Cereal Field Margins - Habitat Action Plans

Ref 1/H3 Habitat Action Plan 3
Plan Author: RSPB
Plan Co-ordinator: Farmland BAP Topic Group
Plan Leader: RSPB
Final Draft 31 December 1998
Under Review December 2000
Revised Final Draft January 2006

Action Plan Summary

Current Status


  • Cereal field margins can take a variety of forms, the principal types being:

    (i) A 'wildlife strip' 6m wide adjacent to a cereal crop, together with a 1m 'sterile strip' between the wildlife strip and the crop. The wildlife strip is cultivated once a year but not cropped; the sterile strip is maintained so as to prevent aggressive arable weeds spreading into the adjacent cereal crop.

    (ii) A 'conservation headland' either 6m or 12m wide forming the outer margin of the crop and separated from an adjacent field boundary or other vegetation by a 1m sterile strip. The conservation headland is cropped with cereals but is managed with reduced inputs of pesticides so as to favour wild arable plants and invertebrates.

    (iii) A combined wildlife strip and conservation headland, separated by a sterile strip and managed as described as above.

    (iv) Game crops, stubble or grassland fallows lying between annually cropped land and the field boundary.
  • The focus on cereal rather than arable field margins in this action plan reflects the dominance of cereals among arable crops.
  • Cereal field margins as described in this plan could provide nesting and feeding sites for game birds and some passerines. Many species of butterflies, grasshoppers and other invertebrates are associated with such sites at the interface of crops, hedges and other features.
  • Rare arable flowers include pheasant’s eye (Adonis annua), cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), broadleaved spurge (Euphorbia platphyllos), corn parsley (Petroselinum segetum), shepherd’s-needle (Scandix pecten-veneris) and narrow-fruited cornsalad (Valerianella dentate). Arable wild flowers are of conservation concern because of enormous national declines in their distribution and abundance. Overall, some 300 species of plants can occur in arable fields.

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Current factors affecting the habitat in Norfolk

The main factors which have reduced the wildlife value of cereal crops are:

  • Intensification of cereal production, including the use of herbicides to ensure a weed free monoculture, and summer use of insecticides.
  • The shift to winter cropping and the associated loss of winter stubbles. 
  • The reduction in rotation of cereal crops with other land covers (including grass leys and fallows). 
  • The reduction in the undersown area associated with the shift to winter cropping. Undersown cereal crops are important for overwintering sawflies. 

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Current Action in Norfolk

Legal Status

  • Under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, it is illegal to spray pesticides into hedge bases, unless there is a specific label recommendation or a specific off-label approval.
  • Under the current procedures for pesticide registration and review, some compounds have statutory label exemptions preventing their use on the outermost 6m wide strips of crops. These restrictions are designed to prevent overspraying of water courses and to protect non-cropped habitats.
  • From July 2005, cross-compliance under the single payment scheme requires farmers not to cultivate, or apply fertilisers, manures or pesticides within 2m of the centre of a hedgerow or watercourse on fields over 2ha.

Management, Research and Guidance

  • Cereal field margins are targeted under various management options in agri-environment schemes. The options are: 2m or 6m margins, 2m, 4m or 6m buffer strips (possibly) beetle banks, 6m cultivated margins, conservation headlands (with or without fertiliser input restrictions), and wildlife mixture options. Breckland ESA also has options for uncropped wildlife strips and conservation headlands (6m or 12m widths).
  • Farmers can meet their set-aside requirements by setting-aside field margins of a minimum of between 6m and 10m width.
  • Some 1,530 km (185 ha) of conservation headlands have also been established by some 100 farmers under initiatives encouraged by the Game Conservancy Trust.

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Action Plan Objectives and Targets


Maintain, improve and restore by management the biodiversity of some 15,000 ha of cereal field margins on appropriate soil types in the UK by 2010. 


Maintain, improve and restore by management the biodiversity of some 750ha of cereal field margins in Norfolk by 2010. [Target based on some 5% of national arable farmland in Norfolk.]

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