Poppy field by Richard Osbourne
Brown hare by Alex McLennan
Grey partridges by Kay Mantripp
The great majority of the land in Norfolk is devoted to farming. Thus, although soil type, availability of water, and land-use vary hugely across the county and farmland cannot be considered a single habitat, it is important to recognise that most of Norfolk’s wildlife lives in an intensively farmed landscape.
Many of the species we think of as typical of farm fields, such as arable weeds, skylarks, grey partridges and brown hares, have benefited hugely from the ancient deforestation of the UK landscape and subsequent farming through the centuries. These species do not live in woodland so it is likely that they were very scarce or absent in the UK prior to large scale deforestation. Though historically they were abundant in Norfolk’s farmed landscape they have suffered greatly from the enormous intensification of agriculture in the second half of the 20th century. Some species, such as corn bunting, tree sparrow and stone curlew, have declined to the point of virtual disappearance in arable land, and others, such as red-backed shrike and great bustard, have disappeared altogether.
Within the farmed landscape there are many habitats beside arable fields. Traditionally field margins were marked by hedges. Depending on the area of the county these were often composed of hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple and elm. They provided nesting sites for such birds as whitethroats, yellowhammers and partridges. With the intensification of agriculture in the latter part of the 20th century, thousands of miles of hedges were destroyed to create larger, more productive fields in which large machinery could operate. As a result, huge areas of hedgerow habitat, and the rough grass which grows around its roots, were lost.
Other farmland habitats which have suffered greatly include ponds and untreated paddocks and grasslands. With the loss of the traditional mixed farm in the 20th century these habitats were no longer perceived as productive and made way for larger more economically viable arable fields. Many once-common species declined hugely in farmland habitats as a result of this change.
In the early 21st century, often with assistance from national and international grants, some farmers are restoring lost habitats to their land or working in other ways to improve their farms for wildlife. Such work includes the management of grass strips at the edges of fields for barn owls and skylarks, the planting of new hedges, the re-creation or restoration of ponds, the provision of nesting sites for birds, bats and other wildlife and the sowing of winter seed-crops for flocking birds. With increased interest in wildlife in the landscape, and with The Wildlife Trusts’ Living Landscapes initiative, it is hoped that soon there will again be many wildlife-rich farms across the UK as there have been through our nation’s history.