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Around the LEAF farms

Photograph of a drystane dyke
A diary with photographs of the farming, wildlife and weather on the Institute's LEAF farms at Mylnefield and Balruddery.

To help visitors appreciate farmland

Both farms at the Dundee site are crossed by public footpaths that are enjoyed by locals and visitors throughout the year. To help interpret the farmland that can be viewed from the paths, the Institute erected large information-boards both in the Living Field garden and at a few points on the farm tracks. The one shown to the right, just by a table and benches where people can rest and have a picnic, depicts some of the pests that eat or spoil the crops and some of the methods used to combat them. Research is finding ways to rely much less on chemicals and instead on Integrated Pest Management, that includes developing crop varieties having the ability to fend off and survive pests and diseases. 

Linear features

The east-west orientation of the waterways and farm tracks at Balruddery has encouraged the farm to develop contrasting lines of vegetation between the commercial or experimental crop and the field boundary, whether wall or post-and-wire. The photograph shows, left, a crop of winter oilseed rape Brassica napus that has suffered little in this mild winter to date, centre, a wide grass and legume margin at this time consisting mostly of dead grass foliage, farther right, a vehicular track just visible that has its own quite diverse flora in summer, and far right, the first bushes in a line of willow lining the burn which is out of picture to the right. The wide margin buffers the burn against any surface run-off from the field and offers a habitat for insects including those that will later feed on pests living off the crop. 

First cold

Clear sky and stillness. Cold seeps into the field-walls at Balruddery. They are old walls, no longer needed to contain farm animals, but still marking the boundaries of the farm and delineating the cropped fields. Their de-formation is aided by young trees that find refuge as saplings and now prize apart the stone blocks. The young ash Fraxinus excelsior in the photograph grow from a wall running south at the highest part of the farm. It's a few days before the winter solstice, the shortest day, and the sun has just set.


Photograph or planted hedge by a farm trackGood to see the planted hedges are now offering winter shelter at the Mylnefield site. Several years ago, hedges of native species were planted along east-west margins of  fields and tracks to link the great beech hedges that run north-south. The planted hedge shown to the right of the farm track on lies at the northern boundary of the farm and forms one of several wildlife links between the farm and the Carse lands to the west. New growth wasn't cut this year. Also visible in the middle distance are a few self-seeded broom plants which, being legumes, fix nitrogen from the air. Orange fruit

Photograph of sea buckthorn berriesThe Mylnefield farm has various collections and remnants of fruit shrubs and trees scattered about its fields. Just west of the front offices and labs is a small collection established a few decades ago of sea-buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides. It fruits each year, but a few of the small trees this year gave a special display of orange globular fruit, thick on the branches. The photograph was taken 19 October at the height of fruiting but the berries remained through much of November.

A patch of sunflower

Photograph of sunflowers on the Mylnefield farmA patch of sunflower, Helianthus annuus, brightened a section of field on the Mylnefield farm this summer and autumn. Sunflower is common around here as an ornamental in gardens, but these were part of a trial of plants being tested as farm bird covers. The species originated in the americas but has been taken to most warm and sunny parts of the world. Like the daisy and thistle, each composite sunflower head is composed of many small florets that attract different bees and flies as they develop through flowering to maturity.

Marginal success

imageThe new 4 metre wide field margins running east-west in the six fields of the Centre for Sustainable Cropping at Balruddery looked in a poor state earlier in the year, but by late summer, the clover and sown timothy or ryegrass had taken over to form a closed canopy growing right up to the crop. The photograph, taken 24 August, from the extreme south-east corner of the farm shows a field margin of mostly red clover alongside winter wheat. These wide margins will reduce erosion, mop up nutrients, fix atmospheric nitrogen and offer shelter and food to many species of invertebrate, bird and mammal.

Wild plant colour

Photograph of ox-eye daisy and cornflower (Living Field collection)The farm staff and the Living Field team sowed a couple of small areas on Balruddery farm with wild plants to provide a bit of colour for human visitors and variety of habitat for small animals. Foxglove, ox-eye daisy, cornflower, kidney vetch, viper's bugloss all showed early promise and by June were in full flower. The photograph to the right shows ox-eye and cornflower on 20 June. Elsewhere on the farm, existing rare wild plants are encouraged to grow in margins and corners to add to the botanical diversity and hence the invertebrate diversity of the fields.

Difficult margins

Photograph of 4 m field margin and perennial borderEvents conspired to delay plans to put in field margins running east-west along the top and bottom of six fields that stretched from the main north-south track to the den at Balruddery. By early June the margins appeared to have failed, showing little but mayweed and annual grass. In the photograph, 7 June 2011, the sown 4 metre wide margin runs into the distance between a young faba bean crop to the left and a border of perennial grass. Just right of the border is the central burn, itself not visible, but with a line of shrubs and small trees. (Success - a few months later, the weeds had gone and the sown margin was thick with legumes, mainly white and red clover - see above.).

Barley flower

Photograph of barley fields at BalrudderyBarley, mostly spring sown, is the standard crop grown commercially at both arable farms in the years between field experiments. One of its functions is to even out any effects on the soil caused by the partition of a field into experimental plots. There comes a time in June each year when, first the awns, and then the ears emerge out of the leaf sheath, giving a pale yellow tinge to the fresh green of the leaves and stems. The scene on 6 June shows one of the higher barley fields at Balruddery, looking down across experimental fields in the middle distance to the Tay estuary and Fife beyond.

The den in spring

Photograph of the burn in April 2011The wintry scenes of the den at Balruddery, lower down the page, had been transformed by April as new grass, dog's mercury and bluebell covered the banks while many of the trees were already well into full leaf. All down the den, a mass of broken and tangled trunks and brushwood lay over the burn, a reminder of the surge and wash of water in the winter.

Weedy oilseed rape

Photograph of weedy oilseed rape in a field margin at BalrudderyThe Mylnefield farm has not sown oilseed rape Brassica napus as a crop and has no incidence of weedy forms of the species, but previous crops grown at Balruddery  have left oilseed rape both in cultivated fields (as volunteers) and in some of the field margins (where they are known as ferals). The cool moist weather of the north of the country encourages its dropped seed to go dormant and persist in the soil. Its presence in field margins and along waysides may be a boon for insects and spiders that have habitually lived on those wild members of the brassica plant family that have been declining in recent decades. The photograph to the right was taken at Balruddery on 29 April.

Drystane dykes

Photograph of an old drystane dyke with moss and lichenThe use of loose or roughly dressed stone to make enclosures for stock animals is not uncommon in some lowland farming regions of east Scotland. The Mylnefield and Balruddery farms both have drystane dykes around many of the fields, reminders of the time when these holdings kept cattle or sheep. A few years ago, the farm began to repair or replace the drystane dykes at Mylnefield. Some of the stretches were still in good shape and would stand for many years with some mending and upkeep (click photograph to enlarge). Lichen and moss have grown over them, making varied habitat for microorganisms and small animals.

Photograph of a new drystane dykeOther stretches were so broken they had to be completely re-made, for example along part of the north boundary (click photograph to enlarge). Here, tree saplings were planted on the grass and herb margin between the new dyke and the track. Repair of the drystane dykes is part of the plan to re-establish habitat networks across the landscape (see note on the Balruddery hedges lower down the page). Predators such as weasels, spiders and beetles move through the spaces between the stones to get between fields and wood lots.

Early February hedge planting

Photograph of Balruddery Farm showing the line of the new hedgeHedges of local species were planted a few years ago at the Mylnefield site to create linked wildlife habitat. Plans to do the same for the Balruddery site took off in 2011 with the arrival of the first batch of tree whips from a local supplier. The plans involve putting in hedges, trees and other habitat to link Balruddery Den to the east with the wooded areas that lie outside the farm to the west and with other hedges and habitat corridors to the north. The first stretch of hedging has now been planted. In the aerial photograph (click to enlarge), it runs west-east from the farm buildings at A to the Den at B. The existing, mature trees of the Den can be seen leading from B south east (towards the lower right).

Photograph of farm staff planting the new hedgeThe hedge is planted as a double row of young tree whips just above and north of a track and bank. The farm was out in force to dig and plant the whips individually. The photograph (click to enlarge) is taken looking west along the line of the new hedge. In the middle distance can be seen a line of mature trees running north-south (from A downwards in the photograph) and beyond them several fields leading up to the planted birch and ash woodland just outside the farm boundary. Within three years, the hedge will be a refuge and home for uncountable insects and birds.

Old burn channel

At the eastern edge of Balruddery Farm runs the Balruddery Burn, in a direction south east down Balruddery Den, joining the Fowlis Burn, which in turn heads through Invergowrie to the Firth of Tay. The Balruddery Burn begins just south east of Thrawparts (OS 1:25000 Dundee West), collecting its water mainly from the north slopes of White Hill and the south of Blacklaw Hill, so when it rains hard some force of water comes down the Den.

Photograph of the cundy at the Balruddery BurnPeople working this land at some time in the past built a stone cundy both to channel and confine the water so as to allow passage across the den at that point. The whole structure appears to have been very well made, but the cundy has been blocked for a long time, during which the water found its way across the top, cascading down and breaking through the embankment, causing erosion and destabilising the slopes and some of the trees.

Euan Caldwell, Farm Manager, and the team have been making an access track and clearing away some trees in advance of remedial work. In the photographs right (click to enlarge), of the exit, the cundy can be seen as a dark oblong (lower left), the water dropping in front of it rather than coming out of it. The water flowing down the right of the embankment has severely eroded the stone courses; the blow up, lower right, shows several stone blocks about to fall away. It is said that the channel goes in at least 20m and may be as long as 50m, though how anyone knows this without having gone in is a mystery.

New LEAF info boards

Photograph of the new LEAF information boardsThe farm has been putting up a set of new information boards provided by LEAF. The boards are there to help visitors find out about LEAF-related activities on the farm, including the 'facilities' put in by the farm to support wildlife and integrated pest management. Topics on the boards include making and repairing hedges and dry stone dykes, the importance of field boundaries and the need for suitable habitat in the crop for farmland birds such the the skylark.
The Balruddery site now has a selection of new boards, like the ones to the right. The photographs were taken on 3 February in the morning sun after a light overnight snowfall.

Contact for this page: Geoff Squire

Learning & Resources

Printed from /learning/leaf/around-farms on 24/04/24 11:15:35 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.