Remember this splendid if somewhat sentimental 80’s film?! It’s about a farmer who responds to a voice telling him to plough up his wheat and build a baseball pitch, which is then visited by celebrated figures from the past.
He is mocked by his neighbours for destroying the crop, but it turns out that the pitch brings its own rewards which, although less tangible than a ton of wheat, are just as valuable.
In the Fens, many farmers are responding to voices telling them to create wildlife habitat. Funded by Stewardship schemes and helped by the RSPB, they are using small amounts of well chosen land to provide farmland birds with the things they need - winter seed food, summer insect food and safe nesting places.
They are planting things like nectar flower mixes, full of clovers and vetches, which help bees and butterflies and provide loads of tasty caterpillars for birds like the grey partridge to feed to their chicks. Or wild bird seed mixes, which are like a giant living bird feeder and help make sure that tree sparrows and corn buntings can find enough grain to survive the winter.
There’s a tendency for these areas to be seen simply as being ‘out of production’. True, the land isn’t directly producing food destined for human consumption (or animal consumption, as most UK wheat is), but it is providing protection for our soil and water, storage for carbon, habitat for our pollinators and food for our birds, bugs and beasts. So though these farmers are sometimes mocked by their neighbours, the ‘ecosystem services’ that they provide bring enormous benefit to us all.
I’ve been helping farmers put these mixes in for two years now, but it still amazes and thrills me how fast Nature moves in. This week I popped in to visit Janet, a farmer in Crowland near Peterborough – as I wandered past one of the brand new nectar flower mixes, I heard a familiar jangling sound and looked up to find a corn bunting singing from the telegraph wires above me.
Last week I dropped in on Ed, a farmer near Ely in Cambridgeshire, to find that just a year into his Stewardship scheme, breeding grey partridge have returned to the farm, and there are maybe half a dozen corn bunting territories. You can hear his nectar flower mixes before you see them, thanks to the cacophony of buzzing bees and hoverflies.
Our farmland birds, still declining, are in danger of becoming figures from the past. But there are simple things that farmers can do – and are doing - to step up for nature and stop this happening. I don’t know the first thing about baseball (although I’ve studied Kevin Costner pretty hard over the years!) but it appears that it’s true what they say – if you build it, they will come.
RSPB Fenland Farmland Bird Advisor