Country Matters: Leave it to the birds and beetles

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The Independent Online
TO Leicestershire, where a unique experiment in farming and game conservation is gathering steam on the Loddington estate, near Market Harborough.

After the deaths of the third Baron Allerton and his wife, Anne, the executors decided that their farm should be devoted to a project that would reflect their love of field sports and wildlife. In April 1992, after extensive negotiations, the Allerton Research and Educational Trust was set up in conjunction with that excellent charitable body, the Game Conservancy.

At and from its base in Fordingbridge, Hampshire, the conservancy had already carried out valuable research into the factors that affect the welfare of partridges, pheasants, grouse, and so on; but until last year it had never had a whole estate on which to put its theories into practice. Then suddenly, through the generosity of the Allerton trustees, who provided not only the land, but also substantial endowments, the scientists' dreams became reality. Now they have set up a base in Loddington House, the family's former home, and have assigned full-time staff to the project.

The gently undulating ground holds no special advantages for game. It is ordinary farmland, most of it heavy Leicestershire clay, and of the 722 acres only about 30 are wooded. The challenge to the trust is to see how far it can improve things by intelligent management, and how much knowledge it can glean for the benefit of landowners.

Much of the first year was spent in stock-taking. Gamebirds, songbirds, mammals, insects and plants were meticulously assessed and recorded, so that the effects of changes could be measured against original populations. The farm was in a run-down state: clay drainage pipes had long since silted up, leaving fields waterlogged, and lack of thinning had rendered the woods cold and draughty, with the trees too close together for undergrowth to flourish.

Remedial work began this year, principally on the farm. The long-term aim is that the farm should make money, even if some agricultural operations are weighted in favour of game production.

One of the research team's first requirements was that fields should be made smaller, to create more of the edges which gamebirds particularly favour, and that a greater variety of crops should be introduced. The result is that the land has taken on a more variegated, patchwork appearance. Beans and linseed have joined the principal crops of wheat, barley and oilseed rape.

Earlier research by the Game Conservancy had shown that one vital requirement of wild birds is a good supply of insects in early summer when chicks are hatching and growing. To help produce this abundance at the right moment, conservation headlands are maintained around the arable fields: that is, the edges are sprayed as little as possible with herbicides, and not at all with insecticides, to ensure that food is available when broods emerge from their nests in the hedges.

A more striking innovation has been the creation of beetle banks, whose aim is to reduce or even obviate the use of insecticides. Earth dykes five or six feet wide and three high are thrown up by the plough across the middle of fields and sown with tussocky grass.

The idea is that the banks should provide homes for large numbers of predatory beetles, which spend the winter in the grass and move out in spring to devour insects in the crops surrounding them. Because the beetles are flightless, they have to walk out to find their prey; but the banks give them a head start by putting most of each field within reach.

A separate project has been the restoration of two large ponds which had become silted up and hemmed in by overhanging foliage. Trees were cut back, three or four feet of silt pumped out, and sluices restored, with the aim of establishing a brown trout fishery which can be let to a club or syndicate.

Still more important will be the renovation of the woods, which will be selectively thinned or felled and replanted in small blocks, augmented with a dozen acres of new plantations.

A key member of the team is Malcolm Brockless, the gamekeeper, a large, cheerful Yorkshireman with wide experience, not least on Salisbury Plain, where he ran a six- year study of grey partridges. This established definitively that wild game birds cannot flourish unless creatures that prey on them - foxes, crows, magpies, stoats and weasels - are efficiently controlled.

The same truth is already being demonstrated at Allerton. This spring, Malcolm caught 40 magpies and more than 100 crows in Larsen traps (which use live birds as decoys), as well as culling foxes, stoats and rats. The result has been an immediate jump in bird populations. A count in the summer of 1992 revealed that the estate carried 18 broods of pheasants, with an average brood size of just over three; this summer - even in weather far less favourable - there were between 30 and 40 broods with an average of six apiece. Hares, down to six last year, were 28 at the last count, and the number of songbird nests found by an expert ornithologist rose from 240 to 320, with the survival of thrush and blackbird chicks up fourfold.

As Malcolm is the first to acknowledge, he is in an exceptionally fortunate position. Unlike other gamekeepers, he is under no pressure from the owners of the estate to produce enormous bags on shooting days in the winter. On the contrary, his main problem is to prevent hand- reared pheasants from neighbouring shoots coming on to his land and confusing his

statistics.

In an attempt to keep matters clear-cut, he has persuaded his neighbours to wing- tag their reared birds, so that any that are shot can be distinguished from wild ones. He has even offered to catch up live tagged birds next spring and return them to their owners - something that is normally unheard of in shooting circles.

This is the great fascination of the Allerton experiment - that, for once, the researchers have the land, the funds and the time to investigate as never before the subtle mechanisms that regulate wildlife. Thus Malcolm may be able, by patient observation, to solve the age-old riddle of why hen pheasants prefer some woods to others, and gather in them, while cocks can be led almost anywhere merely by the provision of food. On the farm, vital information will be gained about the usefulness or otherwise to birds of various crops used on set-aside land, which must, by present rules, be unharvestable.

In its careful harnessing of natural mechanisms, Allerton is the very antithesis of put- and-take shoots in which huge numbers of birds are reared, turned out and massacred, without thought of conservation. The experiment represents a return to older methods and values; and because of this its results will be watched with the greatest interest by landowners all over Britain. The trust hopes that five years of work will answer many questions; but I should not be surprised if the place were going strong a generation hence.

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