There are definite signs of spring in the air here at Hope Farm: skylarks were singing all around me as I walked into the farm this morning, the first small tortoiseshells and queen buff-tailed bumblebees have been seen flying around the farmhouse orchard. While the winter was generally another mild one, with few frosts, it is always great to see real evidence of spring arriving.
Image 1: The Orchard at Hope Farm where the first bumblebees and butterflies of the spring have been seen. Apart from abundant pollen and nectar from fruit blossom, old orchards are also important habitat for nesting and feeding birds, while deadwood is important for invertebrates. Leaving unmown areas around the trees can be beneficial for flowers and insects. (Rebecca O’Dowd)
Another sign of spring coming closer is cultivations starting on the farm ahead of spring drilling. Being on heavy clay the weather, and subsequent condition of the soil, dictates a prolonged close down during the winter when operations cease. Aside from the risk of getting machinery stuck, working in the clay in wet conditions can seriously damage the soil structure, and poor soil structure generally leads to poor crops. But being conscious of the need to get our spring wheat drilled as early as possible, it is great to see the quadtracks come on the farm and start the preparatory cultivations. By the time you read this the wheat will have been drilled and we’ll be planning for drilling the peas, our final crop to be established.
Image 2: Preparations for drilling spring wheat. The timing of this operation is a fine balance between risk to machines and damage to soil structure and the need to drill the wheat as soon as possible. (Ian Dillon)
March is also a great time to take stock of how the hedge management went over the winter. All our hedges, with the exception of roadside ones, are cut during January and February on a three year rotation. This is quite easy to carry out when the hedges are alongside tracks, but more challenging when they’re alongside crops or conservation areas. We normally wait for a good frost to do these hedges, and thankfully this winter there were at least a few frosty mornings (unlike last winter!). We didn’t get every hedge cut that we had planned to but we got the great majority done. Hopefully this will leave these hedges in great condition for nesting birds and all the other wildlife that uses hedges over the next three years until it is their turn to be cut again.
Image 3: Hedges at Hope farm are cut in January/ February at 3 year intervals. This management produces a well-developed structure attractive to nesting birds. Hedges around the farm should ideally be cut on a rotational pattern to ensure there is always suitable hedge habitat for birds other wildlife at any given time. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com).
Conservation management doesn’t stop with hedges though. While they provide safe nesting areas for whitethroats, yellowhammers and linnets, these and all other birds also require abundant food during the year to survive and thrive. In the spring and summer most species require invertebrates for themselves and their chicks, and during the winter many birds require seeds. Providing sufficient quantities and, importantly, ensuring the habitats and resources are of high quality is very important to us as conservation farmers.
Image 4: Flower-rich margins at Hope Farm provide habitat for insects, which in turn are an important food source for adult birds and their chicks in spring/summer. The flowers are also a key pollen and nectar source for bees and butterflies. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com).
Planning ahead is vital. The wild bird cover crops, which provide the over-winter seed during next winter, will be drilled in early May and the planning of where to put it on the farm is carried out in February or March. This gives our contractors sufficient time to prepare the ground for drilling. We currently aim to use 2% of the potential cropping area to deliver seed rich unharvested bird crops each year. Here this means approximately 3.4ha. This may sound a lot but when we place it in out smallest fields or awkward and low-yielding corners around our fields it really doesn’t impact much at all on our overall crop production. Management of these areas is key to the quality of seed provision: ensuring they are as ‘weed’ free as possible before drilling by a combination of rotating the areas where we grow the crops, cultivations and spraying a herbicide to control the ‘weeds’, followed by applying a low rate of nitrogen fertiliser at stem extension all helps increase the quantity of seed provided.
And the birds have responded! In another recent blog here we reported on the changes in wintering bird numbers at Hope Farm. The changes have been staggering so it is worth repeating the headlines again here.
Taking yellowhammer as an example in the first winter (2000/01) that RSPB owned Hope Farm we found a maximum of 2 yellowhammers. This was at a time when all the available cropping area was used for autumn sown crops and therefore there was virtually no seed food available for birds such as yellowhammers to eat. Fast forward to the winter just past and the maximum count was 236! Many of our visitors over the winter have left saying the flocks of yellowhammers around the wild bird cover crops was one of the most impressive wildlife spectacles they have seen. The other startling fact that is worth repeating is the increase in diversity as well as numbers. In December 2000 we recorded 203 birds of 22 species, whereas in December 2014 we recorded 1605 birds of 44 species. That makes me feel quite proud of what we have achieved here.
Image 5: Yellowhammers have been a major success story at Hope Farm. Provision of winter food via sown wild bird seed mixes has helped increased the maximum winter count from 2 in winter 2000/1 to 236 in winter 2014/14. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
If I could encourage all my farming colleagues to do two things with the conservation management and provision it would be these: think about quality, not just quantity. Go that extra mile and spend those extra few pounds to deliver higher quality whether it is in the flower rich margins or meadows, or the wild bird cover areas. The second is to be proud of what you have done, show it off, invite your neighboring farmers round to see what you have done and take real pleasure from the increasing number of birds, butterflies and bees that will be on your farm as a result.
If you would like more information on Hope Farm please contact:
Ian Dillon (Hope Farm Manager): firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively watch out for regular updates on farm operations, events and research here on the RSPB Farming blog or on Twitter by following @AgriODowd
By Ian Dillon (Hope Farm Manager)
On RSPB Hope Farm our monitoring work includes surveying both breeding birds during the summer and birds using the farm during the winter months too. The winter surveys are carried out monthly from December to February. On one morning in each month the whole farm is surveyed by a number of surveyors who are each allocated a distinct area of the farm. All birds using the farm are recorded on maps and once back in the farmhouse (after a warming cuppa and bacon butty) the maps are analysed. This analysis removes any double counting of the same birds and enables us to calculate the total number of birds for each species seen.
Why do we survey birds in winter? Many studies have shown that winter is a critical time for farmland birds. The loss of seed rich habitats such as over-winter stubbles has resulted in a reduction in the amount of seed food available to farmland birds, and this is thought to be one of the main causes of population declines in a number species¹.
However options available under agri-environment schemes can help remedy this by supporting measures that provide winter seed food including;
Image 1: Provision of winter seed food has increased winter counts of Yellowhammer at Hope Farm significantly. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
At RSPB Hope Farm, we have provided a number of these measures over the years. The main source of winter food for birds is sown wild bird cover crops which were first grown in 2002; these plots are sown with seed rich species (including Wheat, Triticale, Fodder Radish, Quinoa and Millet). This winter we provided 2.5ha of this habitat in three areas around the farm and they proved very effective in attracting large numbers of birds. Over the past decade we have also looked at other methods of providing winter food, these included leaving small areas of un-harvested crops and trials of extended fallows (EF22).
Image 2: Green quinoa mix sown as a source of winter wild bird seed at Hope Farm. (Chris Bailey).
The impressive increase in our breeding bird numbers since we took ownership of the farm in 2000 has been well documented. However, the winter response to our wildlife friendly management on the farm has been even more remarkable.
The table below gives the maximum count of the farm bird index (for any of the 3 monthly surveys) for the first winter we surveyed the farm (2000/01) and the most recent winter (2014/15).
The results are staggering; six of the 16 species used to calculate the farm bird index that were absent in the first winter were present in 2014/15. All other index species have increased apart from greenfinch and corn bunting.
From this information we can produce an index that measures the average change in these species between years. For winter 2014/15 the population of these birds wintering on the farm is 581% higher than it was in the first winter of RSPB farm ownership.
The availability of agri-environment options providing winter seed food in the farmed landscape has been shown to benefit farmland birds². The Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) advise that providing such habitats on 2% of the land on your farm this could make a real difference to the survival of farmland birds. After recent CAP reform the new Countryside Stewardship scheme for England will include a number of options within the ‘Farm Wildlife Package’ that can help support farmland birds over the winter. These options include winter bird food, ryegrass seed-set as winter/spring food for birds, basic overwinter stubble, enhanced overwinter stubble, brassica fodder crops and whole crop cereals. Watch this space for further information on the new Countryside Stewardship 'Farm Wildlife Package' and how it could help support birds and other wildlife on your farm.
¹ Robinson R.A., & Sutherland, W.J. (2002) Post-war changes in arable farming and biodiversity in Great Britain J. Appl. Ecol., 39, pp. 157–176
Moorcroft, D., Whittingham, M.J. Bradbury, R.B., & Wilson, J.D. (2002).The selection of stubble fields by wintering granivorous birds reflects vegetation cover and food abundance. J. Appl. Ecol., 39 pp. 535–547
Siriwardena, G.M., Calbrade, N.A., & Vickery J.A. (2008), Farmland birds and late winter food: does seed supply fail to meet demand? Ibis, 150 pp. 585–595
² Perkins A.J., Maggs H.E., & Wilson, J.D. (2008). Winter bird use of seed-rich habitats in agri-environment schemes. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 126 3-4, 189-194.
By Derek Gruar (Senior Research Assistant, Hope Farm).
With all the new rules connected to greening and the new Agri-Environment Climate Scheme going live, the year didn’t start exactly peacefully... There was a lot of information to keep on top of, a lot to learn and in between it all, the question of how this will all work out for the corn bunting - one of Scotland’s fastest declining birds*.
Image 1: Corn Bunting singing on a fence. This species is rapidly declining in Scotland, and integrating its needs into commercial operations is crucial for its survival and recovery (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
This was an even busier time for all the farmers, adjusting and re-adjusting to the new requirements after the CAP reform... I wasn’t sure at all how much spare time, if any, they would have to discuss how corn bunting management could be integrated into commercial operations and how it could be delivered through agri-environment schemes and greening.
However, when I started to call farmers in the core corn bunting area the response was amazing! With their help, land under specific corn bunting management in 2015 will double and even triple in 2016! Three farms will carry on and/ or expand corn bunting management (Boghead, Ethie Mains, Seafield and Windyhills), three farms will take up corn bunting management in 2015 (Kinaldie, Lunan and Mains of Auchmithie), two will join in 2016 (Collieston/ Myreside and Gilchorn) and a further three farmers are interested in potentially joining the project in the near future. These are brilliant news for the local corn buntings and we hope that this will give them the boost they need to get back on their feet.
Image 2: Management for Corn Bunting. A wild bird seed mix on Seafield Farm, Summer 2014. (Yvonne Stephen)
Image 3: Seed from wild bird mixes like this one on Seafield Farm can support large flocks of granivorous bids in winter, in this case a mixed flock of Brambling, Skylark and Corn Bunting. (Hywel Maggs)
We received some funding from the Angus Environmental Trust which allows us to provide a wild bird seed mix most suitable for the corn bunting for free to farmers. If you would like to help the corn bunting making a sustainable recovery in Angus, please get in touch. We still have some free seeds left and can also advise on the new Agri Environment and Climate Scheme.
We would like to thank all the farmers who are taking the time, giving up some of their land and putting up with the extra effort to establish an unharvested wild bird seed mix. This will provide all the corn bunting needs: safe nesting habitat, insect food for their chicks and winter seed food and will be a major step towards saving this iconic bird from extinction.
For more information on supporting the Corn Bunting and updates on the project please contact:
Yvonne Stephan (Project Officer- Corn Bunting):
Email: email@example.com Tel: 01224 624824
By Yvonne Stephan
*Watson, A, Perkins, A.J., Maggs, H.E., & Wilson, J.D. (2009) Decline of Corn Buntings Emberiza calandra on east Scottish study areas in 1989-2007. Bird Study, 56:2,213 — 220)