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Arable fields

In October 2001, a major purchase by Huntingdonshire District Council supported by The Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, extended the Nature Reserve to 75 hectares. The land is now being managed to benefit wildlife as part of a Countryside Stewardship Scheme funded by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).
Three areas of the Reserve are being managed under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. These are the Great Meadow which runs along the River Great Ouse, seven hectares of Arable Fields and Dodder Fen. These areas can easily be viewed from the River Trail, the Ouse Valley Way and the Heron Trail.

Peter's Field
The field closest to the Heron Trail has been dedicated to the late Reverend Peter Lewis, vicar of Little Paxton, Diddington and Southoe until 1996 and a voluntary warden, enthusiastic working party volunteer, and member of The Friends committee. Following Peter's untimely death, The Friends and (the now defunct) St Neots Bird and Wildlife Club opened negotiations to purchase an extension to the Reserve, with the intention of dedicating the new land to Peter Lewis. Although this attempt failed, it laid the way for the extension by Huntingdonshire District Council in 2001. In September 2002, friends and family of Peter Lewis attended a dedication of the field by the vicar of Little Paxton. A plaque next to the Heron Trail marks this site.

Arable management 
The fields in the middle of the reserve are being managed as arable land to benefit insects, birds, mammals and wildflowers by farming in a wildlife-friendly way. Cereal crops are being grown in a rotation system on five fields and, as much as possible, the work is being done using traditional methods. Shire horses and vintage tractors from the Hertfordshire Heavy Horse Society do the cropping and cultivation. The spectacle of watching the horses at work has attracted many visitors to the reserve.

What is happening now?
We worked hard during last summer to keep on top of the Creeping Thistle and Ragwort. Volunteers spent many hours pulling ragwort, particularly in the grass margin. With Defra’s agreement, Rangers used the tractor to top the thistles to prevent flowering and seeding.

In September the crops were harvested. Because the crop was very short it was cut with the horse mower and gathered by hand rather than being put into stooks. A special needs group from Lady Adrian School put it in a big pile and we are gradually spreading it over the fields for the birds to feed on.

In October heavy horses started to plough Peter’s Field to prepare the ground for planting the winter wheat. Unfortunately the ploughing didn’t get finished until January (when ITV1 Anglia News filmed ploughing in action) so, although we wanted to get the winter wheat drilled earlier to avoid rabbit damage, this wasn’t possible. It will be put in at the same time as the Spring Barley. Next year, to avoid the same problem we will broadcast the winter wheat by hand in September and harrow the seed in.

The wild bird mix area in Peter’s Field was planted in March 2004 and in its second winter has provided much seed to birds and mammals. The wild bird mix areas are designed to be replaced every two years so next spring it will be ploughed in and replanted. Nine harvest mouse nests have been found in the wild bird mix area at the top of Peter’s Field.

The arable fields have improved enormously and each year they are in a better condition. Much of the difficulty we are having is a result of the fields being left as set-aside for many years which meant that they built up a substantial seed bank of weeds.

What will happen next?
Early in 2006, fields 2 and 4 will be sown with Spring Barley and Peter’s Field will be planted with wheat. In Spring, the wild bird mix areas will be ploughed in and replanted, leaving a margin untouched to give the harvest mice some refuge.

Beetle Banks and the Field Margin
The beetle banks are the grassy mounds that run the width of these fields dividing the area into five smaller arable fields. They have been seeded with a grass mixture of cocksfoot, creeping red fescue and timothy, and are being left unmanaged to develop a dense tussocky sward. The field margin is a six-metre grass strip running between the fence at the top of the arable fields and the field edge. It has been sown with a variety of grass species.

Beetle banks provide suitable habitat for birds that nest in open farmland away from field boundaries, such as corn buntings and skylarks. Grey partridges also use beetle banks for nesting. They particularly like dead tussocky grass left over from the previous year.

Many mammals will use the beetle banks including field voles, shrews and harvest mice. Foxes are also regularly seen walking down the sides of the beetle banks, using them as cover during the day.

Once the grass margin becomes thicker and tussocky, it may become suitable nesting habitat for grey partridges, whitethroats and yellowhammers. Small mammal populations such as voles and harvest mice are able to build up in wide grass margins, providing ideal hunting habitat for barn owls and kestrels. A kestrel is now regularly seen over the arable fields.

Tussocky grass strips in arable fields provide ideal over-wintering habitat for insects such as predatory beetles which, in turn, feed on other insects that attack the cereal crops. Beetle banks are particularly good habitats for insects because they have many cracks and crevices in the mounds, which help us to manage the arable fields without the use of pesticides.
Peter's Field (Julian Hughes)

Heavy horses work the fields (Jim Stevenson)

Scattering the seeds (Jim Stevenson)

Yellowhammer (Chris Martin)