I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
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.