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)
It’s been a busy few weeks for us here in Wales. The Royal Welsh Show kicked things off back in mid July, the biggest and best attended event of its kind in the UK, with four days of good weather and a huge number of visitors to the stand, so many in fact, we ran out of our increasingly popular ‘Tractor Cab Guide to Farmland Birds’ halfway through the final day.
A highlight of the show for many of us was the Nature of Farming Award presentation held on the second day of the show. It was a very well attended event and provided us with an opportunity to reward some of the best wildlife friendly farmers Wales has to offer.
The winners, father and son duo, Richard and Gethin Owen farm land overlooking the North Wales coast and have been registered organic since 2008. Gethin’s passion for the wildlife on the farm has led him to discover more about it and ultimately begin to manage the farm in ways which encourage the wildlife to thrive. The farm was for decades entirely grassland and fairly improved, but now, while applying good business sense, utilising support from agri-environment schemes and farming organically, decisions and changes have been made to increase the range of habitats on the farm and farm less intensively.
The farm still has a wealth of grasslands but now of a greater diversity and interest including unimproved acid grassland and gorse scrub with a wide range of herbs and flowering species. Amongst the grass fields there are now spring cereals, winter stubbles, brassicas and potatoes, all sprinkled with the heads of fumitories, woundwort, spurges and deadnettles and supporting large flocks of birds like linnets and skylarks. Linking it all together is a corridor of thick, dense well managed hedgerows, ditches and grassy margins, woodlands and scrub where birds such as bullfinches, tree sparrows, whitethroats and warblers thrive.
The remaining days of the Royal Welsh were as always, very busy and after a short spell visiting farms, a little desk work and a weekend spend under canvas in an Oxfordshire field listening to some good live music it was time to trek down to Haverfordwest and set up at the Pembrokeshire County Show, the largest county show in Wales.
It was only our second visit to the show and what a great time we had, not least because we were fortunate enough to be allowed to camp in the Presidents garden, not far from the show ground itself, surrounded by some beautifully wildlife rich farmland, kicked off each morning with a stunning sun-rise and brought to a close each evening with an equally special sun-set.
We had been kindly invited to share some stand space with Penlan Farm, one of our Highly Commended Nature of Farming Award winners and part of Burns Pet Nutrition Ltd. This provided the perfect opportunity to showcase the results of their Volunteer & Farmer Alliance farmland bird survey and the efforts they go to thus ensuring both good food production and wildlife conservation that lead to their nomination this year. For further information on Penlan farm visit their own blog.
You might be asking yourself why we think we’ve reached new heights....after all we’ve been attending agricultural shows, working with farmers and providing management advice for years.....well it was more of a literal (and very vertical!) height that we reached....after 3 days watching the Wye Valley Axe Men both myself and my colleague, Lesley had the opportunity to climb the 80ft lumberjack poles and I’m very pleased to say we both, eventually, made it right to the top where some incredible views of Pembrokeshire were to be had.
The news has been awash over recent weeks with tales of the transformation of our rivers from horribly polluted sewers to clean beauties sparklingly full of life like otters and salmon.
There is of course progress to celebrate. No one is going to argue that the Thames, Wear or many other rivers that have been blighted by industry and sewage have not improved over the past twenty years. But to suggest a selection of the "10 most improved rivers" in England and Wales are indicative of the picture of how healthy our waterways are is stretching a point.
Take for instance the new water quality measures introduced under the Water Framework Directive which look at the ecology of the river and not just chemical pollution. These tell us that just 26% of our rivers and waterways are of ‘Good Status’. Meanwhile, the Environment Agency's River Habitat Survey concludes there has been no significant progress in the last decade on tackling problems from invasive species, channel reinforcement or sedimentation.
The Agency’s own data also show that salmon stocks continue to be seriously depleted with the oft-repeated claims of salmon in the Thames little more than an urban myth as, since 2005, no hatchery reared salmon have been caught in the Thames despite an intensive and expensive hatchery stocking programme.
At least 30 per cent of waterbodies are failing to achieve good status because of diffuse pollution yet Government seem unwilling to use regulatory approaches, preferring instead to put their faith in voluntary measures alone.
So why are Government bodies like the Environment Agency promoting a public this line that all is good in the water environment? It’s certainly not very helpful to all those fighting for the funding and action needed to improve our rivers. Perhaps it’s to disguise the lack of ambition in plans for the future of our rivers which will see little progress in the state of our rivers until 2027 or later.
A little more honesty from all quarters about the real state of the freshwater environment is urgently needed to help build the public consensus that’s essential if our rivers are to receive the investment and action that they need.