You can’t be a farmer without talking about the weather. Articles in the farming press this week look at how the crop yields across Britain will fare in this prolonged dry period. At Hope Farm a minor miracle happened in the last week when we had some rain. Admittedly it was just 6 mm but it is better than nothing. This brings our total over the last two months to about 12mm well short of what we would like. The cracks in the ground are impressive. If this dry weather continues we can expect an early harvest and low yields. The lack of rain has left us with some difficult management decisions including how much nitrogen to apply and when; when to apply the fungicides to the wheat and whether to apply another insecticide to the spring beans. The most prolonged discussion was about the nitrogen. The contractor and agronomist finally agreed that it was sensible to reduce the amount we applied during our second application to account for the lack of rain. We have also delayed sowing some grass margins, these will probably be established in the autumn now.
Birds & Wildlife
We are now about half way through the breeding season. It is far too early to be definitive about the final numbers what I can say is it looks encouraging. Probably the most exciting records are two pairs of Corn Bunting regularly using our fallow plot trials. This is a species we identified as a key target within the new strategy primarily because they have only breed once, in 2001, on Hope Farm. Hopefully they will now settle to breed soon. Corn Buntings are one species which RSPB are currently researching because the numbers continue to fall across the country. They only start breeding in early June. This is a lot later than the majority of farmland species, for example skylark’s which start in April. We believe that this is one factor in their decline. Our research is trying to find solutions that will extend the breeding season and we are working with farmers to manage specially created areas.
Away from the excitement of the Corn Buntings there are other great stories. We will break our previous starling records with 20 pairs in nest boxes this year with 92 chicks individually colour ringed this year. This is a remarkable 50% increase in chicks from last year. By individually marking the nestlings using a unique combination of colour rings it allows us to monitor where they feed and how long they live. Monitoring our starling population forms part of our grassland research on the farm. Migrants including our swallows, whitethroats and turtle dove all arrived several weeks earlier this year than last, it will be interesting to see how many we have recorded by the end of the breeding season.
Two weeks ago John Craven and the Countryfile team were at the farm filming a piece with Martin Harper, RSPB’s new director of Conservation. The piece talks about farmland bird declines and whether predators are the central cause for their declines. The piece went out last Sunday.
This will be last post as farm manager before I move to Scotland as the RSPB’s Advisory Manager for Scotland. I have been very lucky to have been manager of this project for the last 5 years. Thanks to our members, farmers and colleagues for their continued support throughout my time.
The Campaign for the Farmed Environment had its first anniversary in November. The aim of the campaign is to promote voluntary management of farmland to 're-capture' set-aside benefits from a relatively small area of well located and positively managed land. It unites the key industry organisations - NFU, CLA, LEAF, FWAG, AIC, AICC, CAAV and GWCT- who are working in partnership with Defra and its agencies, Natural England and the Environment Agency, and the RSPB in order to deliver advice to farmers on how they might best retain and increase the environmental benefits provided by their farmland in a targeted and agronomically sensible way.
The campaign concentrates on three main themes:
1) Farmland Birds
2) Farm Wildlife
3) Resource Protection
Find out how we are meeting these objectives at Hope Farm
The start of another summer at Hope Farm. Grey partridge calling, skylark singing, yellowhammer displaying. It looks as though it could be another good summer count if the wintering birds stay throughout the summer. Of course only time will tell how well we do this summer once our research staff complete their summer bird monitoring program. This starts in late March and finishes at the end of June. The first migrants have just arrived with several chiffchaffs and a blackcap calling in the orchard. No doubt in the next few weeks, numerous swallows, whitethroats and the occasional turtle dove will be recorded.
I wonder if there is any chance of a cuckoo this year. This is one bird we see far less often over recent summers. The warm weather in the last few days has encouraged some early butterflies, with four species recorded on our first transect last week. These were peacock, brimstone, comma and red admiral.
The bird numbers this winter were incredible no doubt helped by the cold, snowy, weather. During the snow they were attracted to areas of wild bird cover. From the bird’s perspective this crop was essential. These areas, which are specifically designed to provide over winter seed food, normally don’t attract large flocks until December. Not this year. I had never seen such large numbers, at Hope Farm, on such small areas. They included 300 skylark, 250 yellowhammer, 150 linnet and 50 reed buntings. There were also over 50 grey partridge wandering around the stubbles. A fantastic bird spectacle.
In general winter bird numbers were great with record counts in every month. Staff and volunteers completed monthly counts between October and March. This involves them walking around the boundary and centre of each field. Numbers of the common farmland species such as skylark, yellowhammer and linnet maintained early promise. Interestingly the counts also recorded two firsts for the farm when one observer caught sight of two waxwing and a Jack Snipe.
The crops are growing well and it will not be long before we are reporting another harvest. This year the establishment and management of the crops have been relatively routine for the contractor. This included a comprehensive autumn grass weed programme. Following a cold winter we moved into a dry March.
The spring beans were sown in mid February using a brand drill recently bought by the contractor. This machine is very impressive, moving the soil, sowing the seed and then compacting the soil all in one pass. It is amazing to see the speed and precision with which they were able to establish the crop. The wheat and oilseed rape have received the first batch of fertilizer. The only work left to be completed is establishment of some wild bird cover which should be sown in the next couple of weeks.
Summer – Breeding season
The 2010 bird analysis was completed a weeks ago and the results have exceeded expectations. Our farmland bird index now stands 201% higher than in 2000 with turtle dove and reed buntings at record numbers. The index is a collective population trend using the same 19 species as the national farmland bird indicator. Find out more about the farmland bird index.
Reed bunting increases were particularly impressive rising from 9 pairs in 2009 to 17 pairs in 2010. Yellowhammer (36 pairs), skylark (41) and linnet (30) were each down slightly from last year’s record but in context each species has at least doubled over ten years. Corn Buntings remain our biggest challenge as they continue to ignore the farm despite our best efforts. Proof we still don’t have all the answers. We will keep our fingers crossed for next year. You can see a picture of one of the turtle doves we caught on the farm in the October blog.
Monthly whole farm bird counts have taken place at Hope Farm each winter between November and March since 2000/2001 involving a small team of up to five surveyors covering the whole farm. By using the same methodology, we are able to compare how our management influences bird numbers. The November count recorded 300 yellowhammer, 60 linnets, 80 reed bunting and perhaps most importantly 4 corn bunting feeding on wild bird cover and fallow trial plots. There still remains several small covey of grey partridge. It will be interesting to see if this promising start continues throughout the winter and beats last year's figures.
The weather is never right as far as the farming is concerned!. Last summer it was too dry hence our yields were down now its too wet delaying grass weed control in the winter wheat. Harvest was completed on 31 August with wheat yields down by 12% from last year. The only good news was the price continued to rise, thanks to worldwide supply failing to keep up with demand. The oilseed rape was broadcast a few hours before harvest whilst the winter wheat was sown mid-September.
It's been a while since the last blog post. The summer seems to have been a good one for many birds. In late summer we conducted some early morning bird ringing sessions out on the farm, with some surprising results.
We were amazed by the number of migrant species that were using the hedgerrows that are on the farm, as places to forage for insects and berries as well as using them as migration corridors through the arable landscape of Cambridgeshire.
Commonest species ringed was common whitethroat, with c60 birds ringed in 3 mornings along one hedgerow alone. These were closely followed by Lesser Whitethroat, the paler grey more skulking cousin (that also does a strange migratory route, instead of heading due south via Iberia like most warblers, these birds head off east and journey through mainland Europe, the Middle east and into eastern Africa).
Comparison of the two species in this photo
Even more surprising was the finding of a juvenile Nightingale, that was using the farm as a place to forage before its onward migration. Yellow wagtail, blackcap, willow warbler were all ringed along this hedgerow too as well as resident farm species such as reed bunting and yellowhammer.
During this time we also set some specialist nets for Turtle Doves, one of the fastest decline species in the UK, to mark and radio tag some birds as part of a wider RSPB project looking into aiding the recovery of this species. The pre dawn starts were worth the effort, as three of these migratory pigeons were ringed (see pic below)
Those were the heady days of late summer, now as the crops have all been harvested and next years crops are just breaking the soil surface, the last few swallows and the occasional chiffchaff can be heard around the farmyard. Last week saw the first winter migrants arrive with redwings and bramblings on the farm on the same day the third ring ouzel of the year was flushed from a wheat stubble.
In the next few weeks, winter bird monitoring will commence, we'll keep you posted of any interesting happenings.
During the last month, RSPB has been celebrating the first ten years of Hope Farm. In this piece I will reflect on what the RSPB has learnt from the project, highlighting some of the key stories.
1) Increase in Farmland bird numbers
Obviously I need to start by looking at the results of our farmland bird surveys. In just 10 years, we have seen a steady rise in numbers of arable farmland birds breeding at Hope Farm with the overall numbers 177% higher than in 2000. Some of the key species are
Skylarks - increasing from 10 pairs in 2000 to 44 in 2009.
Linnet - increasing 6 pairs in 2000, 36 in 2009
Yellowhammer - increasing 14 pairs in 2000, 39 in 2009
Grey Partridge - 0 pairs in 2000, 5 pairs in 2009
How have we done this? By providing the big three - essentially providing a safe place to nest, summer insect food and winter seed food. You can learn more about how we deliver this concept at http://www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/farming/hopefarm/bigthree.asp
The research staff have just finished the breeding bird surveys for 2010 which will be reported in later postings on the blog.
2) Skylark Plots
Who would have thought that leaving small 4x4m bare areas (skylark plots) in winter wheat, could help Skylarks. Research at Hope Farm showed that these plots could increase the nesting opportunities producing up to 50% more chicks. Find out more about skylark plots by following http://www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/farming/advice/details.asp?id=222883
3) It's more than just birds!!
We have been extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to call on staff and volunteers able to monitor a range of other wildlife. This program has included butterflies, moths, dragonflies, surface and crop dwelling insects, small mammals and bats. To me the results are just as interesting as the bird research. So far we have recorded more than 350 moth species, 150 plants, 450 fungi, 100 spiders. We are adding new species all the time just last week one of my colleagues saw a white-letter hairstreak butterfly feeding on one of our pollen and nectar mixtures - another first for the farm.
4) Owning an arable farm
Owning and managing our own arable farm has been very valuable experience for the RSPB. We have learnt a lot about growing crops, their pests and diseases. Food production is essential but with careful planning we have shown that it is possible to increase farm wildlife without affecting the economic return to the RSPB. Day-to-day cropping and environmental decisions are given equal weight to maximise the economic return to the farm. This philosophy is essential if we wish to influence the farming community.
5) Demonstrating the true value of conservation
When the farm was purchased, a key aim was to be able to demonstrate that farming in ways that protect and enhance the countryside is possible. Over the past ten years, the farm has attracted a huge number of visitors. As a commercial enterprise, one of the priorities for the farm is to show farmers the practical implications of our work, but it does not stop there. Policy-makers, farm advisors and farming organisations are just a few of the people who have an influence on the day-to-day management decisions taken by farmers. Finally I can't forget our members, without your fantastic contributions we would not have bought the site in the first place.
Lets Hope the next ten years are equally succesful.