The recent dramatic farmland bird declines were covered at some length in the Telegraph yesterday and this week's Farmers Weekly . The Daily Express also covered the story - not online.
The Soil Association commented on these declines as follows;
'Figures released today by Defra show overall levels of farmland birds to be the lowest for forty years. These results show that more radical steps are needed to reverse this decline. The new research also highlights the crucial importance of not losing wild bird populations which have been created under the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme. The RSPB states: ‘Where HLS has been deployed, farmers have achieved great successes for wildlife - but it currently covers just 1 per cent of farmland. And it is now under threat from the coalition Government’s proposed budget cuts’.The 4.3% of land that’s farmed organically is also vital for birds. In a recent report the National Audit Office concluded that the Organic Entry Level scheme (OELS) is likely to "have achieved environmental benefits by supporting organic farming". Research shows that organic farming provides 30 per cent more species and 50 per cent more overall numbers of wildlife such as birds and butterflies.'.
Well, they would say that wouldn't they - but it does seem to be true! The wildlife benefits of organic farming are pretty well established. I'm glad that we get at least some of our vegetables from an organic box scheme from a local farm.
I've just noticed an article in last week's Sunday Times (but you'll have to pay to see it online) entitled 'Farmers' grants fail to halt drastic declines in birdlife'. It says that 'farmers are allowing farmland bird populations to slump to a new low' - not the way I would have put it! Interestingly, Dr Stephen Tapper of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust is quoted as saying 'Farmers can choose options like maintaining hedgerows which often fail to meet the needs of wildlife in that area. What's more, the intensification of farming is so great it often overwhelms any benefits anyway.'.
The Country Land and Business Association's President, William Worsley, says: "This year's results do not make great reading, and clearly there is more work to be done on investigating the various possible causes of the decline. Nevertheless, many farmers and land managers have seen positive results in the number of birds on their land through Environmental Stewardship. The CLA and NFU-led Campaign for the Farmed Environment provides advice and training about management practices that can boost farmland birds and wildlife as well as protecting soil and water resources. Early indications show that a greater range of these management options are being taken on board as Entry Level Stewardship agreements are renewed."
Fair enough William, it would be interesting to understand better the causes of the big drop in the farmland bird index between 2008 and 2009 but we don't need more research to reverse the decline - we need more farmers and landowners to be doing the right thing - as Dr Tapper says. It may be that the results of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment will show that many more farmers are selecting options that we know will work - such as skylark patches, nectar-rich margins etc. Indeed, the types of management options which have worked so well on the RSPB's Hope Farm. Let's hope that the results of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment show that it is generating a big shift in farmer behaviour and that the voluntary approach is working.
So there are plenty of people worried about these declines in farmland birds.
But what of the NFU? I can't find any mention of the recent report on farmland bird declines on the NFU website, certainly not in Peter Kendall's monthly update. The NFU President is always keen to say that farmers are doing their bit to help wildlife (here is a recent example) and of course many are, but when the figures come out to show that farmland bird declines are continuing the NFU, unlike the CLA, appears to be silent on the subject.
And what of Defra? In the Sunday Times article, published before the farmland birds index results, a Defra spokesman is quoted as saying: 'Our schemes provide benefits when managed well, but improvements are not seen overnight.'. I think that comment falls into the 'true, but feeble' category. It is Defra's job to ensure that the public funds that go into wildlife-friendly farming schemes deliver results. There is no-one else responsible for that.
I feel as though I have spent a lot of the last 15+ years going on about farmland bird declines!
On the BBC website one can trace the history of the ups and downs of the farmland bird index.
Here are links to the stories in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003. 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
You can't say we didn't tell you about it!
The release by Defra of the annual figures on farmland bird numbers showed an alarming 5% decline in the aggregate numbers of 19 farmland species between 2008 and 2009. This is the steepest individual drop in numbers for many years and brings the index to its lowest ever level. This index was for many years the subject of a Public Service Agreement between the Treasury and Defra but PSAs were abolished in the emergency budget of a few weeks ago.
But the numbers are still alarming, and you may have read it here first that the index looked destined to fall when the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey report was published last week.
We shouldn't read too much into one year's figures, and indeed I and many of my colleagues were very surprised at the sharp drops in some species (kestrel, grey partridge and lapwing for example), but we were not at all surprised by the fact that, overall, things are getting worse.
As you may have read in this blog, more than once, the Entry Level Stewardship scheme in England is not a good enough scheme to arrest these declines - it almost is, but it's because it 'almost' is that farmland birds are still declining. At this time when government is searching for new and more efficient ways of carrying out its business and functions it would be amazing if the ELS were left untouched after such a dramatic fall in farmland bird numbers. If around 60% of English farmland is covered by ELS, and yet farmland bird numbers are still falling, then the message is clear - something needs to change. And other areas of government are going through radical change with Arms Length Bodies being scrapped, budgets cut hard and structural changes being made. How odd it would be if a flawed scheme which benefits from millions of pounds of taxpayers' money were left unreformed!
And we know how we could make it so much better. Here's an idea - make skylark patches compulsory in all winter wheat fields. This tiny measure on its own would make a huge difference - as it has on our own Hope Farm. There are plenty of other evidence-based suggestions too - and we'll be making them to Defra over time. But a failure to move on this issue will not be through lack of evidence (the evidence is there), nor through lack of money (it doesn't necessarily need more money) but it will reflect a lack of will on behalf of Defra.
And, of course, we don't want to see cuts in the Higher Level Scheme payments which do so much good for farmland and other wildlife even though this scheme only covers about 1% of England.
Nice to see coverage in The Guardian, Daily Mail and importantly the Farmers' Guardian.
We hope that Defra ministers will comment on the seriousness of these changes and address the concerns that they raise for the future of farmland birds and other wildlife. After all, this year's figures relate to a time when the current ministerial team were in opposition! It's not their fault - but it is now their responsibility.
Here is a personal message to RSPB members from the Defra Secretary of State Caroline Spelman inviting us all to get involved in making suggestions for policies and policy changes that could help wildlife.
Over a quarter of a million people have already made some of their views known by signing the RSPB's Letter to the Future campaign which asks government ministers, like Mrs Spelman, to make wise choices on spending and on cuts in spending.
One thing you could do is to email The Treasury - the level of spending cuts is not yet finalised and Mrs Spelman will find it much more difficult to do a good job for nature if George Osborne and Danny Alexander (an RSPB member, we hear) do not consider nature a priority.
We'll be developing our thinking over the summer - the RSPB never rests! - and we'll be getting back to you with our ideas on what needs to be done. But don't wait for us - get involved now! Nature needs your help - and Mrs Spelman is asking for your help too!
I woke up in a hotel in Lockerbie yesterday morning - a small Scottish town which is still much in the news because of horrific past events, but the previous evening when I got off the train one couldn't have guessed its past as the swifts screamed overhead.
I was here to spend the day at Langholm moor with a gamekeeper, a grouse moor manager and some scientists.
Langholm was the stage on which some extraordinary ecological scenes were played out in the early 1990s. It was the place where we all hoped that the disputes between grouse moor management and birds of prey would move to resolution.
Hen harriers are probably the most persecuted protected birds in the UK. Their numbers and range are severely limited by persistent persecution of adults, chicks and eggs. Before Langholm we in the RSPB were able to pooh pooh the idea that hen harriers affected grouse bags, after Langholm there was no doubt that they could.
The Langholm project was jointly funded by the RSPB with others and the essence of the study was to protect hen harriers (and other raptors) strictly on the site, see whether their numbers built up and then see whether they affected the numbers of red grouse available for shooting in the autumn.
Hen harrier numbers increased dramatically through the project and reached 20 females just after the project ended. Hen harriers eat a range of prey species, including voles, pipits and larks but also lots of red grouse, particularly chicks. And those hen harriers cut a swathe through the stock of red grouse available to be shot from the 'Glorious Twelth'. Autumn grouse numbers were so reduced that commercial driven grouse shooting became unviable on this site. The harriers were eating the shootable surplus of grouse on which grouse shooting depends.
So, following Langholm there weren't many grouse moor managers who felt less keen on killing hen harriers, despite the illegality of this, and probably quite a lot more who were even more disposed to do so.
Following Langholm, work was carried out on seeing whether artificial feeding of hen harriers at the nest would reduce their depredation of grouse chicks - the results looked very promising to us but certainly didn't inspire grouse moor managers. And then followed a period of stalemate.
Now there is a new Langholm project where a group of organisations are working towards trying to find a solution again. Will we succeed? - who knows, but the folk on the ground are working well together as I saw yesterday.
The new project aims to return viable driven grouse shooting to the moor - with a few hen harriers knocking around too! Do visit the project website, read the keeper's diary and see what we are all up to!
On leaving Langholm I felt encouraged. The guys on the ground are doing a great job - it may still be the case that Langholm is the place which provides a resolution to these conflicts. I hope it does.