The farming year
Find out how farmers tend their land and livestock throughout the year, and how their actions can support local wildlife.
Farmland covers 60% of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), so it’s very likely that when you’re out and about you’ll spot crops, livestock and farmland wildlife, alongside farmers hard at work as they tend their land. Discover what farmers might be doing throughout the year across the Chilterns and how they are looking after nature and wildlife on their patch.
Please follow the Countryside Code and any rules for the place you are visiting when you’re out and about. Remember: Respect, Protect and Enjoy – and help this special landscape and those who live and work here.
Month by month on the farm
The dark, cold month of January is one of the quietest of the year on the farm. We all like a good clean up after Christmas, and life on the farm is no different. Now is the time for the maintenance of buildings, tracks, fences and farm machinery. Conservation works, such as planting, coppicing and laying of hedges, take place before the birds start nesting, and fruit trees are pruned to ensure a good crop later in the year. Some sheep flocks start lambing indoors to produce meat for the traditional Easter market, and shooting season draws to a close. Much of the wildlife on the farm is finding shelter from the weather – whether hibernating or roaming further for food. But look out for the first snowdrops pushing through hard and frozen soil.
Early lambing continues this month, as does the pruning of orchards. Fungicide sprays may be applied to crops showing signs of disease and the first top dressings of fertiliser are spread on winter-sown arable crops. Winter stubbles – the remains of last year’s crop, left for birds and wildlife over winter – are ploughed, and the seedbed is prepared for spring crops if the ground is dry enough. Crocuses, snowdrops and the first celandines appear in fields, woods and hedgebanks, heralding the coming of spring.
As the weather starts to warm, farmers continue planting spring cereal crops, barley, wheat and oats. The main lambing season starts, and housed ewes go out to grass. Look out for young lambs gambolling in the fields or feeding from their mothers. Dairy and beef cows are also busy with spring calving, while spring beef cattle sales are held at livestock markets. Wildlife is beginning to awaken at this time: reptiles emerge from hibernation, basking on old metal sheets and log piles; and frogs and toads are breeding in farm ponds – look out for jelly-like spawn and squirming tadpoles.
Spring wildflowers burst forth in April, with hedges and fields displaying everything from the yellow trumpets of daffodils to the delicate spikes of early purple orchids. Fruit orchards begin to blossom, and it feels like the countryside comes alive with birdsong and butterflies. Crop planting continues – it’s time for maize, linseed, vining peas and game-cover crops – and grass and arable crops are fertilised. Winter-housed dairy and beef cattle herds are turned out this month, too.
May is the traditional month of blossom and breeding! Fruit orchards are in full flower, as is oilseed rape, turning many fields into a sea of bright yellow. Birds are in full song through the hedges and farm woods, finding pairs and nesting. Arable crops are checked regularly for pests and disease and sprayed if required, and the first silage of the year is made from surplus grass, ready to be fed to cattle over winter. As lambing season finishes, sheep shearing begins – even if we feel it’s still a bit chilly to be out without a woolly jumper on! The first strawberries are harvested at this time, and animals are also finding plenty of food to feast on, including nectar, leaves, shoots, and early seeds and fruit.
This month sees a busy season on the farm unfold. Salad vegetables and soft fruit (cherries, gooseberries and strawberries) are harvested. Haymaking is in full swing, and the second grass silage cut of the year is taken. Sheep shearing also continues this month – it’s usually much warmer by now! Dairy and beef cows are mated ready for calving the following spring, while the wildlife is following suit – pairing up or feeding young. Spot hungry swallow and swift chicks tucked up in nests in the eaves of farm buildings and outhouses.
The harvesting of winter-sown arable crops (oilseed rape, barley and wheat) commences using combine harvesters. Grain is taken from the fields to the farm by trailer and the baling of crop residues (mainly straw) starts. Golden haybales are a familiar sight cross the Chilterns countryside now. Wildflower meadows are also cut this month, leaving the hay in place to broaden the seedbank. The harvesting of soft raspberries, cherries, blueberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants continues, giving us lots of delicious summer fruits to enjoy and providing food for farmland birds, too.
The harvesting of arable crops reaches its peak this month. Straw is transported to livestock farms to be used for winter bedding and feeding, and the third cut of grass silage is taken (depending on how well the grass has grown). Preparations also start for the year ahead as early cultivations (such as ploughing, seedbed preparations and liming) and the sowing of arable crops begin. Meadows may have been mown, but many wildflowers still bloom in the field margins, hedges and farm woods, attracting bumblebees and butterflies. Dragonflies and damselflies are found flying around permanent farm ponds, and small mammals will be very active, feasting on the berries found in scrub and hedges.
This month is extra busy with the harvesting of top fruit (apples, pears and plums) reaching its peak, alongside the harvesting of late varieties of soft fruit (raspberries and blackberries). All these fruits attract small mammals and farmland birds, who will feast on leftovers and wild growth along hedgerows. Maize is also harvested at this time of year to make silage for feeding cattle in winter. ‘Tupping’ starts now as ewes are mated with rams ready for spring lambing. Dairy cows, on the other hand, are in their autumn calving season. Farmyard manure is spread onto farmland before autumn cultivations (ploughing, seedbed preparations, liming) and arable crop sowing, which is in full swing. To lighten the season a little, local and county ploughing matches take place around now, with competitions and agricultural events across the region.
There are several vineyards producing award-winning wines in the Chilterns and grape-picking and winemaking commence in October. Autumn cultivations (ploughing, seedbed preparations, liming) and the sowing of arable crops (winter barley, oats and wheat) continue. Summer-grazed dairy and beef cows are housed for the winter and fed preserved crops (grass and maize silage) and supplementary, concentrated feed. Autumn calving of dairy cows continues, and ewes are still being mated with rams ready for spring lambing. Pheasant shooting season restarts this month; these large gamebirds become quite visible at this time of year as vegetation dies back and their loud, croaking cries can be heard across the fields. Harvest festivals are held across the region.
Autumn cultivations to prepare the ground for planting are now nearing completion. The harvesting of winter vegetables (cauliflowers, beetroot, swede, parsnips and leeks) is undertaken, and Christmas trees are cut down ready for sale. Summer-grazed dairy and beef cows are housed for the winter and fed preserved crops (grass and maize silage) and supplementary, concentrated feed. Hedge and woodland shrubs and trees are losing their leaves, while berries remain a good source of food for small mammals fattening up for the winter. Many of our summer visiting birds have left, but winter visitors like redwings and fieldfares start to visit the hedges and fields. Winter flooding on grazing marsh and wet meadows attracts flocks of wading birds, such as lapwing, redshank and dunlin, alongside ducks like wigeon and teal.
The harvesting of winter vegetables (cauliflowers, beetroot, swede, parsnips and leeks) continues, ready to sit alongside the turkeys and geese that are being plucked in preparation to be sold for Christmas dinners! Christmas is well underway at the farm, and holly and ivy are gathered for decorations. Fatstock shows are staged at major livestock markets. As the season quietens, conservation works, such as planting, coppicing and laying of hedges, are undertaken across the farm and in farm woods before the birds start nesting again. Now is also the time for the maintenance of buildings, tracks, fences and farm machinery. Out on the farm, wet fields are full of wading birds and wildfowl, mammals and reptiles are hibernating under hedges, stones, log and leaf piles, and frogs and toads are hibernating in ponds.