Increasing pollinators on arable farms
Pollinators are essential to agriculture, the economy and our wellbeing – and they're under threat. But farmers in Scotland are using farming with nature principles to preserve habitats and monitor population.
- Pollinators are vital to the farm ecosystem and to Scottish habitats, such as moorland and woodlands. But UK population numbers are crashing because of climate change, loss of habitats, afforestation and pathogens.
- Bill Gray, Farm Manager at Prestonhall Farms, Midlothian, talks about the benefits of wildflower margins and how they got the funding they needed for planting.
- Dr Lorna Cole, Agricultural Ecologist, SRUC, explains simple ways to monitor pollinator numbers, including transect walks and FIT Counts.
Bees, butterflies, hover flies – these vital insects are not only a crucial part of the farm ecosystem, but also contribute millions of pounds of value to UK agriculture by doing what they do naturally. Dr Lorna Cole, Agricultural Ecologist, SRUC says they contribute about £600 million per annum to the UK agricultural economy. They pollinate crops and quintessentially Scottish habitats, such as heather moorlands and woodlands, too.
But, with pollinator population numbers crashing, these vital insects are under pressure. In 2019, a report revealed a 25 percent average decline in the bee and hoverfly UK population since 1980. Climate change, loss of habitats, afforestation and pathogens all contribute to these falling numbers.
The good news is that Scottish farmers and landowners are putting farming with nature principles into practice on their land to help preserve pollinators – and to reap the benefits these insects bring to their farms.
Farming with nature in the margins
At Prestonhall Farms in Midlothian, Farm Manager Bill Gray says argi-environment climate change scheme funding meant they could add a variety of wildflowers – including phacelia, borage, alsike and red clover – to what were scrubby grass margins. “We were conscious that there were no real nectar-producing plants in them,” he says. “So we decided to use the opportunity to actually turn them around and create much more beneficial margins with a wide variety of plant species in them.”
Bill says the farm’s wildflower margins not only benefit pollinator population, but also benefit the farm itself: “Hoverflies are parasitic to aphids; aphids are a damaging insect to cereal crops, for example, and other crops as well, so if we build up beneficial populations, we get a spin-off from a crop protection point of view.”
Dr Cole says wildflower strips are a great food source for pollinators in the summer. She says farmers don't need funding for flower-rich margins: you can, for example, simply not spray the outer ten metres of a crop so natural wildflowers can regenerate in the crop margins.
Monitoring pollinator numbers
Once pollinator habitats are in place, there are cheap and easy ways to monitor the number of pollinators using them. Transect walks offer the opportunity to identify by eye the numbers and types of pollinators in a margin. Walking a standard distance each time will give more accurate numbers year on year.
“Another easy way to monitor pollinators would be to use solitary bee nests,” says Lorna. “These can be bought in a lot of different places including garden centres. You can create your own by drilling holes in fence posts. Drill them in a south-east direction – so they get plenty of sunlight – and about one metre off the ground. A little cap of mud at the end of the hole lets you know that the hole is filled up with solitary bee larvae.”
A Flower-Insect Timed (FIT) Count is another easy way to monitor pollinator numbers. Place a 50 by 50 cm quadrat, made from string or fence wire, in some target plant species, such as black knapweed or clover. Record the number of pollinators seen inside it in 10 minutes. The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology provides FIT Count data sheets, as well as useful information about what to count and how to count them.