Farmland birds have been in decline for several decades, mainly due to changes in the way we farm. Some of the species that have declined are real icons of our countryside: grey partridge, lapwing, turtle dove, skylark and yellowhammer. Hearing skylarks singing in the spring and the purring of turtle doves in the summer gives nearly everyone who hears and sees them a real lift.
Skylark on a fence post Copyright RSPB Images
Despite the best efforts of many conservation charities and organisations, and the agri-environment schemes that have been available to farmers for several decades these declines continue. For one species in particular, turtle dove, there is a very real possibility that it could go extinct as a breeding bird in Britain within our life time.
Turtle Doves getting cosy on a farm Copyright RSPB Images
There are many farmers who do care passionately about the wildlife on their farms. They will be providing safe nesting habitat, abundant seed food in the winter and plentiful insect food, mainly on flower rich areas, on their farms often supported financially by agri-environment schemes.
Some farmers are incredibly knowledgeable about the wildlife on the farms, others may wish a little help in understanding the needs of wildlife so they can do their bit to help them. A crucial stepping stone to helping wildlife is to be able to identify what is on the farm. Some species, often large and with striking colour patterns, are easy to identify but others are often tricky. Those little brown birds that never sit still, are too far away or are often only seen in flight.
In 2014 the Game Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) began a project called the Big Farmland Bird Count. This encourages farmers to take a walk around their farm in February, identify and record the number of each species they see and send their results to GWCT. In 2015 over 950 farmers took part, recording 127 species on their farms. A real success.
Bird surveying Copyright RSPB Images
The aim is to make the 2016 count even bigger and encourage even more farmers to take part. To help them GWCT have organised a series of Bird Identification workshops across Britain in January and early February. At the workshops experts from GWCT and other conservation charities and organisations will be there to talk about some of the tricky species, how to identify them by sight and sound, and also the crucial bit: how to help those species become more common on their farms.
If you are interested in attending one of the workshops details can be found here and here. Book a place quickly though as many of the workshops only have a few places left.
One of the workshops is taking place at RSPB Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire. We’re delighted to be able work alongside GWCT and farmers to raise the profile of farmland birds. If you are attending the workshop at Hope Farm then I am really looking forward to welcoming and meeting you, if you are at another workshop then I hope you have a really great day.
But most of all I would encourage you to take part in the Big farmland Bird Count in February.
Guest blog from Darren Moorcroft, Head of Species and Habitats Conservation
Every year in January, Oxford is inundated by farmers flocking to the two annual conferences which are now held there. It’s an opportunity to discuss existing challenges and set the new agenda for the coming year.
This year, the RSPB hosted a session at the Real Oxford Farming Conference for the first time, where we heard from two innovative businesses who presented their ideas for farming in a different way to an expert panel. The panel included a wealth of farming, retail and wildlife knowledge and included Tom Macmillan, Director of innovation at Soil Association, Caroline Drummond, Chief Executive at Leaf, Simon Lyster Non-Executive Director at Natural England, Naomi Oakley Principal Specialist at Natural England and Pasture Fed farmer, and Johnathan Sutton, Head of Agronomy and Technical Manager for all fresh produce at Marks and Spencer.
Tom MacMillan from Soil Association offers feedback to one of the innovative projects we heard from (Image: Kathryn Smith)
More than 100 people packed the room to hear from Harvey Sayce from Feathered Friends (a wildlife-friendly bird food business) and Stephen Briggs, an agroforester who farms in Cambridgeshire. I had the honour of chairing the session. For me, it highlighted the appetite which exists to do things differently and develop farming systems which are beneficial to wildlife, the environment and people.
A packed room at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (Image: Kathryn Smith)
Harvey’s business developed out of an interest in feeding garden birds but quickly led to an interest in the sustainability of bird food. In searching for more sustainable local sources he has ambitions to grow his own organic bird food and expand this niche area. The panel advised on communication, marketing and possible routes for funding as well as looking at how other farmers might be engaged to take part in similar projects. One of the challenges for Harvey will be satisfying the two sets of customers that he has – the people who buy his seed and the birds who eat it!
Harvey Sayce and EnviroAbility describe the work they are doing to grow and sell bird seed in a sustainable way (Image: Kathryn Smith)
In his use of agroforestry principles, Stephen’s farming operations are radically different from most peoples’ ideas of British farming. He explained that by using trees within the landscape, he can farm in three dimensions; deep below and high above the soil as well as what appears on the surface. Stephen was particularly keen to explore how some of the current barriers that he has encountered could be tackled, including a lack of data to show how well agroforestry can work from a business and biodiversity point of view, and the difficulties that he and many others face in making radical changes to land where he is only a tenant.
Stephen Briggs talks through his agroforestry work on his farm, and challenges the panel to think about how others might be encourage to adopt similar practices (Image: Kathryn Smith)
Although two very different approaches, there are some common themes highlighted by these two individuals and their pioneering attitudes. Not only are they exploring a different way of doing things, they are engaging with others in order to grow their markets, tapping into networks to share experiences and data and seeking opportunities to further propagate knowledge. Most evident was the passion and commitment that both presenters have for their work and their desire to encourage others to think a little differently.
It’s clear that there are growers and sellers with not only an appetite for change but also an eye on the benefits that these different approaches can bring; to the bottom line but also, importantly, for people and wildlife. Ultimately many of these are constrained by the status quo which exists within the policies that govern how we grow, sell and buy within UK agriculture. Here at RSPB we believe that there is a need for a fundamental reform of current food and farming policies in order to facilitate a more sustainable approach to farming. Working with individuals such as these is inspiring and makes me very optimistic that we can build a real movement for change, with truly sustainable farming at its heart.
Guest Blog from Dr Rob Field, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science
A while ago, a and I colleague wrote a short piece about some work we’d done examining the relative societal benefits of land in the east Anglian fens under a nature reserve compared to its being farmed. This dealt with the trade-offs that society might want to make between various obvious (food) and less obvious (nature, flood prevention, carbon storage) benefits of any piece of land. Another piece of recently published research looks at how a land owner might balance these competing interests. It uses as its basis Hope Farm, the RSPBs arable farm in Cambridgeshire.
Entrance to RSPB Hope Farm copyright RSPB/Andy Hay
Producing food whilst allowing wildlife to thrive
First, a bit of history: the RSPB bought Hope Farm in 1999/2000, with the aim of demonstrating that it was (and still is) possible to produce commercial quantities of food and have thriving wildlife on a ‘standard’ arable farm.
The farm essentially remained as it was before we bought it – farming conventional wheat and oilseed rape crops as any other local farmer would do, with an increasingly diverse rotation, still majoring on wheat, but with beans and peas as additional break crops. However, alongside this, very small areas of some fields (usually the least productive edge areas) started to be given over to ‘non-crops’ – vegetation that would provide seed or invertebrate food for farmland birds.
Hope Farm bird population has tripled since 2009
With the advent of Environmental Stewardship in 2007, these areas became part of an Entry Level agreement (open to any farmer in England). Over the 15 years since then, the farmland bird population of Hope Farm has tripled, in stark contrast to the national picture, of a continued decline.
Skylark chicks at Hope Farm copyright RSPB
New research – modelling scenarios of food production
Our new paper ‘Making explicit agricultural ecosystem service trade-offs: a case study of an English lowland arable farm’ published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability uses Hope Farm as it has been, with the dual aim of food production and farmland bird recovery as the starting point. We calculated the amount of food produced (using the yield figures from the combined harvesters), as well as the greenhouse gas emissions as a result of our farm management. We then contrasted this with some ‘imaginary’, modelled scenarios, in which the ‘imaginary farmer’ had different priorities. These were, farming for maximum production (no land given up to environmental stewardship, and a strict wheat dominated rotation) and farming for profit, but with a simple Entry-level stewardship agreement, using the minimum amount of land whilst ensuring effective wild bird provision).
Harvest at Hope Farm copyright RSPB/Andy Hay
Prioritising land for farmland birds can reduce greenhouse gas emissions
The results showed that prioritising farmland bird recovery, and an increasingly diverse rotation, including leguminous, crops led to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of around 10%, and a reduction in total food production of around the same amount, when compared to focussing purely on food production.
However, if food yield is measured not just in quantity of food energy, but in terms of protein, the yield loss is less than 4%. This difference is due to the differing protein and energy content of different crops, and shows the potential benefits of a more diverse rotation, both for a multifunctional countryside, and for peoples’ diets. We need to grow things other than wheat!
Interestingly, we also showed that if we had stuck to a simpler rotation, but had still entered into environmental stewardship, we could have still increased bird numbers by 50% (as opposed to 200%) whist loosing only a tiny proportion of our yield.
However, emissions would have increased in line with the amount of land farmed. In reality, we managed to reduce our emissions because some land wasn’t farmed, or was farmed with beans or peas, so-called leguminous crops. This means we used less manufactured nitrogen fertiliser. Leguminous crops fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere by using an ingenious symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria in their root, whereas humans have to do this via very energy intensive industrial processes.
Field beans growing at Hope Farm copyright RSPB/Andy Hay
Finding a balance with what we want from our land
The relevance of all this is that we need, as a society, to decide how to optimise the outputs from our land. We all want various things, food, scenery, wildlife, a sense of place, a clean atmosphere.
However, farmers have to choose which of these are the priority for their land, which has knock-on consequences for other things. If you prioritise financial performance (or maximum food production – the two are not always the same), this has implications for other things, as does prioritising other things.
This work has shown just what these relationships are at a typical arable farm, and what you the impact on production to get some of the less quantifiable things we also value. Its surprisingly little to get to a less extreme system, especially if we also consider long term sustainability and the changeable nature of world markets, which currently favour wheat much less than a few years ago.
Understanding how we optimise the outputs from our land will only become more important as the global population increase and climate change presents more challenges to people and wildlife. Our results demonstrate that it is relatively easy to deliver for wildlife, which coupled with progress on food wastage and inefficient food chains will help deliver a better food system for people and wildlife.