In 2000 NPWS initiated a programme to establish small tillage plots for biodiversity. The main idea was to provide sacrificial crops for wildlife interest, particularly seed feeding birds. In 2004, a plot was established at Mullyvea on ground that had been tilled in the past. The plot is half a hectare in size and has been growing a sacrificial crop for wild birds, with mixed success, for the last ten years.
In the first year, the crop was sown with two thirds seed oats and one third linseed. The soil is shallow and quite sandy and fertiliser was applied. In total 750 kg of 10.10.20 fertiliser was spread. The result was a good crop of standing oats and linseed. But by October it was attracting a flock of 200 jackdaws and rooks which spend all day around the plot feeding on the cereal and flattening the crop, which made it unsuitable for perching passerines. The unwelcome visitors also caused other problems in the neighbourhood. A nearby farmer complained that the crows were the cause of his silage bales getting damaged. So the outcome from the first year was not an overall success.
The following year the cereal mix was altered to omit the oats and triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye, was used instead along with linseed as the main crop. A mixture of quinoa, phacalia , kale and wildflower mix was spread around the edges to add to the crops attractiveness . The corvids were joined by more passerines the following autumn, including Linnet and Twite. In December that year a couple of jackdaws were shot and left at the plot. This worked in deterring the jackdaws and rooks and consequently the passerines enjoyed their fast food outlet for the rest of the winter. Linnet (130) were the most numerous passerine and Twite (60) were less numerous but regular feeders.
Ideal situations are difficult to maintain and in subsequent years there was sometimes mixed results from the crop. The triticale began to fail in 2008 and some years the crop looked more like a crop of weeds than a crop of cereal. The weeds are welcome as they have a feeding value. Fat hen was sometimes quite dominant and the Twite seem to find it and wild mustard quite attractive.
The soil is very thin, so ploughing every year has caused it to become more sandy and therefore harder to sow successfully. In 2011 a storm in late May scorched the emerging crop and it had to be re-sown the following month. In addition a trace element mix was added as well as a further application of 300kg of 10.10.20. There was not a good crop that year but wild mustard flourished and the Linnet (200) and Twite (25) fed on that from October until February.
In 2012 and 2013 the crop was poor and what grew was mostly the wildflower seed mix which attracted mostly a flock of goldfinch and chaffinch. Even the linseed did not grow and there was no sign of the triticale.
The plan of action for 2014 was to have the soil tested and see what steps if any could be taken to enhance the soil’s condition and what, if any,alternative crops could be grown ? The target species are Twite and Linnet. The breeding range for Twite in Ireland has contracted by 80 per cent since the 1968-72 Breeding Atlas. They breed in two areas in Ireland and west Donegal is one of them. This cereal plot can contribute to helping them survive the winter months. The recent increase in the rabbit population on the whole property since 2012 is causing a problem by damaging the protected habitats and by causing erosion. They are residing in the cereal plot and will be a problem for any crop sown there this year.
After seeking advice from Teagasc, the farming advisory body, and asking experienced farmers for their opinion, it was decided that the best option for 2014 was to spread a layer of seaweed mixed with manure to improve the sandy soil’s organic matter. The standing dead vegetation was flailed first, but not turned over. A seed mix of linseed, tic beans, spring triticale and buckwheat was sown and the organic mix spread over it. A crop will be a bonus, the main thing is to improve the soils condition and with a bit of help from the elements try it all again next year.