Is it nearly Spring yet?
Well, it depends who you ask. While we patiently hang on for the 21 March, optimistic Celts have already celebrated Imbolc on 1 February. Its arrival was also heralded on 1 February by chicken farmers the world over, as they celebrated the day of their patron saint, St Brigid (it's on Wikipedia, it must be true...). Candlemas on 2 February is regarded as the last day of winter by some, especially any Groundhogs that awoke to see their shadows.
For wildlife, this time of year is known as the ‘hungry gap’ – at the moment it looks more like winter than it has all year and Nature’s larder is looking depressingly empty.
For farmland birds, this is when planted wild bird seed mixes come into their own. They contain a mixture of seed-bearing plants and can be designed to take a number of things into account, including the rate at which plants drop their seeds, the dietary preferences of target bird species, and the soil properties of the area.
Location of the mix is key to the usefulness of the mix – some species prefer to be in the open so they can see predators coming, while others prefer a place where they can remain secluded for much of the time. The amount is important too, with larger blocks suffering less from edge effects and able to host larger flocks.
So for example, if you want a fat, healthy population of corn buntings ready to get stuck straight in to the breeding season, establish a couple of acres of mix containing some of their favourites such as barley, oats and triticale, in an area that’s mostly open with a few isolated bushes.
It can be quite technical stuff - as a farmer, it could prove one of the more complicated crops you grow if you don’t have the proper guidance on what to include and how to establish and manage it.
Luckily, free advice is something that’s readily available through several RSPB projects. Mixes are proving to be a great success wherever farmers have worked with us to get them right.
With the right components, game cover can provide lots of seeds for small birds. Could you keep yours a little longer..?
Another early February date is the end of the shooting season on 1 February. Do you have game cover containing the kind of seed bearing plants that can help small birds survive the winter? You may think it’s now outlived its usefulness, but I know of a small flock of 90 corn buntings in the game cover near my office that would disagree with you!
If you can, please consider keeping it until the weather starts to improve. That way, as spring really kicks in, our corn buntings will be well fed enough to turn their thoughts to other things. After all it is nearly Valentine’s Day. Now there’s a date we can all agree on....
Do you have wild bird seed mixes on your farm? What birds have you seen using them this winter?
I lose track of the number of acronyms I come across every day, but there are some that are more memorable than others in this business. LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) is one of them.
As an organisation, LEAF work to promote the integration of environmental protection into farming and understandably we cross paths with LEAF, and LEAF farmers, on a fairly regular basis. Robert Kynaston, Nature of Farming Award (or NoFA!) winner for the Midlands region in 2011, is a great example of one of those LEAF-y farmers who has taken up measures in environmental schemes that we like to call 'The Big Three' (no acronym for that one!). Purely and simply, The Big Three provides all that farmland birds need to thrive - seed food through the winter, flower-rich habitats to support insects in the summer and in-field nesting sites. This principle is incorporated into the Farmland Bird Package (or FBP), which our expert advisors are helping farmers to build into agri-environment schemes (AES) to really benefit wildlife on their farms.
Each year, LEAF organise Open Farm Sunday (or OFS!) where farmers open their gates to the public and encourage them to learn more about where their food comes from. If you're a farmer and you're interested in hosting an event this June, LEAF are organising some events to help you get the most out of it - find out more here to see if there's one near you.
If you're not a farmer, why not go along to an OFS event and see if your local LEAF farmer is delivering the FBP, entered into NoFA or in an AES!
Some of the things to keep an eye out for include:
Skylark plots for nesting (image by Chris Tomson)
Cultivated margins for summer food (photo from Natural England)
And wild bird seed mixtures for winter food (Picture by Richard Winspear)
More information on all these options, practical advice on how to manage them and the real difference they can make for farmland bird populations can be found here.
Today the Queen has commemorated her Diamond Jubilee by reiterating her pledge to serve us all.
Serving the nation is something UK farmers know all about. Providing food for our growing population whilst also being stewards of our countryside for future generations takes particular care and dedication. We celebrate their hard work each year with the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award.
The 2012 competition is now open, so if you think you could be crowned the UK’s most wildlife-friendly farmer this year, visit our website to download an entry form today. You could win £1,000!
But the biggest prize is spreading the word about the vital work that so many farmers are doing for wildlife. Each year we ask the public to show support for UK wildlife-friendly farmers by voting for the overall winner. Last year the Award was featured in the national and farming press, radio (including a mention on the Chris Evan's breakfast show, which gets 9 million listeners), TV, and was tweeted and blogged about by celebrities such as wildlife film maker and presenter, Gordon Buchanan.
Watch our video to hear more about the award from farmers themselves. Hear from last year's winners - 2011's king and queen of wildlife-friendly farming Somerset and Carolyne Charrington, finalists Robert Law, Robert Kynaston and David White, and regional winners Andrew Jackson, Andrew Hughes and Gethin Owen. Also see our website for details for more fabulous Highly Commended farmers who were pipped to the post, but are definitely diamonds too. Could you be on that list for 2012?
The EU LIFE+ Programme funds RSPB work which supports wildlife-friendly farming that furthers sustainable development in the European Union.