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Pole position to keep us all in clove.

H AVE you heard the one about red clover, the telegraph pole and the mouse? Well, it all starts with the increased demand for red clover seed.

What with fertiliser prices on the face-whitening side of pounds 300-a-ton, red clovers' nitrogen-fixing capabilities and high protein level make it an essential constituent of any modern grass ley.

Most of the red clover seed used over here is grown in Holland and Germany. Should you find yourself in that part of the world, you may be perplexed to see telegraph poles (sans wires attached) dotted around the perimeter of fields of red clover grown for seed.

Why are they there? For the answer, we need to understand the "birds and bees" facts of life.

To produce seed, the clovers' magenta flowers have to be pollinated. For this they need the help of insects, which carry pollen from plant to plant in return for nectar produced at the base of the flower.

However red clover possesses a long, narrow, tubular flower so it needs an insect with an inordinately long proboscis in order to reach the nectar.

Enter the humble bumble bee, ideally equipped for the purpose. So, for good crops of clover seed, you need a healthy population of bumble bees.

Now, as more land was put into clover seed production to meet the demand, it emerged that those fields near towns and villages produced heavier crops than ones further away from human habitation - and no-one knew why.

So a detailed study into the lifecycle of the bumble bee was commissioned as a starting point to solving the quandary.

The queen hibernates for the winter, not in hives or hollow trees, but alone in holes in the ground. As she is incapable of excavating such a hole, she looks to muscle in on someone else's: voles and field mice provide an ideal des winter res.

T he downside is, these particular rodents are not keen on having lodgers, so the bees must look for unoccupied holes whose former owners have fallen victim to predators.

Researchers concluded that more mice and voles end up as dinner in fields near urban areas, thus enabling more queen bees to survive the winter to produce a larger crop of bumble bees the following summer, in turn fertilising more clover flowers, etc, etc.

But what was the predator laying waste to the voles and mice - one that was apparently in close proximity to man? The answer was blindingly obvious - your common or garden domestic cat.

So the answer to increasing the yield of red clover seed is to control the rodent population.

It's a bit impractical to re-locate cart loads of moggies to the countryside. The solution lay not on four legs, but two wings.

Purpose-built owl nesting boxes were placed in trees near clover fields and, with plenty of food available, the nocturnal predators did not need much encouragement to take up residence in them.

The last piece in the jigsaw was to ensure the owls controlled the mice and voles in the vicinity of the clover fields and not elsewhere.

Numerous hunting perches were obligingly erected, from which the owls could easily detect even the slightest rustle in the undergrowth.

And these took the form of - telegraph poles!

Hope you managed to keep up Researchers concluded more mice and voles end up as dinner in fields near urban areas, thus enabling more queen bees to survive the winter
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:May 22, 2008
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