For some time, we’ve been thinking about how best to improve things for wildlife at Riverford, without losing focus on growing veg to the best of our ability.
Organic farming (which doesn’t use any artificial pesticides or herbicides) has an obvious head start in supporting biodiversity, but there’s always more to be done.
The trick is working out what will have the greatest impact without inadvertently doing harm; there’s no point planting a forest on top of a rare orchid. With that in mind, we’ve had some experts in to assess the biodiversity across our land and recommend the best (practical) course of action. Once we know our baseline level of biodiversity, we’ll be able to see what effects our efforts have in future years.
Covid delayed things by over a year, but at last the survey results are trickling in. While hopes of finding beavers or big cats have been dashed, there’s plenty of cause for optimism: our reservoirs are pretty diverse, with breeding coots and little grebes (both birds which are scarce in Devon).
There are also DNA traces of the critically endangered European eel. Further downstream, the wildflowers monkshood and dusky cranesbill are growing, and a wetland meadow is thick with invertebrates and flora. Setting out mats to attract reptiles, a team of volunteer co-owners found grass snakes and slow worms.
And we were also visited by cirl buntings. These extremely vulnerable birds – down to 118 breeding pairs in 1989, and found only in the South West – have been brought back from the brink by habitat improvements made by farmers with advice from the RSPB.
So now we need to use this info to guide our next steps. In the short term, we are going to plant some bird-friendly seed mixes near hedgerows that cirl buntings might like. This will also help beneficial insects, as well as providing habitat for small rodents, which in turn provide food for raptors such as barn owls. We will create a more focused tree-planting programme. And we will undertake further surveys; we want to know more about birds, veteran trees and even dormice.
This isn’t the start of our work on biodiversity; it’s more an expansion of what we already do. But it feels good to be thinking even more about what will feed us and our environment in 60 years’ time, as well as in 60 days.