It’s a busy time of year. Lighter evenings and consistent, mild weather means things are getting busy on farms and whether from the tractor cab, truck or on foot, I bet you’ve already seen some of our seasonal wildlife. Over the past couple of weeks swallows, brimstone butterflies and bumblebees have all made their presence known. But it’s the unmistakable purr of the first turtle dove of the year that I’m waiting in anticipation for. Any. Minute. Now...
A once common summer visitor, turtle doves used to be seen and heard across the breadth of the UK’s farmed land and could be seen in large flocks feeding and on migration. Those who can remember that time are always the most moved by the rapid disappearance of this beautiful looking and gentle sounding bird whose population in the UK plummeted by 88% between 1995 and 2012. They are now the most threatened bird in the UK and largely restricted to the east and south east of England.
Image 1: The Turtle Dove is the most threatened bird in the UK. Their survival in this country depends on research and urgent, targeted conservation action Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Admittedly, the outlook certainly appears bleak but the important thing to remember is that we still have enough time to turn things around for the turtle dove. And this is where Operation Turtle Dove comes in...
Operation Turtle Dove (OTD) is a partnership project between the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England, launched in May 2012 with the aim to reverse the species decline. By furthering research and knowledge about the species ecology both on breeding and wintering grounds we can use the information to identify the main drivers of the species decline and come up with practical solutions to try and prevent and reverse them.
As a migrant of several thousand miles travelling every spring and autumn to and from West Africa, turtle doves face a range of threats across their migratory route. These threats include loss of habitat on breeding and wintering grounds, disease, illegal killing and hunting. However the driving factor of the decline is that the birds are simply not producing as many chicks as they used to. They have gone from having up to three or four nesting attempts to having either only one, or sometimes none at all. The reason for this lack in nesting attempts in recent decades is being linked to the health of adult birds – they do not seem to be able to find enough suitable food in order to get into good enough health to produce young.
Image 2: Turtle Dove chicks in the nest. (Tony Morris)
So what’s the solution? Certainly as they breed in the UK, we must ensure there is sufficient suitable habitat for them to return to each year in order to raise their chicks. In 2014 OTD took on two dedicated turtle dove conservation advisers to provide free advice to farmers, land owners and managers in core breeding areas to maintain and establish targeted nesting and foraging habitat for turtle doves. So far, these advisers have delivered over 20,000ha of advice through advisory farm visits and are supporting people prioritising turtle dove in their Countryside Stewardship applications this year as well as organising farm walks and talks.
If nothing is done, turtle doves will be lost in the UK as a breeding species within the next few decades. Let’s not let that happen. By working together we can save this species and prove that a farmed environment can still provide areas for wildlife to thrive and, in fact save those we are at most risk of losing.
How to help save turtle doves down on the farm:
Establish the turtle dove bespoke nectar flower mix:
Early English common vetch – 25%
Birds foot trefoil- 20%
Early white clover-20%
Black medick- 20%
Early red clover- 10%
This mix can be used as part of environmental stewardship:
Image 3: Turtle dove seed mix (Samantha Lee)
Create cultivated margins or plots to encourage natural regeneration of arable plants.
Environmental Stewardship options:
Image 4: Developed hedgerows provide safe nesting habitat for Turtle Dove (Samantha Lee)
Successional scrub of hawthorn and blackthorn – species that turtle doves show a preference for.
Maintain areas of thick, dense scrub and manage on a three year rotation. Turtle doves breed in August so avoid management during this time.
ELS/ HLS options
EB3 Enhanced hedgerow management
HC15 Maintenance of successional areas and scrub
HC16 Restoration of successional areas and scrub
HC17 Creation of successional areas of scrub
HB11 Management of hedgerows of very high environmental value (both sides)
BE3 Management of hedgerows (£16/100m or £8/100m)
WD7 Management of successional areas and scrub (£74 p/ha)
WD8 creation of successional areas of scrub (£87 p/ha)
For more information, you can visit the project website www.operationturtledove.org.uk . Or to receive habitat advice or arrange a free farm advisory visit contact your local adviser:
East of England:
Tel: 07894 802267
South East England:
Tel: 07540 012 649
By Samantha Lee (Conservation Advisor)
With spring upon us and the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) juddering into action, Policy officer Tom Lancaster turns his focus to the new agri-environment scheme in England, Countryside Stewardship.
The application window for the new Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme is approaching, and we’re hopeful that many farmers are thinking about applying. With the window running from July to September, perfectly timed for harvest (!), thinking seriously now about your application, will pay dividends as the deadline looms. Whilst a lot of detail remains to be ironed out, Defra and Natural England have recently compiled all that does exist on their website, providing information about the new options, payment rates and other scheme details.
More focused than Environmental Stewardship, CS is a competitive scheme, using targeting to try and make sure that every penny counts. But this does not mean that farmers will be somehow ‘freezed out’ – everywhere will be a priority for something. For lowland farmers in particular, a key element of the scheme is the ‘Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package’, a collection of measures designed to be simple to deliver but effective for wildlife.
Image 1: Options available under the Farm Wildlife Package will include sown wild bird seed mixes. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com).
The Farm Wildlife Package includes options such as pollen and nectar mixes and wild bird seed mixes, and applicants to the so-called ‘middle-tier’ of the scheme will be expected to aim for 3-5% of their farmed land under these sorts of options. Although the coverage of the scheme will decline compared to Entry Level Stewardship (ELS), the hope is that focusing effort and resources will have a greater impact. For those in HLS under the current Farmland Bird Package, all of this will be very familiar territory, and a similar package of options has been developed for the ‘higher-tier’ of CS.
These packages are based on the best available evidence, and have been developed though a partnership approach, with Natural England working with NGO’s, the farming industry, farmers and national pollinator scientists to bring together the evidence, knowledge and practical experience to make it possible. A recent scientific paper by the RSPB and Natural England found that this package approach used in Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) led to positive impacts for a range of priority farmland birds. Across forty farms surveyed in 2008 and then again in 2011, monitoring found that lapwings, grey partridge, yellowhammers and more all benefitted from this sort of proactive management.
Image 2: A recent paper has shown that Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) benefits reed buntings, with a 7% increase on farms under HLS between 2008 and 2011, compared to a decline on control farms of 40% over the same period. The Countryside Stewardship Farm Wildlife Package replicates many of the options that benefit this species. (Mike Richards: rspb-images.com)
If Countryside Stewardship provides the tools, and this evidence the confidence that the Farm Wildlife Package could make a real difference, what we need now is farmers and land managers to be enthused and engaged with the new scheme.
We recognise that CAP fatigue has well and truly struck. IT breakdowns, new rules and a lack of information means that it’s a near full time job just keeping up to date with developments. But the time is now or never to recover farm wildlife, and although the new scheme will be more competitive than ELS, managing 3-5% of your farmed land through the Farm Wildlife Package should significantly boost an applicants chance of success.
If you’re a farmer, and interested in applying for Countryside Stewardship, one of our regional advisers may be on hand to provide advice and support, or come at see us at Cereals stand 434 for help putting together an application for your farm. We a running a series of free 1-2-1 advice sessions at Cereals, where advisors will use digital mapping to help explore how you can maximise the benefits of CS for wildlife on your farm. As the sessions are likely to be popular please email the following address for more information and/or to book: firstname.lastname@example.org
For further updates on Countryside Stewardship and or the RSPB's stand at Cereals please follow the farming blog or updates on @AgriODowd
By Tom Lancaster (Agricutural Policy Officer): email@example.com
One of the most rewarding parts of my job as Cirl Bunting Project Manager is to go back to a farm and see management underway. Last month I was invited back to Boohay farm near Dartmouth by Paul Burnell to look at the work they have been doing on one of the coastal fields to restore the species rich grassland that was being lost under scrub and bracken.
This grassland restoration was part of an HLS/ELS application I helped put together in 2013. The family run farm is important for its population of cirl buntings but has many other wildlife (including rare arable plants) and historic features of interest so the application submitted was quite complex and incorporated many different management options.
One of the most challenging aspects of the application, now a live agreement, was the grassland restoration on 5.04ha of steep east facing coastal slope running down to sheer cliffs.
Image 1: A view of the restoration site prior to management with extensive bramble and bracken scrub. The steep coastal slope running down to steep cliffs posed a challenge for restoration management.(Mike Ingram).
This land was at one time open grassland but in recent years had been largely abandoned (which is common with many coastal grasslands) and the important wildflower communities have been lost under bramble and bracken scrub. It was felt that by removing up to 80% of this scrub (retaining some is important as it also provides an important habitat in its own right) and reintroducing appropriate stock grazing, the value of the site would be greatly enhanced for wildlife but this presented many challenges. The site is very steep and uneven and being directly adjacent to the sea was too dangerous to use tractor mounted equipment so any scrub management would have to be done by hand. This obviously makes management expensive and time consuming.
This site is adjacent to National Trust cliff land on either side that is also being managed through HLS to enhance its value for biodiversity and landscape. Using the experience gathered from these adjacent sites, I drew up a scrub management plan and recommended management techniques and contractors with experience of this type of work.
Image 2: An area of hand-cleared scrub. Conservation Advisor Cath Jeffs drew on experience from adjacent sites to draw up a scrub management plan. Despite being labour intensive, hand-clearance was the only safe way to remove scrub from the steep site. (Cath Jeffs).
Scrub removal is only part of the story as once it has been cleared it is essential that stock is reintroduced to help maintain the grassland. As Paul did not have animals suitable for grazing this type of land, this involved bringing in the right animals. The South West Coast Path runs along the lower part of the site so it was important stock would be able to cope with walkers.
Image 3: Dartmoor ponies graze the hand-cleared areas. Once hand-clearance of scrub has been completed, ongoing grazing management is needed to maintain the open ground and encourage re-establishment of coastal grassland. (Cath Jeffs).
Paul has now undertaken two winters of scrub clearance. He has borrowed Dartmoor ponies from a Dartmoor farmer and has brought a small flock of Hebridian sheep from a neighbour. On the day I visited there was brisk cold sea breeze and it was overcast but I was delighted to see how the site is being transformed. The ponies were looking very much at home grazing on the sparse vegetation whilst the sheep (nowhere to be seen but no doubt sheltering somewhere from the elements) had also settled well and are doing a good job grazing the hard to reach bits of the site.
Image 4: Farmer Paul Burnell and the Dartmoor ponies used to graze the coastal fields at Boohay Farm. The type of stock selected for restoration-grazing were chosen for their suitability to the terrain and compatibility with walkers on the SW Coast Path. (Cath Jeffs)
Although there is still along way to go before the site is restored back to its former glory it is a fantastic start and Paul said he was really enjoying doing the work which was good news as it is such a long term management commitment.
It is important to recognise that although agri-environment can provide payments to help with this sort of management/restoration, farmers like Paul should continue to receive on going support and encouragement. As a conservation adviser I hope this continues to be a big part of my role and I look forward to revisiting the farm in a few years time to see even more wildlife, though I may see if I can visit in the summer next time!
For more information please contact:
Cath Jeffs (Project Manager, Conservation, South-West England): firstname.lastname@example.org
For more stories of how RSPB is working with farmers to benefit farmland wildlife follow this blog or, on Twitter @AgriODowd.
By Cath Jeffs