Promoting biodiversity on farm does not have to be difficult and it certainly does not mean that you cannot farm productively.

Simply fencing off a watercourse can help to improve habitats and for those of you who want to go a little bit further afield margins are the next step.

Catherine Keena of Teagasc is confident that biodiversity and intensive agriculture can live side-by-side. She was talking on Teagasc’s The Dairy Edge Podcast recently.

Watercourses are a massive source of biodiversity on farms.

“Water adds another huge layer of species – plants, insects and invertebrates,” Catherine explained.

She added that watercourses get a lot of attention because of the focus on water quality, but noted that they are equally important from a biodiversity point of view.

Improving biodiversity in watercourses

There are a few things that can be done to make the most of the biodiversity in watercourses.

“Ideally the best practice is not to drink from the watercourses where possible; to fence the watercourse bank so that the banks of the watercourse can have natural vegetation on them; and ideally have a 1.5m margin alongside every watercourse.”

This margin should not receive fertiliser, sprays or be cultivated.

Field margins

Catherine described the opportunities for improving biodiversity in field margins, noting that there’s great potential in this area.

We’re not talking about letting the hedge grow out, because then we’re talking about a woodland habitat.

“What is really useful is if you could leave a grassy margin alongside the hedgerow, the watercourse, the stonewall and any farm boundary of at least 1.5m, ideally a bit more, and that would be left as natural species.”

Catherine explained that field boundaries have species that have been there for thousands of years.

“You would hope that you would have species there that would be in extensive grassland. It’s the area of the field that the silage contractor doesn’t cut, that the cattle don’t really get in and eat, but it can be negatively affected if fertiliser, slurry or sprays are applied or if it’s ploughed up and reseeded.

“People will often plough to the butt of the ditch. They won’t use that area, but because it’s been disturbed you tend to get the nettles and the thistles which are only there because nutrients are being disturbed.

If you drive along most of our roadsides – the margin that’s there is what we would love to have in our field margins.

Catherine explained that you want that 1.5m margin to be full of all the varieties of plants that cause no harm, but are easily removed if fertiliser gets in.

Intensive farms

With the new Green Deal and biodiversity strategy coming down the tracks no doubt some of these measures will have to be implemented on farms and indeed are already being implemented.

“The most intensive farmer in derogation can have lovely hedgerows, field margins and watercourses managed to best practice and alongside the most intensive grassland production,” Catherine noted.

She described how “networks for nature running through the farming platform are really, really important” and are far more important than a 1ac parcel left aside on its own.

Catherine explained how networks for nature are so important because “everything moves along those corridors – birds, bats, bees, everything tends to follow”.

“We have examples of intensive farmers with extremely high levels of biodiversity because they manage both side-by-side.”