In spring 2015, I was contacted by David Edge, Chairman of the Calon Wen organic dairy cooperative, who was interested in finding out if there were ways in which the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Calon Wen could work together to make their farms more bumblebee friendly. Cheese is one of my favourite things in the whole world, so I couldn’t resist!
Calon Wen is a Welsh co-operative of dairy farmers. Its name means white (wen) heart (calon). The co-operative was established by a group of farmers who wanted to sell milk to local people; today Calon Wen sources its milk from 20 members in north and south-west Wales.
Ten of the members are in south-west Wales, which is an area where I spend a great deal of time working to conserve rare bumblebees. We agreed that I should visit six Calon Wen farms in west Wales during the summer of 2015 to survey the bees and habitats, gain an understanding of the way the farms are managed, and then report back with my findings and some suggestions for how the farms could be made more bumblebee-friendly.
Visiting the farms was a joy for me (although no free cheese as I’d envisaged). Somehow I managed to pick one of the few sunny weeks of the summer of 2015 in Wales, which meant that the bees were out and my wellies and waterproof jacket stayed firmly in the back of my car. Being in the beautiful landscape of west Wales (with a couple of farms on the stunning coastline), with warm and welcoming farmers, they were a pleasure to visit – it’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it!
Of particular interest to me was the diverse nature of the habitats in the Calon Wen farms. And, I hope the Calon Wen farmers don’t mind me saying so, the fact that the farms weren’t overly ‘neat’, which is great because bumblebees aren’t that fussed on ‘neat’ (something we have in common…). Bumblebees thrive in more ‘natural’ landscapes as there are more opportunities for nesting and foraging throughout the bumblebee season. Many farms and farmed landscapes are monocultures. What we might see as bright green fields, a bee sees as a homogenous grey desert, devoid of food. A natural landscape should be a patchwork of colours – browns, greens, even yellows, and reds – reflecting the diverse nature of natural habitats. Bright green is not natural, it’s artificial!
I think what I found most interesting was how the farms were so similar and yet so different. All of the farms were using a rotation of clover silage and arable silage (a mix of cereals and peas), with rough grazing and hay fields. But of course each farm was different in terms of the habitats within the farm and the character of the landscape.
The way in which the farms are managed makes an interesting case study of how sensitive management can be mutually beneficial to both farmer and wildlife. Bumblebees pollinate the pea crop which Calon Wen farmers use for cattle feed – so more bumblebees pollinating the pea crop = the more food for the cattle = more cheese for cheese-lovers such as myself! However, the pea crop is only flowering for a short time during the summer before it is harvested, yet the bumblebees need something to forage on from spring through to autumn. Bumblebees also love Clover and Lucerne which is grown as silage – however, that’s also only flowering for a couple of weeks before it’s cut. Which could mean that bumblebees on the farms have a glut of food one week, and are starved the next week. Luckily, the Calon Wen farms also have a range of pastures and hay meadows, hedgerows and other habitats which, if managed sensitively, can provide habitat for bees to ‘fill the gaps’ in forage.
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, along with other environmental organisations, have an important role in working with farmers to give advice on how to manage farmland more sensitively for wildlife. Although within that role there is an important element – we need to understand how those farms are managed, and work with farmers to find solutions and ideas. Being pragmatic and realistic is important because we need to consider the flexibility which farmers need to viably manage a farm (just think about the changeable nature of the weather, for example), and the measures we suggest need to be sustainable so that we’re making a lasting difference. For example, myself and the Calon Wen farmers talked about what measures could be realistically achieved, such as leaving uncut margins of 1- 2 metres around the Clover or Lucerne leys, adding native wildflower seeds to the hay meadows and pastures (where appropriate), and tweaking grazing management so that the most flower-rich fields are allowed to flower and set seed.
I’ve highlighted the direct relationship between managing land for pollinators and the greater yield/quality of product for farmers, but farms can benefit from managing land sensitively for nature in a number of ways. There is evidence that wildflower rich grasslands such as meadows and pastures provide livestock with a more varied diet which helps to keep them healthy. There is also evidence that dairy and meat products which are produced from more diverse and natural habitats, such as wildflower rich grasslands, have better taste and texture! But even if you live in the middle of a city, it’s worth bearing in mind that natural landscapes are important to everyone. Whether it’s the upland bog and heath habitat which helps to store clean water and alleviate flooding downstream, the woodland that helps improve air quality, the coastal heathland to go walking on, or the wildflower rich grassland which helps sustain our pollinating bumblebees.
We’re hoping to continue working with Calon Wen to look in more detail at how organic dairy farms can be managed for bumblebees, watch this space. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to try some of their new local cheeses!
For more information about Calon Wen please go to http://calonwen-cymru.com/