Posted on behalf of Andrew Holland, Farmland Project Officer in the Brecks
Stone-curlews are an amazing and instantly recognizable bird, with their large yellow eyes and long yellow legs. They fly hundreds of miles each year to areas which have stony, light sandy soils to breed in England, these include the Brecks and Suffolk Coast and a handful of other areas.
Unfortunately, there is now less suitable safe nesting habitat for stone-curlews than ever before. One way we can help the birds to nest on safe areas is through agri-environment schemes, especially the Higher Level Scheme (HLS) and possibly through the Entry Level Scheme (ELS). This requires a two hectare plot, with little vegetation being left throughout the breeding season.
Last year when I was putting together an ELS/HLS agreement for Jane, a landowner, she mentioned that stone-curlews had nested on her farm in the past. Apparently, Sam who still lives nearby, used to work on the farm when he was young in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s. He had spoken about how he used to see them regularly in the sugar beet fields on their farm and how he would lift up the weeding equipment when they came to a nest, so as not to damage the eggs.
With this in mind and the fact that we know these charismatic birds will typically arrive back to past breeding areas from one year to the next, we considered how we could entice more people who worked on the land in the past to come forward with their records.
We decided to contact the EADT with our thoughts for a story and they snapped our hand off. We contacted Robert, one of the farmers who we work closely with in the Brecks. Stone-curlews have nested on his land in the past and have steadily increased to good numbers of breeding birds and he was more than happy to be involved. We would then go over to the Suffolk Coast and meet Sam and Jane whose farm had the historical sightings. Both were very keen.
The day arrived for the Brecks visit, with myself and my colleague Tim meeting at Robert’s farm. Everything went to plan; notes and photographs (even though we had not all shaved in the morning) were taken, with Robert keen to tell his story of how the number of breeding birds had increased and the work that he was undertaking to secure its future.
Then it was off over to the Suffolk Coast, to meet up with another colleague Mel. We arrived in good time to speak to Sam and Jane before the reporter arrived and inform them of how the meeting had gone in the Brecks. We all then set off to the field where the stone-curlew had been seen in the past. Sam was full of enthusiasm as he told the reporter of his days gone by. Jane spoke of her commitment to encourage the birds back onto their farm after all these years.
It was now all down to the reporter to put the article together and then it was fingers crossed and hope that someone would come forward with some records, so we could then contact the landowners with a view of asking them to put safe nesting plots onto their land.
After sweating for a while, wondering whether any calls would come through, a call came through from Steve who believe it or not worked on stone-curlews in the 1970’/1980’s. He was happy to show us where they had nested in the past. Success! As I commented earlier, they will nest in areas they have used for years, as long as the habitat is still suitable. The problem is we do not know where these are.
Just to let you know, I have since received a phone call from Jane, whose ELS/HLS agreement started last November. A stone-curlew was seen this year (2014) on the same field where they had been seen all those years ago by Sam. Could this bird be one of the ancestors from the 1950’s/1960’s, who knows?
Since RSPB bought and started managing Hope Farm in 2000 we have hosted a wide range of visitors, from groups of farmers, industry representatives, government officials, MPs and Ministers. All have come to see how we have successfully halted and reversed the declines of farmland birds and farmland wildlife in general, all while producing great crops as well.
Amongst all the visitors, a small number have been from abroad – Bulgaria, Germany, Netherlands, France, Spain, Finland, Sweden, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa amongst others. They are very interested to see what we are doing here at Hope Farm because declines of wildlife linked to agricultural changes is not unique to England, or the UK. It is a problem wherever rapid changes in how we grow and manage crops have taken place.
This is particularly true in western Europe, and it is quite possible that the fortunes of farmland birds in England, and the UK, are inextricably linked to how populations of the same species are faring in Europe. Hence our Birdlife partners in Europe lobby their Governments and the European Union just as vociferously as RSPB does.
Some of the most enthusiastic European visitors have come from our Birdlife partner in Germany, NABU. In 2013 representatives from NABU and The Michael Otto Foundation visited Hope Farm to specifically learn about what we have done here and how feasible similar projects may be in Germany.
Image by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
It is therefore really gratifying to learn that Hope Farm is being used as an example of good wildlife-farming practice in a widely read and respected German newspaper, Die Zeit. The article can be read here, but you will need to able to understand German!
If Modern Languages aren't your strong point, you can download an English version below, kindly translated by Richard Carden.
We are really pleased to be helping our European, and indeed international, conservation colleagues in their campaigns to protect wildlife across their farmed landscapes.
Today, we have a guest blog from Simon Tonkin, Conservation Manager at Conservation Grade. Simon explains a bit more about their Fair to Nature farmers, and asks for your support in celebrating some of the best farmers in a new competition.
"By growing under the Fair to Nature protocol, all our farms are committing at least 10% of their otherwise cropped area as habitats specifically managed for wildlife. You can help nature by being a Fair to Nature consumer and look for the logo on products that you can buy.
This year we have introduced a new award to celebrate the fantastic work our Fair to Nature farmers are doing for wildlife on their farms. You can hear about their work below and then why not vote for your favourite by visiting here."
Andrew Elms - West Sussex
Nestled in the South Downs, Lordington Lavender was established in 2002 by Andrew Elms. After selling his dairy herd he was looking for a new way to diversify and decided that Lavender would be a unique and exciting alternative. The crop is grown with conservation of habitat and the environment very much in mind. No fertilisers or pesticides are used on the lavender and it has become haven for wildlife.
Andrew manages specifically for wildlife through over wintered stubbles and wild bird mixes to provide food for birds over the winter, and has some brilliantly managed nectar flower and wildflower areas for insects. He has also created habitats as part of Operation Turtle Dove by sowing areas of Turtle Dove seed food. Additionally beetle banks for small mammals, Barn Owls and over wintering insects have been created in larger fields. If all that wasn’t enough, Andrew ensures that existing habitats are managed well with wildlife in mind.
Ian Crabtree – Derbyshire
Wild flower margins and nectar flower plots provide a boon for a variety of insects at this time of the year. These are often located in tandem with unharvested conservation headlands. Grassland fields are managed with a strict regime to benefit wildlife by creating variable sward structures that provide food and shelter for small mammals.
Nesting habitats are created for birds in the middle of fields as well as at the edges by creating cultivated areas that are left undisturbed over the summer months. These provide nesting opportunities for birds such as lapwings and skylarks. Skylarks get another benefit from Ian’s approach through the numerous skylark plots created within winter sown cereals.
Ian takes an integrated view of wildlife, not only does he value its intrinsic beauty and value but it also has a commercial benefit in the long-term as well by creating a wealth of predatory insects and birds that can control crop pests too.
Graham Birch - Dorset
Out of all the various habitats that Graham has created and continues to manage by being a Fair to Nature farmer he does have some favorites on the farm. Perhaps it’s no wonder that one of these happens to be the glorious Dorset chalk grassland which are abundant with wildflowers and as a result support a fantastic array of butterflies and moths.
His wildflower meadows support beautiful pyramidal, early purple and bee orchids which are encouraged by a late hay cut followed by sheep grazing.
The wildflower, nectar flower and bird seed plots have all made a noticeable difference to small birds on the farm when during winter flocks of linnets and corn buntings can be seen over the plots searching for seed whilst during the summer months grey partridges, corn buntings and skylarks can be found foraging in insect rich managed habitats. Lapwing, corn bunting and skylark nesting habitats are created and managed.
Graham approaches the conservation work on the farm in the same way he does the normal commercial part of his farming practices. The premium earned from the Fair to Nature products that Graham grows (together with stewardship payments) financially justify the work he puts into the habitat creation.
Charles Porter - Bedfordshire
Charles takes great care to ensure that the arable farming doesn’t encroach onto the wildlife areas and as he states “my conservation margins are sacrosanct” it gives you an indication of the care and effort that Charles happily puts into to make wildlife areas work.
Six separate areas of wild bird seed mixtures, plus a mixture of unharvested crop species provide for farmland birds in the winter months. Additionally, since these can be exhausted of seed late in the winter, Charles also scatters grain within them to provide a further boost to hungry birds.
Insects are encouraged in four blocks of sown nectar flower mixes where bumblebees hoverflies, butterflies and other insects abound, in turn providing food for insect eating birds including young Corn Buntings.
Along with sown areas of insect rich habitats Charles has created and managed wildflower areas including reverting an area from cultivations to wildflower meadows including two fields totaling 14ha now in their 11th year of reversion and now rich in wildflowers.
Adding to the diversity of habitats, ponds have been created or enhanced across the farm with seven ponds now supporting a wealth of life including dragonflies and damselflies, three of the ponds now support great crested newts.
Grey partridges, lapwings, spotted flycatchers, linnets, reed buntings, yellowhammers and corn buntings can all be found on the farm and benefit from the diversity and quality of habitats.