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Can agroecology increase biodiversity on farms?

How to increase the biodiversity on your farm

On an agroecological farm – a farm that works with nature – the natural world nourishes your produce, and your produce nourishes the natural world. It’s a reciprocal thing: an advantageous relationship between Earth’s systems and your farm’s practices that, ultimately, helps to cultivate produce in a more sustainable and natural way.

There are lots of ways you can make your farm more agroecological – but one of the primary methods is by making it more biodiverse. This is what Sinead and Adam, two organic farmers from East Sussex, set out to do at their smallholding, Aweside Farm. Since taking over in 2020, they’ve planted nearly 4,000 trees, sown a huge range of flowers and coaxed back wildlife, including toads, dragonflies and birds, to their land.

But why did they go to so much effort, and what were the benefits? We asked Sinead to for her top tips and insights on the topic: and she had lots to say…

Why is biodiversity on farms important?

A successful, biodiverse farm is one that strengthens the existing relationships between nature, wildlife and the land, enabling them to work in harmony – echoing the principles of agroecology itself.

Sinead Fenton Aweside Farm

At work on the farm

It’s all about balance. The more biodiverse your farm is, the healthier a system you’ll have. If you’re having pest or weed outbreaks, for instance, that’s because your system is imbalanced (and favours just one species as opposed to several). You should always work towards creating that balance if you want your farm to be resilient.

I think it’s really important to look beyond the benefits a biodiverse farm offers, too, and take on a wider view. We should change the narrative that wildlife "has" to benefit farms, (even though it does!). Wildlife is a part of our landscape, and we need to learn to coexist. It’s really that simple.

So how can you create a more biodiverse farm, exactly?

Tip 1: Grow more flowers

Flowers Aweside Farm

Flowers at Aweside Farm

A huge range of flowers are planted at Aweside Farm… and perhaps surprisingly to some, there’s no cut off point. Spring, summer, autumn and winter all have their particular perks for planting, and farmers should take better advantage of this.

Having plants that flower successively throughout the year means that there’s food all year round for wildlife, which helps create balance on your farm a lot sooner. Flowers like primrose, violas and chicory are good ones to bear in mind, as they attract insects much earlier in the year. Further, cornflowers will help your farm meet success over winter. If you allow them to die down in situ, they "become one" with the soil again, providing it with more nutrients and nourishing vital organisms like earthworms.

When growing more flowers and plants on your farm, there are also other things to consider. Crucially, flowers provide food for insects, which stops them from eating your produce. Moreover, these flowers can create habitats for your most farm-friendly wildlife, if planted strategically. I would advise:

  • Growing plants and flowers that are structurally different: Such as tall, small and “climbing” plants, providing several habitats for a range of insects
  • Creating “corridors” for wildlife to use: Enabling creatures to travel in-between places on your farm more easily
  • Grouping certain flowers and plants closely together: So, namely, insects don’t have to travel far to get more food
    Planting your most appetizing flowers close to your vegetable beds: So that hungry bugs get distracted by your beautiful blooms!

By planting your flowers and plants purposefully, you’ll not only go a long way in protecting your produce, you’ll create a cohesive environment for a varied set of creatures, enabling them to make a home of your farm and contributing to your land’s overall biodiversity.

Plants and vegetables Aweside Farm

Flowers growing alongside vegetables

But what flowers might you want to consider growing? At Aweside Farm, some popular choices are:

  • Calendula: A nectar-rich flower that “self-seeds” (saving you having to re-plant it in the following year). These attract parasitic wasps, hoverflies, ladybirds, bees and more
  • Chive: Flowers early in the year, attracting insects like bees and deterring vegetable-eating bugs like carrot flies and aphids
  • Borage: A haven for pollinators, and a good nutrient accumulator. If left to die down in place over winter, it can serve as a great mulch for your soils
  • Sweet Alyssum: Attracts predatory bugs that keep aphids and flea beetles at bay
  • Cornflowers: A brilliant flower for growing over winter. Its leaves and bud emit nectar throughout the year, making it a constant food source for the many bugs it attracts
  • Ivy: As a “climbing” plant, ivy is a great overwintering habitat, and the flowers and berries it grows become a food resource throughout autumn
  • Clematis: Another “climbing” plant, this flower can make your structures (e.g. your fences) more hospitable for wildlife by growing over them
  • Chicory: One of the most attractive food sources to beneficial insects
  • Cosmos: A “tall” flower that attracts hoverflies and parasitic wasps looking for nectar
  • Oregano: A “low” grower that creates a good space for beetles to hide away from predators.

Diverse in structure, height, the wildlife they nourish and their seasonality, these flowers and plants (and the many more that are grown at Aweside Farm) have a ton of positives for your farm, both independently and as a collective. Sow away!

Learn more about eco-savvy growing here.

Tip 2: Plant more trees

Trees surrounding Aweside Farm

Growing many types of tree is hugely important in creating a more biodiverse farm, and again, planting species that thrive at different times of the year should be a top consideration. As with flowers, dense trees (like shrubs) that bloom at different points will attract lots of insects and create hospitable environments for wildlife to live in year-round. You should be mindful of the height, width, and density of your trees as well, as these variations will complement a biodiverse environment.

In fact, trees are a great resource for creating different “levels” on your farm, which is especially beneficial to birds. Often, birds travel down in “stages” to reach the ground – perching on trees, shrubs and other plants as they descend, rather than going down in one swoop – so by creating different tiers with trees, you can enable them to visit your farm more easily.

At Aweside, we have cordoned off land with a row of hedgerows, within which is half an acre of woodland, which thins out to a smaller circle of trees and shrubs. Our farm sits at the centre. This mixture of hedgerows and small and large trees creates the perfect environment for birds to visit, along with benefiting many other forms of wildlife – and the land itself. We’re on a really compacted site, so the roots from our trees help us work on that by breaking it up. They’re also useful when adverse conditions strike. For instance, if there’s flooding, the trees will help us to balance the water levels by intercepting or soaking it up.

What trees might you want to plant on your farm, and why? Here are a few Aweside favourites..:

  • Blackthorns: The first flowering shrub of the year, supporting year-round biodiversity
  • Hawthorns: Creates shelters for animals, like hedgehogs, and attracts nesting birds
  • Forsythia: Produces yellow flowers in February and March, which draws lots of insects. Fun fact: bugs love the colour yellow!
  • Winter Honeysuckle: Flowers over winter, which again contributes to annual biodiversity
  • Woodland varieties: These add to the various levels you should strive for on your farm. Also, when their leaves fall off in autumn, they can both help to protect your soils and create homes for creatures such as slow worms.

Providing shelter and food for the wildlife on your farm is what trees are all about at Aweside, so don’t overlook them.

Learn more about farming with trees – a process called “agroforestry” - here

Tip 3: Create more ponds

Aweside Farm ponds

Your resident pest police

Ponds also have their place on Aweside Farm, particularly as they act as a brilliant home for toads. We’ve seen them at night going out into our vegetable beds. They eat the slugs – so, really, they’re doing our pest control for us. Their diet doesn’t end there either: toads enjoy a mixture of snails, snail eggs and much more, besides... helping you to keep your produce clean and clear of tiny bites!

Better yet, creating ponds is easy. You can dig holes in the ground and line them, repurpose old sinks and dig buckets into the ground to make little watery areas that attract more aquatic wildlife. Of course, levels are important here as well, as these ensure that wildlife can climb out easily if it falls in, birds can drink and bathe, and amphibians can spawn. At Aweside, we use logs and bricks to create these tiers.

What’s more, there are some edible plants that a pond environment serves well – principally, water mint. This plant:

  • Serves as a larval food for many moth species and butterflies
  • Acts as a link between the water and the world – as its stems are used by dragonflies and damselfly larvae to climb out of the water, when they’re ready to emerge as adults.

Simple and effective, ponds are another great way to create a natural haven on your farm. Ribbit-ing stuff.

Work with nature, and wildlife will come your way

The more natural you make your farm, the more biodiversity you’ll attract – and the more biodiverse your farm is, the more balanced it’ll be, resulting in a healthy, thriving system. Our approach is all about creating habitats for a range of different wildlife to enter, to help create balance on our land, particularly within the spaces that we're growing crops.

Don’t underestimate flower power, either! They’re probably the thing that gets forgotten about when we’re talking about the environment, and they’re one of the easiest solutions to helping solve our nature and climate problems.

Listen to Sinead and Adam talk more about their farm here.

The Soil Association supports a wholescale transition to agroecological farming in the UK and globally. As the best certifiable example of agroecological practice, organic farming has a lot to offer for farmers looking to make the transition.