along with samples of the more dominant and eye-catching species described at the start.
Here we are at the next field. Things start to get a bit more interesting, but probably for what's been happening over many seasons, with no sudden new developments:

Left: new crop with wild flower edging; Centre: close up of new crop (identity unknown at time of writing); right plenty of fairly established-looking biodiversity in that edging, with no obvious "newly-seeded'look.
... and here's my haul of biodeversity from that second field, specimens to be identified later.
We now move to the third of 4 adjacent fields. This one has a rapeseed crop, and as above the prolific wildflower edging has a somewhat established look, i.e. does not look as if freshly seeded this season (though speculatively it may have been at some point in previous years).

Left: rape crop left, edging to right; Centre and right:: close-up of some edging plants.

Here we are turning into the 4th and largest of the field, with a cycle path, a brook to the left a rape crop to the right, and what seems initially like a predominantly white-flower edging.


Yes, there are lots of daisies in that border. See the rape crop behind, past its main 'carpet' flowering, separated by a narrow bare strip.

That bank of daisies is magnificent, but does not stretch the entire length of the border (several hundreds of metres). Not bad eh for wild flowers? This would do justice to an old-fashioned country garden.

Further along, the daisies peter out, and one is then treated to what seems initially like a highly diverse mix of species, sporting a wide range of colours.

Here's an attempt at a panoramic view. looking back from the far end. Click to enlarge.
Never mind the absence of exotic species. Just feel the biodiversity, as those nectar-seeking bees and buuerflies do with their probing probosces.

Click to enlarge
Now then recalling what was said at the start, it was the 4th field that was encountered first, with its dense profusion of colourful wild flower, with no recollection of having seen anything quite so prolific on previous rambles via that path. The first thought, not abandoned entirely, was that the farmer had purchased one of those seed mixtures one sees advertised. Here's an example from the internet: note however the eye-watering price - over £100 per kilo (but that serves for 2 acres we are told):

Two other things suggested 'over-seeding' (that term maybe implying that the seed could be scattered on ground that has a pre-existing coverage of grasses etc). Despite the riot of colour, there seemed to be a relatively small number of species, maybe 10 at most, with half that number dominating. There was also a consistency re the distribution of each type - evenly mixed up, so to speak, as one might expect from distributing a mix of seed from a supplier, as distinct from random seed dispersion via wind etc.

Against that were two counter-observations. First, there was a cereal crop (oats? still to be confirmed) in among the wild flowers.

Might that have been a survivor from an earlier season's crop planting? It seems unlikely that a commercial wild flower mixture would have contained cereal seeds like wheat, barley, oats etc.

The there was that bank of white daisies that dominated in a limited expanse of Field 4, probably a quarter at most. That argued against human intervention , being more to do with the history of natural seeding, with certain species arriving first and getting established so as to achieve dominance through sheer numbers (assisted perhaps by variation in soil type, situation in respect of drainage, wind, exposure to sun etc).

The intermediate Fields 2 and 3 did nothing to back up man-made seeding either, having a somewhat less ornate and showy appearance suggestive of natural seeding over several seasons, with much in common with Field 4 as regards the dominant species.

However, there's one thing that keeps the notion of supplier-assisted seeding alive, and it's that Field 1, with the newly carved-out bare strip between wheat crop and path. Why is it there? Why is it so poorly colonized as yet? (Answer:  because it was previously used for serial monoculture, having few wild flower seeds to allow immediate re-colonization.) So it's possible, just possible, that the presently bare strip has been earmarked for seeding, but that has still to be done, maybe in the autumn. We shall see. I'll be monitoring closely what happens to Field 1 in the coming weeks and months. How heartening it would be if this time next year it resembles Field 4, transforming to a riot of colour.

Yes, England is known as a green and pleasant land, but all too often that translates to the green of whatever is the current season's crop in our intensive agriculture, or as some have described it unflatteringly as "agri-business'. How nice it would be if there had been an initiative to sacrifice some fertile land at the edge of existing fields to introduce colour, visual interest and biodiversity.

Suppose there has been seeding with commercial seed mixtures. Why are the farmers doing that all of a sudden? Is  it pure altruism on their part, making the countryside more attractive to walkers? Or is it being done for more scientifically-based environmental reasons. like encouraging bees to come and pollinate in those edgings first, and then to move on to cultivated crops that may also depend on insect pollination? Again,I have to reveal my ignorance. Which crops if any are dependent on bees and other insects? I'm sure I've seen references to bee-dependent crops, but cannot name them right now. Time to get a googling-o.

I shall stop here for now, but will add that appendix in due course on the tentative identification of my collected samples, comparing with those that are listed in commercial wild flower seed mixes. I shall do some research on the need or otherwise to encourage pollinating insects in commercial agriculture. I may even contact the local newspaper to see if it can find who owns the 4 fields described above, able hopefully give a quick answer to the 64.000 question: entirely natural or assisted seeding?

If there's a farmer reading this who can assist with my enquiry, please don't hesitate to use the Comment facility to give us the benefit of your practical knowledge and knowhow.

Late additions:

1. From the Mail, Nov. 2014 (providing an answer to my question re which types of cultivated crops depend on pollination)

" It's well-known bumblebees are great pollinators and so have a key role in producing much of the food we eat. Through the pollination of many commercial crops such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries, insects are estimated to contribute over £400 million per annum to the UK economy.
If the decline of bumblebee and other insect pollinator continue, the extremely high cost of pollinating these plants by other means could significantly increase the cost of fruit and vegetables."

Read more:

Interesting comment under the above article:

Texas USA has a scheme which has been running ever since Lyndon B Johnson was its Governor.  His wife, nicknamed  'Ladybird' Johnson, suggested that the Highways dept. of Texas spray a mixture of wild flower seeds onto the grassy areas by the side of the States Roads. Over the years this annual spraying has continued with the most beautiful result. The cost of the programme is likely insignificant compared to that of cleaning up.


Here's a site with seed mixture options for "buffer strips" (hey, this townie is starting to pick up the lingo)

It's about 15 hours since posting, and already this posting has had some 80 hits. That looks promising. There must be a fair amount of interest out there in the topic. Shame there's two alternative spellings (wild flowers v wildflowers) that can make a world of difference where search engines are concerned (especially as Google insists on underlining "wild flowers" in red as if misspelled). If one enters (farmers wild flowers) exactly as written into Google, this posting appears on page 6 of the listings. Alter that to (farmers wildflowers) and it's not even in the first 10. Naturally I've now added "wildflowers" to the text and labels. Whether that makes any difference remains to be seen.


3. There's even a wiki entry on "Buffer Strip". The sort described here is just one, and appears to fit the following excerpt (my red).

Field borders
This type of buffer strip is simply a band or strip of perennial vegetation that is found on the edge of a cropland field. Field borders help with runoff only when it flows over the strip. They’re very effective in benefiting spraying operations because they allow for extra room between adjacent fields. They also provide room for farming equipment to turn around. Field borders are effective in reducing wind and water erosion and provide great wildlife habitat.

Oh dear. It's possible that the bare edging described earlier in that Field 1 (the one with the wheat) was created solely for that purpose when it comes to harvesting time, and not in readiness for sowing wild flowers/wildflowers.  Time will tell.

Appendix (added 15 June)

Have just had a challenging few hours, identifying the wildflowers collected on that walk.


Black medick

Common vetch


Red campion

Red clover

Ribbed melilot


Spear thistle

Next step (probably the last where this somewhat overlong posting is concerned): to make a summary list of those wildflower species above that are concentrated into that 4th and largest border strip, to annotate with key details re their role in the farmed countryside - whether chance arrivals or deliberately introduced - and to arrive at a tentative conclusion: deliberate reseeding of the borders or not. Abbreviated notes from wikipedia:

1. Thistles: these are too varied a group for generalisation; many are troublesome weeds, including some invasive species .Typical adverse effects are competition with crops and interference with grazing , both as bee fodder in general, and as sources of luxury monofloral honey products.

Weeds, pure and simple, even if providing insects with nectar.

2. Ribbed melilot: grown as hay despite its toxic properties when mouldy. It is considered an excellent green manure. 

Highly conspicuous in the border strips, due to high yellow flowering spikes, but not a great deal to be found re use in agriculture.

Established role in agriculture - not just a wayside weed.

3. Sainfoin: provides a superb forage for grazing animals.  Voluntary intake of sainfoin by cattle and sheep is 20% higher than for grass. Sainfoin contains condensed tannins, and it is these that protect animals against bloat. By improving nitrogen utilzation, the condensed tannins of sainfoin also help
 reduce greenhouse gases (CH4, N2O. Sainfoin is seldom used as a pure crop and is generally introduced in pasture in a grass-legume mix with cocksfoot (Dactylis), ryegrass (Lolium) or with other legumes such as red clover, white clover or lucerne.

4. Poppy

5. Clovers: Several species are extensively cultivated as fodder plants.  Clover has for a long time formed a staple crop for soiling, for several reasons: it grows freely, shooting up again after repeated mowings; it produces an abundant crop; it is palatable to and nutritious for livestock; it fixes nitrogen, reducing the need for synthetic. It is appropriate for either pasturage or green composting.

Clovers are most efficiently pollinated by bumblebees, which have declined as a result of agricultural intensification. Honeybees can also pollinate clover, and beekeepers are often in heavy demand from farmers with clover pastures. Farmers reap the benefits of increased reseeding that occurs with increased bee activity.

As before, clover is probably not just an accidental  arrival, but a crop-rotation survivor famed for its nitrogen-fixing ability. 

6. Alfalfa:  Medicago sativa, also called lucerne, is a perennial flowering plant in the pea family Fabaceae cultivated as an important forage crop in many countries around the world.

In other words: NOT really a wild flower,  even if it has escaped from cultivated fields into edging borders.

7. Black medick: It is frequently found in natural pastures, and may be planted in order to create artificial meadows, especially on dry land. Black medick is sometimes used as a fodder plant. Its hardiness and ability to grow in poor soils, as well as its tendency to fix nitrogen in the soil, make black medick a good choice for pasturage, although its fodder value is limited. 

So it's not necessarily just another weed or wild flower. It may have been deliberately introduced, recently or not so recently, as a cultivated crop. 

8. Red campion: used as an ornamental perennial flower for the perennial border.
 The nectar of the flowers is utilised by bumblebees and butterflies.

At last, a plant that would appear to have no obvious utilitarian role in agriculture, apart from an ability to attract pollinating insects.

9. Common vetch: Vicia sativa, known as the common vetch, tare or simply "the vetch", is a nitrogen-fixing leguminous plant in the family Fabaceae. Although considered a weed when found growing in a cultivated grain field, this hardy plant is often grown as green manure or livestock fodder.

Again, looks like a weed, but is in fact a cultivated crop, or once-cultivated nearby when found in a border strip.

10. Phacelia tanacetifolia is known by the common names lacy phacelia, blue tansy or purple tansy.

It is used in many places in agriculture as a cover crop, a bee plant, an attractant for other beneficial insects, and an ornamental plant. It is planted alongside crop fields, where it is valued for its nectar-rich flowers which open in sequence, giving a long flowering period.  It is a good insectary plant, attracting pollinators such as honeybees.

As before, an established role in agriculture, not as a crop plant per se, but in an ancillary capacity as an attractant for pollinating insects.

So, having listed the 10 main sources of colour in the border strips. here are a few photos showing the proximity of those species to one another in the same photo frames. (Sadly I was not able to get all 10 in the one field of view!):

7 species in the one shot!

Here's the 8th - red campion - plus No.7 from earlier.

Here's the 9th - common vetch - in proximity to four from earlier.

Here's the 10th - phacelia

 In fact, 99%+ of the phacelias seen were at the end of Field 1, forming a single continuous floral border - most impressive.

Phacelia: nothing else gets a look in.

Next and final task:  check seed catalogues to see if any have a mix comprising mainly the 10 or so species listed, maybe with one or two added or removed. Then try to decide: were those border strips deliberately seeded with commercial mix. Or are we seeing the result of natural colonization over years by adventitious seeds, maybe promoted by previous ploughing of the edges of crop, providing a better tilth for seed to germinate, and maybe assisted by fertilzer run off? My thoughts are moving in the direction of the second option, but if that were the case, one suspects that conditions for growth (temperature, rainfall etc) must have been exceptional this year, or I would surely have noticed the proliferation of colour in previous years.

Back in a day or two.

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