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Pensthorpe: Paradise for harvest mice

Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 17:03 UK time, Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Guest blog: Ed Bramham-Jones, warden here at Pensthorpe, writes about how he ensures harvest mice and other mammals and birds thrive in the Conservation Trust's farmland.

The farm at Pensthorpe is managed according to Conservation Grade nature-friendly farming principles. It is used to demonstrate to farmers from all over the country how they can increase biodiversity alongside food production. It's also part of a nationwide Conservation Grade experiment designed to test what's best for farmland wildlife, which includes specific input from the Mammal Society on harvest mouse habitat.

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Pensthorpe has over 40 acres (that's roughly 64 football pitches) of sown wildflower meadows and field margins. These were created when the farm was converted to Conservation Grade principles in 2004. There is an additional 93 acres (almost 150 football pitches) of ancient wildflower and herb rich wet meadows in the river valley.

Together, these provide habitat for harvest mice to forage and breed in, as well as acting as 'wildlife corridors' linking other habitats important for harvest mice and other mammals and birds, such as beetle banks and tussocky grass margins, allowing many mammals to disperse and forage easily around the estate. These corridors are cut in rotation to allow them to provide a variety of vegetation heights, as well as seed, to maximise their wildlife benefit.

In years gone by, harvest mice used to nest in cereal crops, but nowadays crops are mechanically sown and harvested much earlier, before the peak of the harvest mouse breeding season. Less straw is baled and left in fields and we don't see wheat sheaves any more, both of which allowed the mice to take refuge. Nowadays, beetle banks and grass margins provide shelter, grain and insects for food.

Just over a mile of new hedgerow has been planted over the last two years. Existing hedgerows, which had become overgrown, have been cut back, gapped up and put into a three-year cutting rotation. This rotation allows hedgerow plants to retain their fruit for mice to feed on over the winter months.

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Harvest mice like linear habitats for nesting, especially hedgerows, as they provide safety, connectivity and links to other habitats including woodlands. Their preferred natural habitats include reeds, sedge beds, ditches, field edges, so new field margins provide links from the valley sides down to the floodplain of the River Wensum.

My top 10 tips to attracting wildlife into your garden:

The Conservation Grade nature-friendly farming principles we use to encourage wildlife here can also be applied to much smaller areas, including gardens and outdoor areas too. Below are some very simple steps you can take to increase your chances of seeing more wildlife based on much larger-scale operations we carry out on our farm at Pensthorpe:

  1. Do not cut your hedges during the breeding season, from mid March until the end of August. Ideally, leave them until all the fruit is taken.
  2. Some of the best areas for wildlife are the scruffy nettle-beds found in nearly all sizable gardens. They might look untidy to you but the wildlife loves them!
  3. It isn't just a bird table that attracts birds. Try putting out water and you'll see all sorts of birds coming in not only for a drink but a wash as well.
  4. Plant nectar-rich and colourful plants to attract insects. Buddleia is fantastic for attracting butterflies, is nice to look at and very easy to maintain. Bees in general are really struggling and plants like lavender and many others all help in providing them with a food source.
  5. If you have to cut down any branches then cut them into logs and leave them in a pile. As they decay they will become homes to all sorts of insect life and mammals.
  6. Compost heaps don't just provide great potting material for your plants and vegetables but also provide a great home for insects and other associated wildlife.
  7. Nest boxes aren't just good during the breeding season but also act as somewhere for birds to roost and shelter over the winter months.
  8. Just like we sow winter bird feed habitats on the farm for the harder winter months, you can do the same by feeding your birds and enjoy watching who comes to visit.
  9. Think about linking your garden to creating 'wildlife corridors' to allow your wildlife visitors to move around in.
  10. Make a bug house with half a dozen foot-lengths of bamboo tied together and hung somewhere out of the prevailing wind.


Editor's note: for more on keeping your patch primed for animals, read our feature on gardening for wildlife. You might also like this video of Chris Packham on the importance of the UK's wildflower meadows.

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