Farming has never stood still, but few of its sectors have changed as much as dairying over the last few decades. Dairy farmers have been declining as fast as some of our farmland wildlife: in the past ten years alone, the number of dairy farmers has halved in England and Wales, and fallen by a third in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Those remaining in the industry have needed to find efficiencies wherever they can to keep their costs lower than what they get paid for their milk (currently around 26p per litre). Increasing scale has been one obvious place to do this: average herd size in the UK has increased from 67 cows in 1990 to 113 in 2009, with a quarter of milk production now coming from farms with more than 250 cows. The mantra has been to get bigger or get out.
What are the implications of this for wildlife? Well, bigger farms are not necessarily any worse for wildlife than smaller farms: in my experience, it is the attitude of those managing the farm that matters most; how much are they prepared to farm ’with nature in mind’. What is of more concern for wildlife is that all farms, big or small, need to farm their grass and crop land as productively and efficiently as possible to keep costs down. This almost invariably means leaving less behind for wildlife. Luckily, agri-environment payments are available to compensate farmers for deliberately taking their ‘foot off the pedal’ on some areas of the farm to help wildlife. Used in the right way, these schemes can make an enormous difference.
There are many dairy farmers around the country doing just this: people like Robert Kynaston, a dairy farmer from Shropshire whose efforts have been recognised with reaching the final four of this years Nature of Farming Award. Recently, I helped judge a competition amongst the farmers that supply Waitrose with milk. Waitrose have been encouraging their suppliers to help wildlife through their wildcare scheme. I was hugely impressed with the efforts being made by the finalists we visited. As well as work on hedges, woodland, ponds and field margins, we saw farmers that had integrated a specific package of agri-environment options to really benefit farmland birds. This was real commitment to making space for nature.
How do we get many more dairy farmers around the UK to follow the example of these farmers? To achieve landscapes richer in wildlife, we need a sufficient scale of action. This raises some challenging questions. In England, the best work for wildlife is being achieved through Higher Level stewardship, but this scheme is very targeted and only around 10-15% of farmers can hope to access its funds. Entry level stewardship is open to all farmers, but this is currently not delivering enough key in-field habitats. Proposed changes to the scheme, such as new grassland options would make a big difference. And around 40% of English dairy farmers are not in any scheme at all. There’s plenty of work to be done, but it’s at events such as this that we can work with all involved in the dairy industry to find ways of ensuring that there is space for nature alongside producing milk.
We are now well into the second year of the Great Crane Project – and have spent the spring and summer hatching and rearing another batch of cranes to joint the eighteen birds that were released last year. This brings the number out on the Somerset Levels and Moors to 34. After three weeks of ‘anchoring’ within a pre-release aviary through August, the 16 new birds are now free to come and go from the release pen. They are entering an exciting period in their lives as they mix with last year’s birds and explore their new habitat.
(Like this pic? You can see more recent photos at www.facebook.com/thegreatcraneproject)
All the cranes are being very closely monitored using a combination of satellite telemetry, radio tags, and colour rings to establish what habitats they are using. Last year’s birds have recently been feeding on soil invertebrates in pasture, dragonflies and craneflies, and also finding left-over grain in wheat stubble fields. They roost at night in the safety of shallow pools within wet grassland and swampy parts of the Somerset Levels and Moors.
The support of the farming community is vital in this project. In partnership with local farmers we have established plots of un-harvested maize and barley on nearby private farm land that should provide food for the birds through the autumn. The project will shortly be producing an advisory leaflet that outlines what farmers can do to help the cranes’ return to Somerset. If you would like a copy – phone Damon on the number below or contact him via the website.
The project works with local schools and community groups to raise awareness of the importance of our local wetlands for wildlife in conjunction with Somerset Art Works. This has involved painting crane silhouettes, and making crane sculptures and wire-work which you can read about here: http://greatcraneart.blogspot.com/
You can follow the progress of the project through the project teams’ blogs on the Great Crane Project website: www.thegreatcraneproject.org.uk
The Great Crane Project is a partnership between The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, The RSPB, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Viridor Credits Environmental Company. Our aim is to restore healthy populations of wild cranes throughout the UK, so that people can once again experience these beautiful birds.
For more information, please contact Damon Bridge, Project Manager – The Great Crane Project on 01458 254 414
I know this is an odd request, but I'd be really grateful if you could collect owl pellets and post them to us. We need them to help educate youngsters about the importance of the UK's wonderful wildlife-friendly farmers.
We use owl pellets at family fun days - children dissect the pellets as they learn about what owls eat and where they live. Farmland is an incredibly important habitat for owls, along with so much of our wildlife. So these family fun days are a great opportunity to educate youngsters (and their parents!) about the importance of wildlife-friendly farming, and the great UK farmers that hold the future of our countryside in their hands.
But we are running short of supplies! So if you are able to collect pellets without disturbing your owls, please just pop them in an envelope and send them to:
Louise BatesRSPB46 The GreenSouthe BarOxfordshireOX16 9AB
Thanks in advance!
Photo: John Bridges (rspb-images.com)