Today sees the launch of one of the most comprehensive assessments of the health of the UK’s natural environment. Sadly, much of the ‘State of Nature’ report, written by new partnership of 25 research and conservation organisations, including the RSPB, doesn't make for happy reading – but there is hope so keep on reading!
But before we get there, I’m afraid we have to face the facts: much of the UK’s flora and fauna is not doing well and that’s across all habitat types, from farmland and woodland through to coastal and marine areas. And this is just the latest snapshot of a historical pattern of decline in the UK.
In a nutshell, and looking at only farmland, 60% of species are declining, 34% of them severely and many of these changes are linked to shifts in farmland management.
But - as the report also highlights, we can turn things around for at least some of these species:
“Agri-environment schemes have helped to increase the population of rare species and local populations of more widespread species, and there is evidence that even simple measures, such as those available in the English Entry Level Scheme, benefit birds”.
Every year the RSPB celebrates the work of farmers who take steps for wildlife, often through agri-environment schemes which are entirely taxpayer funded. These ‘Nature of Farming Award’ winners demonstrate just how space for nature can be reintegrated into conventional and often highly productive farming systems. Take a look at some of our recent NOFA winners here – they’re an inspirational bunch.
But the report does go on to say:
“However, we have not seen the much-hoped for recoveries of farmland wildlife – probably because not enough farmers have taken up the most effective agri-environment options, and available funding is limited.”
So there is still a lot for us to do. We need to squeeze more value out of agri-environment schemes so nature stands a chance of recovery and at the same time, decision makers need to ensure these schemes get the funding they need – including by transferring as much money as possible from the CAP’s ‘direct payment’ pot into rural development funding – which pays for agri-environment schemes.
We, and you know, that farmers are able to deliver fantastic things for the environment, often through some relatively minor adjustments to their farm management. But as today’s State of Nature report shows, we still need to do much more.
The good news is that there is scope to do more – for many species in decline, the challenge is not finding out what they need to recover, it’s securing the political will to ensure the options they need are in place at the necessary scale. So let’s work together to make that happen!
Guest blog by David Hirst, Natural England
A farming duo is giving wildlife in Essex a vital helping hand by creating their own version of ‘Noah’s Ark’ on their farm. Thanks to their conservation work, lapwings, lizards, snakes, bumblebees, corn buntings and turtle doves are now to be found alongside the more traditional farm animals on Moverons Farm near Brightlingsea.
Lesley Orrock and Payne Gunfield signed up to join Natural England’s Environmental Stewardship scheme - which pays farmers to use environmentally friendly farming methods on their land - and the couple are now reaping the benefits with a rich harvest of wildlife.
Since helping Lesley and Payne enter the stewardship scheme, Natural England wildlife adviser Sarah Brockless has noticed a big difference in the amount of wildlife around the farm. Lapwing now successfully nest on uncropped areas in fields; wild flower corridors have been established along the edges of fields to provide pollen and nectar for rare Carder bumblebees and other crop pollinators; and the network of farm hedgerows has been re-established through new planting and coppicing. A family of adders has moved into the farm’s specially-designed ‘reptile refuge’, known as a hibernacula, which has been constructed from recycled concrete rubble.
Last winter, Lesley and Payne were rewarded with the sight of a flock of more than 160 corn buntings and yellowhammers feeding on the farm. A specially formulated seed mixture crop is provided every winter to help the birds survive the ‘hungry gap’ between January and spring, when natural seeds can be scarce in the countryside. In addition, Lesley and Payne put out a mixture of oil seed rape, wheat, millet and canary seed across the farm throughout the winter months.
Lesley says: "We are privileged to live and work in such a fantastic place. We love the wonderful variety of wildlife we have on the farm but we wanted to do more to help secure the future of the wildlife we have and to increase the biodiversity whilst still maintaining a commercially viable business. With the combined help of David Sunnucks who farms the land and Sarah Brockless at Natural England, who helped us set up the Environmental Stewardship agreement, we feel we are well on the way towards achieving our aim."
Nationally declining farmland bird species that nest on the farm, such as turtle doves and yellow wagtails, will also benefit from the creation of new wildlife habitats providing sites for feeding and breeding. Turtle doves, which are now rare summer visitors to the UK, nest within the area known as ‘Noah’s Ark’, a large scrub area on the farm. The doves feed on the abundance of flower seeds that grow wild on the farm and also in crops, such as clover, that have been specially sown on the land.
The kind of wildlife habitat creation work underway at Morevons Farm is essential for securing a future for turtle doves in England. A steep decline in the birds’ population has led to the setting up of Operation Turtle Dove (www.operationturtledove.org), a three-year collaborative project between the RSPB, Conservation Grade and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, supported by Natural England.
Natural England’s Sarah Brockless added: “The knowledge, enthusiasm and hard work of Lesley and Payne have lead to outstanding progress during the establishment of the scheme. There is a true balance between a viable farm business, good practical farming and great nature conservation on Moverons Farm. It is through the hard work of farmers like Lesley and Payne and their participating in environmental stewardship schemes that we can make a real difference to our land, conserve wildlife and protect natural resources.”
By re-planting and coppicing the farm’s old elm hedgerows, a series of wildlife corridors will be created across the farm and rotational cutting will provide a source of berries for the birds and field mice to feed on during the autumn and winter months. A patch of Hogs Fennel has also recently been created on the farm to attract the Fisher’s Estuarine moth, one of Britain’s rarest and most highly threatened species of insect.
The next chapter in the farm’s success story will see the gradual re-introduction of traditional sheep grazing which will greatly enhance the importance of the farm’s sea wall for wildlife. Unlike cutting, which creates a uniform habitat, extensive grazing will create a variety of habitats for wildlife.
As well as rare bumblebee species, the farm’s sea wall supports populations of grasshoppers and crickets, such as the short-winged conehead and great green bush-cricket, which are now almost entirely restricted to the Essex coast sea walls and scrub areas such as Noah’s Ark. Sharp-eyed walkers may also notice common lizards and slow worms on warm days. Interesting plants to look out for are shrubby seablite, golden samphire and the nationally scarce dittander.
The farmland is visible from the well-walked sea wall footpath coming out of Brightlingsea.
This week we’re returning to a showpiece event for beef farmers. We have attended this event a few times in the past to get across the important role that cattle farming plays in shaping our countryside and the opportunities available to wildlife. See here and here.
At this year’s event, we will be focussing on Higher Nature Value farming systems. Cattle are often integral to such systems, and we’ll be asking the farmers visiting our stand to tell us how important the wider outputs of farming are to their farms. Things like providing habitats for wildlife, clean water, carbon storage and valued landscapes.
Despite the horsemeat scandal and the abysmal weather of the last year, I expect to find the beef industry in a reasonably good spirits. Cattle prices are very healthy (up more than 10% on the year), hardly taking a dent from the horsemeat scandal – indeed, it may well have helped UK producers as consumers seek greater assurance on the provenance of their meat, and also shone a light on the issue of unclear labelling. Spring also seems to have arrived at last with grass growing, hedges well in leaf and swallows returned to their favourite barns on farms around the UK.
It is always interesting being at these industry events. They are very much for the farmer, unlike the agricultural shows which also attract large numbers of the general public. We will probably be the only stand focussed on wildlife, nestled amongst stands selling machinery, feed and every other conceivable thing that a beef farmer might need to run their business. Some understand exactly why a wildlife charity would want to attend such an event – they will recount stories about wildlife on their farms and discuss the work they are doing to help wildlife. Others will be less sure that we are relevant to them, but hopefully just being present helps establish the idea that wildlife and other environmental outputs from farmland are just as much a part of a livestock farming business.
Read the latest about our views on CAP reform on Martin's blog here
Many farmers across the East and South East are working hard to give turtle doves a home as they return from their wintering grounds in Africa. But still, as numbers are ever dwindling and their breeding range consistently retracting, many will never have been lucky enough to ever see a turtle dove.
If you are in North Norfolk this Saturday, why not drop into the 'Wild About The Wensum' event at Pensthorpe, where you can see turtle doves in the wader enclosure, and learn more about the plight of these highly threatened birds? Pensthorpe Conservation Trust are one of our lovely partners in Operation Turtle Dove. This year the Wild About The Wensum event is raising money for Operation Turtle Dove - so by visiting you can have fun, learn about wildlife, and support vital work that will help future generations see turtle doves where they belong - in our fields and gardens across a much bigger range than they currently occupy.
Full details below: