The first bird I learned to identify was a Turtle dove. My great-grandfather taught me about farmland birds as well as the plants and the insects we have. My childhood natural education was all about the wildlife around the farm; where they live, why they are good for the farm and more importantly why we need the birds living on the farm.
Our farmland walks had the benefit of ensuring that everything was in working order and depending on the season, we would look for mushrooms in the cork oak tree woodlands or in the few pines close to the beach. We would unearth Spanish oyster thistle in the spring and make stews with them. Wild asparagus for delicious omelettes made by grandmother were also part of the menu.
My great-grandfather was a Spanish farmer; a good one. We never had a bad year. If a crop failed, the pigs, cattle or sometimes the subsided crops like cotton would balance the income.
A lasting memory is how he used to talk about the farm with the connection that most farmers have with the land. He would say; ‘One swallow does not make a summer...but the arrival of the first Turtle dove says summer is close’.
As a little boy, my curiosity would ignite waiting in hope for the sweet repeated “rourr-rourr-rourr" in early April. This was the beginning of a season of wild encounters around the farm.
Now as an adult, that childish curiosity hasn’t faded. I still delight in the hunt for creepy crawlies in farm scrublands and enjoy the pursuit of discovering new and old wild habitats. One of the wonders of my childhood was the observation of the Turtle dove; bird that symbolises love and peace and my memories. Unfortunately, since then, the beloved turtle dove doesn’t nest anymore, in either our olive trees or the hawthorn. Why? One of the reasons is the food availability. As they arrive in April the crops have been harvested and there is nothing for them to eat and prepare for the breading season ahead.
Ten years ago my uncle adopted measures for the protection of our scrub and designed plans to create transition habitats. One area of our olive tree production was connected to the grassland area. It managed the scrub and added hawthorn and grasses rich in seed.
At the far end of our pastoral field we also included a plot sowed with cereals and sunflower.
Last September, after spending eleven days back home, those childhood feelings flooded back as I prepared to return to the UK. There was a sense that fun was over and it was now time to return to work. It wasn’t the sight of my suitcase packed and ready, signifying my return to reality, but the sound of the migrating turtle dove on her way back to Africa.
It's a grey old autumn day out there today and as the last few leaves cling to the cherry tree oustide my office window, summer time and the survey season seems a very distant memory. However, for the farmers who have taken part in the Volunteer & Farmer Alliance in 2011, the results of their surveys will now be winging their way to them - the slightly glooomier weather gives project staff around the UK a chance to input the thousands of records received from all our dedicated volunteers. Since the project began, this has amounted to over 6000 surveys, and more than 107,000 hours (or 12 years!) of volunteer time to provide farmers with a valuable record of the birds breeding on their farm.
Now that the results are in, I thought I would share some of the highlights from the 2011 season - a summer which I'm sure will stick in the minds of many!
In Scotland, golden eagles, red-throated divers and black grouse were recorded, with an average of 30 species found on each of the 140 farms.
Black grouse by Andy Hay (www.rspb-images.com)
In Wales, the highest species count on a single farm was 61, and one volunteer was lucky enough to spot a huge flock made up of 100 house sparrows, 60 goldfinches and 40 greenfinches and linnets in south Wales. I'm sure that made getting up before dawn worthwhile!
After hundreds of years of being extinct in Northern Ireland and following its reintroduction back in 2008 red kite was recorded on a farm survey – a V&FA first! A handful of surveyors were also lucky enough to glimpse the sight of a barn owl, a very rare sight in Northern Ireland!
Barn owl by John Bridges (www.rspb-images.com)
On the Devon coast one volunteer was surprised to encounter a golden oriole, and a farm in Lincolnshire smashed the regional record for the most species recorded during a survey, with a whopping 85, including breeding avocets!
Thanks to all those who have dedicated so much time and effort this year - the farmers who want to know more about the birds they are supporting, and the volunteers they have invited onto their land. By working together we can only improve the fortunes of our vulnerable farm wildilfe, and I hope this time next year I can review another set of really interesting results!
Since 2010, the V&FA has been supported by funding from the EU Life+ Programme. This comes to an end next year, so the 2012 survey season is sure to be another busy one for everyone! If you are interested in applying for a survey, or would like to sign up as a volunteer, click here for more information.
Last week (12 October), the European Commission’s proposals for CAP reform were finally released. Although long awaited, these proposals are really just the beginning of a long process of negotiation between all 27 EU Member States and the European Parliament. The end result will be a new CAP that will have a profound effect on farmers and the environment from 2014-2020 and beyond.
The RSPB has been deeply disappointed by the reform proposals, but they can still change and it vital that we all do what we can to ensure that the outcome is a policy that genuinely delivers for farmers, consumers and wildlife. You can help by contacting your local MP and MEP to ask what they’re doing to ensure wildlife and environmentally-friendly farming gets a fair deal from the CAP. Read on for more detail...
So what is being proposed?
The 2-Pillar CAP that we’re now all familiar with (with Pillar 1 providing direct payments and Pillar 2 funding Rural Development and agri-environment schemes) will remain but with some significant changes.
Instead of the Single Payment Scheme, (also known as the Single Farm Payment), Pillar 1 could feature up to six different payment schemes:
If these schemes are agreed in the forthcoming debate, each Member State will have to offer the first 4 schemes and can choose whether to offer the last 2. The Basic Payment would account for the majority of Pillar 1 funding .
Every farmer who entered the Basic Payment Scheme would also be required to enter the ‘Greening scheme’. This scheme would account for 30% of each Member State’s Pillar 1 budget and to get the payment, farmers and land managers would be required to:
The young farmer scheme would provide ‘start-up’ support (for a maximum of 5 years) for new entrants to farming who are less than 40 years old.
The small farmer payment would replace all other payments for those entering the scheme. Recipients would receive a small payment (somewhere between the equivalent of €500-1000) and unlike farmers in all the other schemes would not have to respect cross compliance or the measures set out in the greening payment.
Coupled support would provide payments linked to production in areas where specific types of farming or sectors are facing difficulties and are important for economic, social or environmental reasons. The payment would not seek to increase production in such areas, rather to maintain it at current levels.
The payment for areas under natural constraint is effectively providing ‘Less Favoured Area’ support under Pillar 1 in addition to support already provided (and which will continue to be provided) under Pillar 2.
Pillar 2 has not been so dramatically transformed. Member States will still have to develop Rural Development Programmes (at national or regional levels), they will still have to offer agri-environment schemes as part of these RDPs and ‘ring-fence’ 25% of Pillar 2 funding for environmental measures.
However, these Rural Development Programmes will be expected to deliver a much broader range of objectives than currently, grouped under 6 priorities:
So is all this good or bad?
In a nutshell, the RSPB has been deeply disappointed by the reform proposals. We have long called for reform that links the public money that funds the CAP with clear ‘public goods’ – things like wildlife, healthy soils and clean water which the market doesn’t properly reward. This would mean CAP money going to those farmers and land managers who are protecting and improving the environment alongside food production.
Not enough money for environmentally friendly farming
It is positive that the reform proposals require 25% of Pillar 2 money to be used for targeted environmental measures (like England’s Environmental Stewardship schemes for example). However, the CAP budget for 2014-2020 will be less than the current budget in real terms so this will mean smaller pot of money for Pillar 2 across Europe. This won’t be enough to meet the scale of environmental need or the level demand from farmers who want to join.
Another highly worrying proposal is also on the table – some Member States may be allowed to transfer up to 5% of their Pillar 2 budget into Pillar 1, further reducing the money available for farmers who wish to enter agri-environment schemes.
Positively, the proposals do provide the ability for Member States to shift (or modulate) up to 10% of Pillar 1 funds into Pillar 2 and this should be welcomed. Although the subject of modulation is often contentious, it must be remembered that without modulation in the UK, we would not have been able to offer the kind of open-to-all agri-environment schemes we have.
No support for High Nature Value farming systems
Despite concerted effort from the RSPB and its BirdLife partners across Europe, the proposals still fail to provide targeted support for HNV systems. These systems, which are generally very extensively managed (and include some of the crofting systems in Scotland and upland farming systems across the UK), deliver outstanding environmental benefits, are socially extremely important and yet currently receive little to no financial support from the CAP.
Potentially damaging ‘simplification’
In a bid to make the CAP simpler and more socially acceptable, the proposals contain some very strange measures indeed. The small farmer scheme is a particularly worrying example as it would provide a payment to small farms with no strings attached and no clear policy objective in mind. The RSPB strongly believes that all farms, large and small, have a shared responsibility towards the environment and there should be no means for farms to effectively opt out.
Another proposal is to target Pillar 1 payments to ‘active’ farmers only. In a bizarre twist, this could actually result in genuine farmers being exclude from CAP direct payments because they have diversified so successfully they make too much of their income from non-farming activities! This proposal could also potentially catch very extensive farming systems which receive very low (but vitally important) CAP payments and where the farmer may have to work another job to make ends meet.
New ‘greening measures’
The new greening measures have caught many of the CAP headlines in recent months. The RSPB hopes that the proposed measures can be designed in such a way that they deliver real and meaningful environmental benefits on the ground, including helping to protect the natural resources needed for long term food production.
In particular, we are extremely hopeful that the proposed Ecological Focus Area requirement will include the right kinds of land management types and features (such as hedges, buffers and margins, areas out of production, ponds and very extensively managed farmland) and will reward farmers who have retained such features, as well as providing an incentive for more farmers to re-inject these features back into the landscape. The EFA requirement is not the same as the old set-aside scheme, which simply aimed to reduce food surpluses by demanding up to 10% of productive farmland be taken out of production. These new requirements could, if designed well, bring both biodiversity and agronomic benefit. However, as for many of the new CAP proposals, the devil will be in the detail.
So what happens next?
Now the reform proposals are out, the complex process of ‘co-decision’ starts. Co-decision is new to agricultural policy. In the past the European Commission proposed the policy and the Member States decided the outcome. Now the Commission proposes but the Member States have to share power with the European Parliament.
The proposals for reform will change during this process and it vital that we all do what we can to ensure that the outcome is a policy that genuinely delivers for environmentally friendly farming. This means ensuring that enough money is available for well-designed agri-environment schemes, that all farmers and land managers do their bit for positive land management and those farming systems which deliver the most for the environment but often get the least from CAP are properly recognised and rewarded.
You can help by contacting your local MP and MEP to ask what they’re doing to ensure wildlife and environmentally-friendly farming gets a fair deal from the CAP.
You can find out who your local MP and MEPs are here: www.writetothem.com
Many of you will already know that 12 October will see the official launch of the European Commission's proposals for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP is a huge influence on how land across the EU is managed and come the 12th we'll be furiously digesting the proposals to see what impacts the proposed changes may have for farming and wildlife. We'll be presenting an analysis on here so keep your eye out.
Passion: We are a very passionate bunch in the RSPB when it comes to farm wildlife (and about everything else we do in saving nature!). It shows we are by the volume of both Entry and Higher Level schemes RSPB work on together with farmers throughout the East, helping them help their farm wildlife. We also organsised 111 farmland bird surveys for farmers this year.
Logic: We are logical, as we use the latest science to inform our advice given to farmers, whether that be from the lessons we learn at Hope Farm (with a farmland bird index that increased by 211% it cant be wrong!), RSPB research findings or that of other organisations work such as the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).
Empathy: We care about those farmland birds, butterflies and plants a lot, but we also care about farmers too. RSPB advisers in the East are very much part of their local agricultural community, Mr or Mrs farmland bird/wildlife for their patch. Its not just me saying either, here is what an Essex farmer has to say about the change to their lives and to the farm wildlife that we all benefit from:
“Without the help of the RSPB our lives would be very different and the lives of the farm wildlife here would be impoverished.
The scheme has given us such pleasure and satisfaction - the various options we have taken on the suggestions of our RSPB man have proved that they work - we have more corn buntings, tree sparrows, turtle doves, grey partridge and lapwings to name but a few, and we are sure that by the time we come to the end of our scheme there will be even more. We have also seen an increase in the number and variety of bees and butterflies and have been able to share our success with groups of visitors who enjoy looking around the farm and understanding what we are trying to achieve.”
So the farmland bird index has risen by 211% at the RSPB's Hope Farm – "so what" . Well it is without doubt a clear example of how schemes can work in a conventional arable system.
Deploying those findings to other farms really can work, looking through my notebook of sightings at Hall Farm, Knetishall I helped into HLS three years ago I compared the following:
Corn bunting 1 now 3 occupied territories
Grey Partridge 2 now 6 pairs
Yellow wagtail – 3 now 8+ pairs
Skylark c.10 fold increase (including some truly impressive wintering flocks!)
Here are some entries from a visit there in July, (not an exhaustive list) interesting because I saw fledgling Corn Buntings, exciting because James (the farmer) and I were really excited to see that!
Add the elements of passion, logic and empathy together and we can be very persuasive (and very helpful) in helping farmers and their farm wildlife, so much so that two advisers in the East have been able to help farmland wildlife and farmers in this way on over 55,000ha of farmed land since 2008. I am confident those farms now produce lots more wildlife whilst also managing a profitable farm business producing food and other commodities. Athough that is still only roughly 1.5% of the east of England's farmed area, a way to go yet!
Can you balance the needs of wildlife with those of a farm business? .. again Hope Farm proves you can and of course we need to, for the future of not only wildlife but agriculture and our own well being too, here is farmer Michael Sly doing and saying just that: