What role does society expect farmers to play in caring for the countryside-and are farmers in the mood to be the custodians of our wildlife?
I am worried that all the efforts of those in the farming community to help address declines in wildlife in the farmed landscape are going to get ‘drowned out’ by the row over the badger cull. I am a bit of an observer on the sidelines, as Defra’s plans don’t affect Scotland, and just as importantly we are thankfully free of the bovine TB in Scotland. The RSPB’s views on the badger cull are set out here. We don’t consider the science justifies what is proposed.
But the stance adopted by the Government in England is a worry. Serious evidence and rational views promoted by well regarded scientists are being ignored, or in some cases traduced by some of the sillier statements from the NFU. It’s also noteworthy that you don’t see these farm leaders making rousing speeches exhorting farmers to do more for wildlife on their farms – instead lots of good people quietly get on with it below the radar – the RSPB actively celebrates them through the popular Nature of Farming Award, sponsored by the Daily Telegraph and run with our partners in Plantlife et al.
The big risk is that the approach adopted over the badger cull will create division between people who should work together, and equally worryingly some of the farmers who go the extra mile for wildlife may feel discouraged or isolated. The media will make this a farmer vs. animal lobby debate.
I think we are going through an odd time at the moment. Some farmers seem to be increasingly intolerant of the bits of nature they cannot bend to their will. And rather than work on the basis of evidence, science and pragmatic compromise politicians are selling wildlife short. This applies in Scotland as much as England.
Recently through some parliamentary questions from Alison Johnstone MSP we discovered that the Scottish Government and SNH were licensing the culling of some 600 ravens annually. It is permitted to licence the killing of ravens to prevent serious losses to crops, livestock and property. And don’t get me wrong ravens can attack young lambs. But 600 ravens out of a population estimated to be between 2,500-6,000 pairs (but more post breeding) is a fair percentage. It’s fair to ask what steps the farmers who suffer the losses are taking to minimise such impacts before reaching for the gun. And are some sporting estates controlling ravens under the cover of preventing loss or damage to sheep rearing interests-but really trying to rid themselves of another wild predator of red grouse - something not permitted by the legislation (or warranted)?
The publication Scottish Farmer is full of letters and comment based on anecdote often showing an implacable hatred of raptors, ravens and now geese. A recent letter stated that tolerance of Sparrowhawks by SNH had driven blackbirds to local extinction . In fact breeding blackbird numbers in Scotland are up 24% in the last 15 years. In Dumfries and Galloway a small population of red kites are reportedly decimating sand martin numbers – again the data shows sand martins are actually increasing all across the UK.
I am afraid farmers cannot divorce themselves from nature and control the wildlife they have on their land to suit these prejudices. The law, EU policies and the public think differently. And the public do have a say as they give their money very generously to farmers. Farmers should also be aware that serious declines in many of the bird species (and lots of bees, butterflies, plants and so on) found on farmland – started in the early 1970’s (and perhaps earlier but the data are scant) well before the recovery in numbers of buzzards, sparrowhawks or red kites. And although what has happened to some birds is stark-it is no less so for other groups of once common creatures.
Photo: Mike Edwards
No bird of prey has destroyed the great yellow bumble bee – once found in many parts of the UK, but now confined to Orkney, along the Caithness coast and parts of the Hebrides.(see map from NBN below). It was farming changes that caused it to decline. Detailed scientific investigations by bodies such as the BTO, RSPB, GWCT and NERC/ITE have produced copious evidence that changes to farming practice – often quite subtle changes, have had a huge impact on wildlife in the countryside all over the UK.
Great Yellow bumblebee records: 1900-1990 (yellow) and 1990-2010 (red). Data from NBN
The loss of stubbles as farmers adopted winter sown crops was one of the biggest changes. The drainage of wet areas, the loss of flower filled hay meadows to green silage fields and the switch away from mixed farming have all played a part. Specialisation, bigger machinery, pesticides and fertilisers have boosted production but have combined to leave less space for wildlife-not just birds. But rather than be implacably opposed to each other-many farmers/crofters and bodies like the RSPB recognise that we need farmers skills to help solve these problems-without them it’s simply not possible. So we must find sensible ways to do this-and lobby jointly for the policies, such as a well funded agri-environment schemes, to make it happen.
Let’s finish on geese. Geese graze grasses, and salt marsh and bog plants. Scotland is famous for its wonderful flocks of wintering geese. As farmers improved fields for agriculture, including wetlands and Merse where geese were always found – the geese soon learnt that these more productive swards were not just good for cattle and sheep, they were more nutritious for them too. Better nutrition means more survive the winter and return to their high arctic winter grounds in good condition. Breeding productivity increases..more return. So the geese are taking advantage of the farmland intensification that has been driven by production orientated Government subsidies, latterly via the CAP. Farmers now find that geese are damaging these intensively managed fields of grass. They want goose populations reduced, and the Government (ie you the taxpayer) to pay for this and compensate them for their losses. Geese have always been a part of the landscape – arriving every winter from the high Arctic. We have a legal and moral duty to care for them. We must also recognise that some farming systems in Scotland are highly valuable for wildlife. Big numbers of geese can cause farmers to change these beneficial practises so that areas which support corncrakes and corn buntings are lost. We need to explore all options so that wild goose populations and high nature value farming can coexist – that will need flexibility from all sides and a calm evidence based approach-with farmers playing their part as the custodians of the countryside and our wildlife. I for one am happy to lead RSPB Scotland down that path-who is joining me on the journey?
Red tape makes politicians go ape......
And quite a lot of other people too! Its a pretty regular occurrence to hear business leaders, farmers, politicians, doctors, teachers and many more professions bemoaning the stultifying effect of red tape, ‘jobs worths’ and the gold plating of EU rules that we in Britain apparently have to put up with. But the evidence to support this charge is less compelling as the ‘Davidson’ review demonstrated.
Sometimes I have been known to express my frustration with regulation! You can imagine the scene. RSPB Scotland is preparing to restore an area of habitat to its former glory – so it supports more scarce and declining species. Species which have been listed by the UK Government, and the Scottish Government as priorities for conservation action. The habitat was afforested by non-native conifers some 25 years ago (with no environmental considerations) by the previous owner who received a large slab of taxpayers money for his pains. Our proposals to restore the area are held up by 18 months so that an Environmental Assessment can be carried out and interested parties consulted. Were they consulted when the damage was done? Was an environmental assessment required? You can guess the answer!
So I do understand the frustration people can have with ‘mindless’ bureaucracy, which does not appear to be joined up or ‘sensible’, but imagine the scene for a moment if industry, developers,farmers or the forestry industry were allowed a free for all. Factories could discharge pollution into our rivers and seas. Smokestacks would belch toxic fumes into the air impacting our health and wellbeing. Your neighbour could extend his house blocking your amenities, farmers could drain wetlands, plough up moorlands, even kill protected species they viewed as pests, and spray pesticides willy nilly. Ancient woodlands could be felled without any sanction. Developers and Local authorities would construct new roads, housing and factories, often in inappropriate places of high landscape or conservation value. Or they would build in floodplains where storm events would flood out the new homeowners.
The fact is regulation is necessary to curb individual behaviour for the common good. To stand up for the wider public interest against short term gains. That way we can protect what is precious, and ensure our health and the environment is cared for-for the benefit of all,including those generations yet to come. But still the pressure to look for a light touch approach seems relentless as is the pressure on the regulators themselves, such as SEPA, or Planning authorities.
The latest red tape review affecting rural areas has recently been announced by the Scottish Government. My old friend Brian Pack has been pressed into service again. He has a wise head on his shoulders. I am confident the team chosen to do this task will approach their work thoughtfully under his lead. They should look at reviews which struggled to find gold plating of EU Environmental requirements. The review should be evidence led, and not be swayed by loud voices with vested interests. Certainly improvements can always be made and any unnecessary duplication should be challenged. But industries which rely on large sums of public money should not begrudge the public in having a say on how those businesses are conducted. That is why farmers who receive payments from the CAP are subject to ‘Cross Compliance’ or GAEC. This requires them to follow rules to maintain the land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition. In my view much energy is given over to the agricultural- from tagging sheep, measuring the exact boundaries of fields, deciding if land is rough grazing or not for example, and nowhere near enough on the Environmental. Including protecting watercourses and wetlands, keeping the scrub and hedges of value to wildlife, looking after protected areas and obeying laws not to poison protected birds and the like.
But as in all things the health of our people, the look of our countryside and the wildlife it supports depends on a balance of regulation which is open and fairly applied, and incentives which invest in those qualities that make our countryside (& towns and cities) something to be proud of. I certainly support the view that taxpayers should pay farmers and others for going the extra mile and changing their practises to benefit conservation-but all farmers, especially if they take the subsidy should deliver the basic requirements to protect soils, water and wildlife. If Brian Pack and his team can focus down on what really matters, and make regulation efficient and proportionate-in a way which helps improve our farmed Environment and the wildlife it supports, he will have done all society a big favour-not least the farming community.
I spend a lot of my time answering questions about where to visit in Scotland; where can I see a golden eagle? What’s the best place to see a capercaillie (the Loch Garten ‘caperwatch’ of course!) or where can I see the best spring flowers on the Machair?
Photo: Desmond Dugan
Wherever I travel people think of Scotland as a great place to see nature and are envious of what we have on our doorstep. Sadly that enthusiasm doesn’t always seem to be shared by some of my fellow citizens who complain vocally about geese, raptors, ‘balance’, introduced beavers and so on. At times you begin to wonder if they would prefer their native animals to be removed entirely!
Hopefully that will begin to change with the launch next year - 2013 - as the year of Natural Scotland. This will celebrate our wonderful landscapes, wildlife and outdoors. I hope it’s not a flash in the pan – and certainly RSPB Scotland is fully behind this Government initiative. I hope too it persuades decision makers in our Government to invest in caring for nature and make wise decisions about development impacts – protecting the best of what is on offer for wildlife and people to enjoy. And to be honest we could do rather better as a Nation to recognise and act on this, challenging short term decisions which can lead to long term degradation of the natural environment.
Given the interest in Scotland’s coasts, seas and landscapes from growing numbers of ‘eco’ tourists, it was quite a contrast to find myself in the Kruger National Park in South Africa for a week in late August. This is one of the great national parks of South Africa, but it is very accessible for large numbers of South Africans as well as overseas tourists. Unlike ‘our’ National Parks it is given over to wildlife (&low key tourism). The park saw its beginnings in 1926. In 2002 the fences to the North and East were taken down so animals can now roam into equivalent areas in Mozambique (Limpopo NP) and Zimbabwe (Gonarezhou NP). The scale of the Kruger is huge over 19,485 sq km(nearly a quarter of the area of Scotland!).
Quite rightly overseas visitors are asked to make a serious contribution to the parks running costs – a conservation fee of some $20 USD per day is levied and I for one did not begrudge this one bit. It pays for the infrastructure, but also the anti-poaching patrols. Sadly I saw some evidence of what poachers can do, with a lion with an appalling snare wound seen near Pafuri at the northern end of the park. Hopefully after some veterinary attention the lion will recover.
I saw four of the big ‘five’ – lion, rhino(white), elephant(many), buffalo (lots) – but missed leopard. When you see your first elephants in the wild you sort of wish you had never seen them in a zoo – they are just such extraordinary animals. The Kruger has big herds.
If my tourism dollars can help ensure my kids and grandson can see landscape scale habitats, full of all the mammals and birds you would expect – from top predators down, then that suits me just fine. So well done SAN parks – and the people of South Africa who have set aside serious areas of land for nature. I think we in Scotland, and the UK should be humbled by this and could learn something. Not least the need for the Governments of the UK as well as ‘eco’ tourists, to contribute more to protect and enhance our wildlife and countryside.
By the way I saw the bird ‘big 6’ – Martial eagle, Ground hornbill, Kori bustard, Saddle billed stork---but can you name the other two?
I really like skylarks. I would go so far as to say I love them. It’s not because they are particularly attractive – though I do enjoy their cryptic colouration and their perky crests. No I love them because of the association they give me to the British countryside. Quintessentially the sound of a soaring skylark as it ascends from a grassy hill slope into the summer sky is worth more than anything (listen here). I also love those October days on the East coast – say at Barns Ness in East Lothian, when on a cool Easterly wind the call of groups of skylarks can be heard as they head inland after crossing the North sea, escaping the hard winters of Scandinavia which will freeze the ground and deny the larks access to the food they need.
Photo: Ben Hall
Skylarks are amongst the most widespread birds in the UK, they can be seen from Cornwall to Caithness and from Fermanagh to Norfolk – at virtually any time of the year. But how many of our fellow citizens know if they have seen or heard a skylark? Can they hear them above the roar of the traffic?
Sadly the ability to see one has halved in the past 40 years. Estimates from the BTO/RSPB/JNCC Breeding Bird Survey show that trend appears to be continuing, but at a faster rate in England than Scotland. That’s probably because Scotland still has a lot of Spring sown arable crops-which the birds favour and that also means lots of winter stubbles. They are still widespread, but rather than every walk in the countryside being accompanied by the distant song from a soaring male lark, you make a mental note if and when you hear one these days.
Why has this happened? Relatively few of the skylarks preferred farmland and fields have been covered by roads and housing – they still remain so some other factors are at work. Skylarks nest on the ground in grass or crops, they feed insects to their young, and in winter they depend on grass and weed seeds. A simple life that for generations was amply provided for – but sadly less often nowadays.
If you nest on the ground you are vulnerable to farming operations like rolling fields, harvesting crops or cutting silage. A skylark needs 40-45 days to lay a clutch of eggs and rear young to the stage they can fly. In the more intensive arable regions there is simply not enough time between agricultural operations to allow this. Furthermore the switch to winter sown cereals mean that in the spring as skylarks try and nest the crops are already well grown and too dense for skylarks to nest in (the loss of winter stubble also means no gleanings either).
Photo: Chris Gomersall
In dairy and intensive beef rearing areas, grass fields are lush because of the investment farmers make in fertiliser, rolling the fields, drainage and the like, to increase yields of grass – cut as silage for the cattle. We all know that dairy farmers in particular are up against it financially, so what they are doing makes good economic sense so who can blame them. Again skylarks find such fields rather hostile for breeding with rolling and early cuts of silage in particular making life nigh on impossible, and there is not much food for them either.
This combination means that skylarks in the lowlands are pushed to grassy margins or along ‘tram’ lines through the arable crops-where the wheels of the tractors keep areas open, but we now know this makes them and their nests more vulnerable to ground predators like foxes.
It’s only in the Upland fringe, where extensive farming practises hold sway do they hold their own. Interestingly they can also breed on higher areas of saltmarsh which escape the tide, and which in winter have many saltmarsh plant seeds to feed on. But help is at hand. At our Mersehead reserve on the Solway, our use of Spring cropping and broad field margins has seen skylarks increase from a handful of pairs to over 200 in the space of 10 years. And better still at the RSPB’s Hope farm we have pioneered skylark ‘patches’ for winter sown arable cops. These small areas are sown at lower seed density, cost the farmer little by way of lost production (indeed the English Higher level agri-env scheme will even pay you to do it), and skylarks love them. When set-aside was widespread we found that birds like skylarks, lapwings and grey partridges loved the fallow weedy fields and numbers increased locally. So the lessons are clear, give skylarks some space on the farm and we can improve their fortunes. Recently I helped launch a new initiative with the SAC, one of the UK’s largest agricultural research and training institutes, to investigate how we can make dairy farms better for birds like skylarks. Farmers want to know practical low-cost actions they can take to help birds-and we are at the forefront in trialling this.
So lets celebrate the skylark and encourage and reward farmers to give just a little piece of their farms for this truly wonderful bird, that has inspired so many down the years about the British countryside.
It’s Olympics time and this set me wondering about the extraordinary feats of our wild birds. Who flies the furthest, longest or highest? Who is the heaviest or has the longest wingspan? Or more subjectively which bird is the gaudiest or most beautiful? Whose song is the purest or loudest? Which bird is the tastiest? Clearly French President Mitterand knew the answer to the latter as his dying wish to eat a dish of Ortolan buntings was reportedly granted – despite the birds being legally protected!
Migration throws up all sorts of surprises. I remember as a school boy I saw a dainty Pallas’s warbler in a small wood on Beachy Head. A tiny leaf warbler less than 4” in length with a lemon rump, wing bars and a flashy head pattern. It seemed so exotic and the thought it should have been wintering in the foothills of the Himalaya’s and the forests of Northern Thailand just seemed so amazing to me those 40 years ago – just as it does today.
Modern technology in the form of GPS satellite tags is revolutionising our ideas about the distances and speeds birds travel. The great albatrosses are now known to circumnavigate the Southern Oceans – effortlessly riding the storms of the roaring 40’s. From such data we have discovered a bar-tailed godwit has flown from Alaska over 11,000km non-stop across the Pacific to land in its wintering quarters on North Island, New Zealand. This must rank as one of the most phenomenal journeys regularly undertaken by any living creature and the energy reserves needed to sustain days of continuous flight over the Ocean sees the birds weight drop substantially in the process. How do they do it! It must be like one of those sequences in a wartime film as the needle on the aircrafts fuel tank sits on zero. You can see bar-tailed godwits on British estuaries in the Autumn and Winter. Some certainly pass south to West Africa – and I have seen them on coastal lagoons in Namibia – so these are immense travellers.
Wandering albatross by David Tipling
The Arctic Tern is also a prodigious migrant. It nests around Scotland and as far North as Northern Norway. Arctic terns winter around South Africa and some venture even further South to the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf. They are long lived birds, so they may make the round trip twenty or more times in their busy life times. Researchers estimate that with stops for feeding they fly at least 70,000km each year!
It is the mysteries of birds, their ability to travel seemingly at will, such vast distances that fascinates us, and in times past we set our yearly clocks by them. The arrival of swallows or storks in Europe greeted Springtime. The calling Turtle dove mentioned in the Bible heralded a time of plenty, as the sound of the “turtle” was heard in the land. Geese migrating from the Arctic to our shores always excites me – the first pink-feet over my Edinburgh home in mid September tells me winter is coming.
There are lots of other record-breaking species. The world’s heaviest flying bird is the great bustard-a fully grown male tipping the scales at 40lbs.
Great bustard by Gordon Langsbury
The worlds fastest (in level flight) is thought to be the needle-tailed swift at 105mph, but a diving peregrine falcon clocks speeds of some 200mph.
The biggest eagle is the Philippine eagle, but the Stellers sea-eagle is heavier and the Harpy eagle pushes both close. I have seen Harpy eagles in Brazil-and would love to see the other two. The Philippine eagle is teetering on the edge of extinction though and a trip to Japan in winter is needed to see a Stellers.
The most common sea bird is the Wilsons petrel. And, the bird with the biggest wingspan is the Wandering albatross which can sport wings up to 3.7m(12ft 2”)! What other champions can you name?
You can get hung up on these statistics – and birds are just such a joy that does it matter if your favourite is not a podium winner? What matters is that people care about conserving them, something I have done from my earliest memory.