Robin Blake, University of Reading & Mark Robbins
Dave - Over the last few years there have been various government schemes here in the UK to pay farmers to live grass strips around the edges of fields of crops. The idea is to encourage wildlife but research suggests they might be better off planting wild flowers. The research by Robin Blake from the University of Reading showed that by encouraging flowers, farmers would also encourage bumble bees which are also currently declining in numbers. Planet Earth podcast presenter Richard Hollingham joined Robin in a field near Reading in Berkshire to see how this experiment worked.
Robin - Grassy strips are really common and while they offer some biodiversity benefits, for example for ground nesting birds or predatory invertebrates such as spiders and beetles, because there aren't any wild flowers present, there's nothing there to attract insect pollinators.
Richard - So what did you do then?
Robin - Our project is looking at two different management treatments. So we're adding wild flowers and we're also applying a graminicide. That's a grass herbicide, it has the aim of suppressing the grasses and really giving the wild flowers a chance of becoming established in the strips.
Richard - Let's look then at this strip here. We've got wild flowers in front of us, rather obvious wild flowers, you'll have to identify these for me. Okay, what have we got here?
Robin - So we've got an oxide daisy here, which is in flower...This is knapweed, we've got yarrow, ladies bedstraw, ribwort plantain. There's birdsfoot trefoil here, the yellow flower.
Richard - And yet further down this strip it's just grass.
Robin - And that's representative of many of the grass margins in the UK.
Richard - So you've got the wild flowers, have you got the bumblebees?
Robin - Yeah. We have. In the plots that have received the wild flowers and the graminicide, we can see a 25-fold increase in bumblebee numbers compared to the existing grass strips. Not just of bumblebees but of solitary bees, honey bees, butterflies as well.
Richard - So this proves it works?
Robin - It does, yes.
Richard - Okay. Well let's talk to a farmer then, Mark Robbins who runs the estate here. Great isn't it?
Mark - It looks absolutely fabulous and I'm very proud to have them on our stewardship margins really. We put these margins down in 2003 and the mixtures are what we were asked to put down by Natural England, the prescriptions that I put down when I was farming back in 1996 and they are just grass. I always thought that they were environmentally very dull. So when Robin came along and said he'd like to try something out, I grasped the opportunity because I wanted to see whether we were proven right or not and it appears that we have been.
Richard - Is there a difference though and a difference in effort, a difference in money involved in this? If you just left this strip you would end up with grass, but you have to actively spray it with something to suppress the grass if you want the nice wild flowers.
Mark - You're absolutely right on one level, but what you've got to remember is before these strips were put in in 2003, there was a crop right up to the hedge. So we had to actively plant the grass and we had to actively keep the docks and the nettles and the thistles out. So on one level yes, you're right. But on another level if you're going to plant a new stewardship strip around the edge of a field, you might as well plant it with something that's going to provide some sort of benefit, which is what we appear to have seen here. It does rely on a subsidy but where I was coming from in putting these things in is that if we can provide some sort of environmental benefit for that subsidy then one feels that one is doing one's bit. Where we are now with these sorts of mixtures and margins, actually you are providing a real benefit and not just grass strips that don't really do a great deal.
Richard - You also notice bees coming there?
Mark - Very much so. Whilst you were interviewing Robin just then, if you look at the detail of it, you can actually see activity there. If we were to go and stand up on the rest of the grass strip, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't see a great deal. Going back to the pollinators and things, we've got the spring linseed that's now come out into flower here. What better example of the fact that we need, as agriculture, as consumers of food, we need these pollinators to make sure that the crops in the field are pollinated. And here we are, we've got a crop of linseed on the one side and we've got insect activity encouraging the bumblebees and the nectar bees into this strip. So it seems to work.
Richard - Robin, this is a great example, it strikes me, of science applied to the real world which is the crop growing on the right of me.
Robin - Yeah. Absolutely and I think it's just as important to see how these habitats in the margins can be used to help the crops, you know, because obviously bees are important in the pollination of crops such as linseed.
Richard - This is the research. Where do you go from here because you need other farmers onboard really…
Robin - The research that I've done, I've focused just on four farms in southern England. And whilst we've replicated those results across those four farms, if I'm going to make the policymakers listen, then I think we need more data on, a range of farms across the UK. But more importantly we need to get the farmers to do the treatments for themselves and really show the benefits can work.
Dave - That was Robin Blake from the University of Reading along with farmer Mark Robbins talking to Planet Earth presenter Richard Hollingham in a field somewhere in darkest Berkshire.