The plot thickens…

RSPB Farmland Advisor Niki Williamson gives us an update on the Operation Turtle Dove demonstration plot….

February. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who still has a carpet, you’re soaked, it’s dark, and there’s still nearly a year to wait for Christmas. If it’s not the storms that are surging, then it’s the fog that’s freezing, and there’s no sign of any let-up in the near constant downpours.

Hardly seems the time to be thinking about summer flowers.

But for our migrant birds like Turtle doves, currently sunning themselves in the Sahel, the pull of the Northern hemisphere will already be starting to make itself felt. Their treacherous journey home is now only a few weeks away.

When they arrive back here in spring, exhausted and emaciated from their extraordinary flight, they will need food, in the form of seeds from broadleaved plants such as Fumitory, Chickweed and Fat hen. They will not be able to raise a family until they have regained their health and put on enough weight to produce an egg.

If you follow the farming blog [on the RSPB Community pages] you will have read a lot about the Turtle dove – our most threatened farmland bird – in the last year or two. You’ll know that we’ve been working hard with partners as part of Operation Turtle Dove to find solutions to the challenges they face.

One approach has been to develop a flower mix that farmers can grow, that supplies the early season seed food the birds so desperately need to reach breeding weight and sustain their numbers.

Because of this, the folk at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) would argue it’s the perfect time to be thinking about summer flowers!

Operations and Marketing Manager Claire Pumfrey has provided a demonstration plot for us at NIAB Innovation Farm in Cambridgeshire, so farmers and visitors can go and see this mix for themselves. Claire and her colleagues are growing it as part of their exhibit on sustainable resources, alongside other crops designed to promote biodiversity and protect our soil, water and wildlife.

They planted the mix last autumn. The pictures here show it as it emerged in November, and again as it looks now – not bad progress for the four coldest months of the year. It contains early-flowering clovers and vetches as well as Black medick, Birdsfoot trefoil and Fumitory (and the odd interloper!).  Soon it will be a riot of colourful flowers, and great for pollinating insects too.

The mix will be seen by over 1,000 farmers, scientists and commercial visitors during the 2014 season. Last year there were also Turtle doves present on the neighbouring NIAB farm so who knows, if we get it right the plot may even have some summer visitors of the feathered variety.

Isn’t that a warming thought?

If you are a Stewardship farmer in a Turtle dove area, you could use Turtle dove mix in your agreement as a ‘nectar flower mix’ option. Contact us to find out how.

This post first appeared on the RSPB Farming Blog