None of those who work at Hope Farm are social media junkies, but yet we cannot completely escape that world. Whether we’re exposed to Twitter, Facebook or even the BBC we see this term ‘trending’ everywhere.
Yet, trends as opposed to trending are very important to us. They give us clear indications as to whether the work we are doing at Hope Farm to benefit farmland wildlife is working or not, and it also allows us to compare how we are doing with the wider national picture.
There is another important reason why we focus on trends rather than focusing on the fine detail and that is because often data is collected and analysed in different ways. For example nationl breeding bird data is collected using a two visit breeding bird survey, whereas at Hope Farm we use a 10 – 12 visit Common Bird Census technique. Normally such data aren’t comparable but using trends is a neat way to overcome this barrier.
Last week Defra released the data for the UK wide breeding bird and butterfly indicators. They did not make good reading especially if you were a bird or butterfly that calls farmland your home. Overall populations of the 19 key farmland bird breeding populations had fallen by 54% since 1970, and by 11% between 2008 and 2013. Similarly with butterflies of the wider countryside, which have fallen 41% since 1976, although the trend from 2009 to 2014 apparently shows little change.
We don’t have data doing back to 1970, or 1976, at Hope Farm. RSPB bought the farm and started managing it in 2000 and that is the year that we compare each subsequent year to. The evidence suggests that the breeding birds on Grange Farm, as it was then, had experienced the same massive declines as experienced elsewhere in lowland farmland and that by 2000 the populations were at a very much lower level then formerly.
A view across Hope Farm in 2012. Copyright Andy Hay/RSPB Images
We can therefore easily evaluate how much impact our management for wildlife has had, going from a farm where less than 1% of the croppable land was managed for wildlife with very low levels of wildlife, to a farm where about 6% was managed for wildlife in 2015. A key point though isn’t just that it is managed for wildlife but it is how it is managed.
We aim to provide the Big 3: safe nesting habitat (in-field and around boundaries), plentiful flower rich habitat which is alive with insect life providing food for all those chicks trying to grow in their nests, and abundant seed food during the winter. By providing all three we are providing for the whole annual life cycle of those birds which remain in the UK all year round. Migrants, which spend the winter in Africa but breed in the UK, of course do not require to be fed during the winter at Hope Farm, but migrant thrushes and starlings from Europe do.
Quality is important too! As I travel around England I do as much looking over the hedge as any other farmer. I’m looking at how their crops are growing but also what agri-environment prescriptions I can see. Despite 70% of farmers in England being in one of the various agri-environment schemes it can be quite difficult to find areas managed for wildlife other than occasional wide grass margins, important as they are for some moths, butterflies and small mammals along with some resource protection in places. But once in a while I come across a lovely flower rich margin or a great wild bird cover crop and it is easy to see the attention to detail that has been applied by the farmer and the subsequent quality of the habitat they are providing for wildlife.
Flower rich margin at Hope Farm. Copyright Andy Hay/RSPB Images
So, we have provided the Big 3 and spent a lot of time and effort on the quality. What difference has it made? I think the figures speak for themselves: farmland breeding birds up 174% since 2000. In the period 2008-2013 when farmland birds declined 11% across the UK, they rose 119% at Hope Farm. The charts provide further evidence that farmland birds are generally increasing at Hope Farm, whereas they are generally decreasing strongly across the UK as a whole.
The butterflies have done remarkably well too, increasing by 160% since 2001. I still am amazed that we have recorded 26 species of butterflies since 2000, with 22 of those species annual, and over 350 species of moths. During July as I walk home through the farm it is really is amazing to be surrounded by more butterflies than you can accurately count on one of our flower rich margins.
What if? It really is an enormous what if?! What if all of those 70% of farmers had delivered the Big 3 and delivered high quality habitat? I’m sure the figures released by Defra would have been very different. Environmental Stewardship would have put Hope Farm out of business simply because farmland wildlife would have recovered to previous levels. We now have a new agri-environment scheme, which while it is having severe teething problems, should ensure that most of those who successfully enter the scheme are providing the full range of requirements. Perhaps a future Defra release on breeding bird and butterfly trends will show real long-term recovery and we can all celebrate, and we might all see flower rich margins and meadows as we drive around our great countryside
Bumblebee on oilseed rape. Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Conflicting news about neonicotinoids this week. "Neonicotinoids: new warning on pesticide harm to bees" according to the Guardian, while Farmers Weekly reassures us "No sign of damage to honeybees from neonics, review shows."
The twist, of course, is that the two articles are reporting on the same thing: a summary of the research on neonics, commissioned by the UK government’s Chief Scientific Advisor and produced by a team of scientists led by Professor Charles Godfray.
This is an update of a report Prof Godfray’s team produced last year. A lot has happened in the intervening time and the review covers a lot of ground – levels of neonics measured in the environment, lab studies on pollinators, experiments conducted in the field. The authors also comment on the lack of a clear picture on how effective neonics actually are ("we believe few would doubt that in some circumstances they are highly effective and in other circumstances they do not justify the costs of their purchase"), while stressing that they have not specifically reviewed the evidence on this point.
So what does the review say? The scientists didn’t set out to draw a final conclusion or to make policy recommendations. This is a statement of the evidence, pure and simple. It’s very easy to selectively pull out quotes that support a particular position, but that would be missing the point.
To me, this is one of the key points made in the paper: "major gaps in our understanding remain, and different policy conclusions can be drawn depending on the weight one accords to important (but not definitive) science findings and the weightings given to the economic and other interests of different stakeholders."
The RSPB, as a conservation organisation, places a high weighting on the evidence of risk to biodiversity. There is very strong evidence that pollinators and other wildlife are being exposed to neonicotinoids at potentially harmful levels. Some particularly worrying research recently showed that even flowers around the edges of arable fields can be contaminated - a concern for any farmer doing his or her best to help pollinators. We are therefore calling for a complete halt on all uses of neonics and a clear plan for filling in the remaining gaps in our knowledge. Those placing a greater emphasis on short term economic interests advocate the continued use of neonics. Given the stakes – the future of our wildlife, ecosystems and ultimately our ability to produce food – I have to say I think the RSPB’s approach is the right one.
However, my advice to anyone with an interest in the subject is not to rely on anyone else’s interpretation, but to read Prof Godfray’s paper for yourself. It is available (for free) here.
Over a year we have a very wide range of visitors to Hope Farm as I previously blogged about. The vast majority of visitors come from England as you might expect for a farm on the outskirts of Cambridge.
Occasionally however we receive visitors from much further afield, and this morning we were very glad to host a delegation from the Chinese Ministry of Land Use. We had a very useful discussion in the farmhouse kitchen sharing our experiences, explaining why RSPB works on farmland and why we bought Hope Farm in 2000 and the success’s we have achieved here.
Despite having given the statistics many times I still have to pinch myself when I tell visitors the order of magnitude we have achieved here: only 2 yellowhammers being found in December 2000 compared to nearly 300 in December 2014, and a total of 250 birds of 22 species in December 2000 compared to 1600 birds of 44 species in December 2014. Our Chinese visitors seemed impressed, and so am I' especially as we did see some yellowhammers on our walk round the farm.
We talked about the importance of still caring for wildlife in the rush towards better living standards for us all. For me it is perfectly understandable why everyone in the world should aspire to a better life, but we do have to appreciate that sometimes the natural environment can suffer as a result and that some of those species that we most cherish become much less common as a result. Taking care to protect wildlife while our lives improve is critical to our future.
I find it remarkable that a group from the Ministry of Land Use in China has heard of Hope Farm, and quite inspiring that on their 2-day visit to the UK that they specifically asked to visit here. I think they were quite impressed with what they saw and heard and hopefully the visit here will inspire them to keep protection of the natural environment at the forefront of their minds as they guide China’s development.