I was asked if I could do a bird survey on a farm to support a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) application and could not turn down the opportunity to nosey around a part of Derbyshire that I knew little about.
So it was a very early start on Saturday to travel up to a hill farm on the edge of the Peak District. The farm was a mix of rough grazing and spring crops – an ideal recipe for lapwings and curlews. Territorial curlews were soon evident, amongst the skylarks and meadow pipits, and the occasional wheatear. Less expected, as I staggered through a paddock full of cotton grass, was a short-eared owl, which rose up in front of me and floated majestically around the field. I knew better than to venture any closer. As it quartered a boggy area, it flushed a snipe – another red-list farmland bird to add to the tally. My only regret was that the owl had not helped me out before I had waded through the soggiest shallows in the paddock in search of snipe, at the cost of two dry feet.
I was enjoying it now. A stunning pair of redpolls flew in to feed on the buds of a hardy hawthorn bush on the moor. Linnets were feeding on the seeding dandelions. I checked they weren’t twite – I was beginning to think that anything was possible here. I finished on the arable land where the lapwings were nesting in high numbers – I estimated 11 territories on less than 20 hectares of spring cereals and uncultivated stubbles, with flocks of linnets and yellowhammers still pouring into the weedy stubbles to feed up on the remnant seeds. No hint of a ‘hungry gap’ here. A minimum of 12 lapwing, nine curlew and two snipe territories, and a supporting cast of short-eared owl and wheatear on about 130 hectares is a great tally.
I left the farm, tired, hungry and happy, in time to get home for Derby County vs. Peterborough United. Hmm – I should have stayed on the farm! It is so gratifying to know that farmers are looking to use HLS money to support this type of farming, and so important that this funding continues into the future.
By Andrew Taylor, Great Bustard LIFE+ Project Adviser
Thanks to a reintroduction project on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, the great bustard can now be seen on farms in south west England for the first time since the early 19th Century. Perhaps the UK’s rarest farmland bird, this spectacular species should become a more frequent sight in the future.
Great bustards are huge. The males, which can be up to twice the size of the females, are amongst the heaviest flying birds in the world. Surprisingly given their size, they can be extremely elusive. They are shy and wary and will not permit close approach. Individuals go missing for months at a time, and we are often reliant on the reports of farmers to track them down.
At its peak, the population stretched from Dorset to Yorkshire, but then declined steadily until extinction in 1832. Their final demise was accelerated by hunting and egg collecting, but changes in agricultural practices had made them more vulnerable. As hand weeding was replaced by mechanical weeding, the probability of nests in fields being destroyed became much higher.
Salisbury Plain was one of the last strongholds of the great bustard in England, and is relatively unchanged since bustards last roamed the area. The open, undisturbed grassland fringed with large arable fields is ideal bustard country. Nevertheless, we do need the help of local farmers, especially through stewardship schemes. We want to give the birds we release the best possible chance of surviving and then raising their own young in the wild.
For many of the UK’s farmland birds, tried and tested HLS and ELS options exist. Put the right option or combination of options in the right place and you can be confident that the birds will respond. For great bustards, we are at a much earlier stage in the process. The first nesting in this country took place just three years ago – as a result we are still working out how best to give the bustards what they need.
The most sensitive time of year is the breeding season. Bustards nest on the ground, in vegetation long enough to cover the female and short enough that she can raise her head and look around. Suitable sites include winter wheat and long grass, but nesting females can very easily be disturbed by farming activity.
Over the next few years we intend to trial existing stewardship options, looking for a combination which is irresistible to your average female bustard. Nesting attempts in specially provided habitat should be much safer and more productive. Options like extended overwintered stubble or an autumn-sown cereal mix for breeding corn buntings could well do the job for bustards, while helping other farmland birds at the same time.
Find out more about the project or get in touch by visiting our website, www.greatbustard.org/life_project
All images courtesy of David Kjaer. The Great Bustard Project is funded by the EU LIFE+ Fund and is a partnership between the Great Bustard Group, RSPB, Natural England and the University of Bath.
Mention the word 'farmer' in a sentence and most people would understand that you that you were talking about someone who produces food of some description. That's a farmer's job, right? Hmmm.
What if that same person was described as a 'multifunctional rural resource manager'?
That's a term I came across last week at a research seminar hosted by the University of Exeter, and it stuck with me. Modern farmers aren't just responsible for growing food - their job encompasses other responsibilities including looking after our water courses, our wildlife, our landscape. But the question is, when what you know is how to grow food, do farmers have the necessary skills, knowledge and expertise to become effective 'multifunctional rural resource managers'?
This was really what the research seminar was focussed on, following a long-term experiment on how to make agri-environment schemes most effective. Two sets of farmers in two separate areas of England were selected to take part in the experiment, half of whom were given training on how to create and effectively manage two agri-environment options under ELS - wild bird seed and nectar flower mixtures. The other half, like most farmers who enter agri-environment schemes, were expected to just get on with it without any training. No prizes for guessing which group found the establishment and subsequent management of the options more successful, and therefore more rewarding! The trained groups of farmers were encouraged to take the same professional approach to managing their ELS land as they did with their crops, had a greater understanding of what to expect and a source of advice and further information should they need it.
Strikingly, at the start of the process, there was a 75:25 split between farmers entering ELS for business/income benefits vs environmental benefits respectively, but towards the end of the trial, the split was almost the complete opposite, in favour of environmental benefits by all farmers (both trained and untrained).
When it comes to training, it's not just the how that proved important - understanding why the options were of value meant the trained farmers had a greater level of engagement with what they were being asked to do, greater confidence in their ability to deliver it, and greater expectations of their own success. There were some interesting discussions with the farmers in the room about whether training should be provided as part of the ELS package, with some clearly for this as a way forward and others adamant that they would want to choose who to receive advice from, and when, should they feel they need it.
That’s where we come in! The farmers in this study represent a tiny fraction of those involved in agri-environment schemes, and we're committed to helping all farmers to fulfil the multifunctional role - that's why we host training courses on making the best use of agri-environment schemes, offer free, expert advice to farmers across the UK and showcase the very best to inspire and encourage others to do the same through our Nature of Farming Awards and farmer case studies.
If you're a farmer reading this, I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts...
Quinoa by Andy Hay (www.rspb-images.com)