Having recently started as an intern on the cirl bunting project, I am learning all the time about agri-environment schemes and the work that the RSPB does with farmers. For example, I learned that cirl bunting project staff have influenced the application of agri-environment schemes on over 10,000 hectares of land over the last 10 years. Last week, I went on a site visit to an arable farm near Dawlish which gave me first-hand experience of the help and advice that the RSPB offers, and I was also impressed with how positive (this particular) farmer was about being part of the scheme.
The cirl bunting project is a perfect example of how habitat management can successfully reverse the fortunes of a species that was at risk of extinction – in 1999 the number of pairs was just 118, and in 2009 this had increased to 862. Without the cooperation and enthusiasm of farmers to enter into agri-environment agreements and engage with conservation this would not have been possible, particularly considering the species’ specific habitat requirements and sedentary nature. However, it is not just cirl buntings themselves who have benefitted from habitat implemented for cirl buntings.
Many species of conservation concern overlap with the cirl range and many of these have similar habitat requirements; it is therefore expected that some of these other species are likely to have benefited. Providing weed-rich winter stubbles, cropping in spring rather than autumn and managing unimproved grassland and hedgerows for cirl buntings also benefits a variety of other seed-eating farmland birds including skylark, reed bunting and linnet; all of these species are flagged as requiring action in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and are listed under Section 41 Species of Principal Importance.
The grey long-eared bat also suffered as a result of agricultural intensification. Agri-environment options such as the restoration of hedges and the use of field margins will increase the amount of foraging habitat available for the grey long-eared bat. These rough field margins associated with sensitive management of hedgerows will also benefit the greater and lesser horseshoe bats as well as barn owls.
The restoration of unimproved grassland by the reintroduction of grazing, reduced inputs and scrub clearance encourages flowering plants to grow, providing a nectar source for butterfly species including Wall Brown and Dingy Skipper. The provision of cattle-grazed pasture together with sensitive hedgerow management will allow the European hedgehog to thrive, and reptiles such as adders and common lizards will benefit from species-rich grasslands.
Probably the species most likely to have benefited from cirl management are those associated with low input arable as without cirls this valuable habitat would not have featured as a priority within agri-environment. Arable fields provide ideal habitat for a variety of rare arable plants that require disturbed ground and no application of herbicides to flourish, and a number of farms that are important for cirls have also been recognised for their important arable plant assemblages, some of national importance. Many, such as corn spurrey and weasel’s snout, germinate in spring and therefore benefit from low input spring sown crops, whereas other such as cornflower actually prefer autumn germination but will also appear in spring.
So clearly, the benefits of cirl bunting habitat management offered by agri-environment schemes are not limited to just one bird, and cirls can therefore be seen as a Flagship for declining farmland in the SW and the catalyst for positive management. At the same time the RSPB has found no adverse effects of this habitat modification on any other species; by identifying priority species and habitats on site before implementing such measures, it is ensured that this continues to be the case.
Posted on behalf of Andrew Holland, Farmland Project Officer in the Brecks
Stone-curlews are an amazing and instantly recognizable bird, with their large yellow eyes and long yellow legs. They fly hundreds of miles each year to areas which have stony, light sandy soils to breed in England, these include the Brecks and Suffolk Coast and a handful of other areas.
Unfortunately, there is now less suitable safe nesting habitat for stone-curlews than ever before. One way we can help the birds to nest on safe areas is through agri-environment schemes, especially the Higher Level Scheme (HLS) and possibly through the Entry Level Scheme (ELS). This requires a two hectare plot, with little vegetation being left throughout the breeding season.
Last year when I was putting together an ELS/HLS agreement for Jane, a landowner, she mentioned that stone-curlews had nested on her farm in the past. Apparently, Sam who still lives nearby, used to work on the farm when he was young in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s. He had spoken about how he used to see them regularly in the sugar beet fields on their farm and how he would lift up the weeding equipment when they came to a nest, so as not to damage the eggs.
With this in mind and the fact that we know these charismatic birds will typically arrive back to past breeding areas from one year to the next, we considered how we could entice more people who worked on the land in the past to come forward with their records.
We decided to contact the EADT with our thoughts for a story and they snapped our hand off. We contacted Robert, one of the farmers who we work closely with in the Brecks. Stone-curlews have nested on his land in the past and have steadily increased to good numbers of breeding birds and he was more than happy to be involved. We would then go over to the Suffolk Coast and meet Sam and Jane whose farm had the historical sightings. Both were very keen.
The day arrived for the Brecks visit, with myself and my colleague Tim meeting at Robert’s farm. Everything went to plan; notes and photographs (even though we had not all shaved in the morning) were taken, with Robert keen to tell his story of how the number of breeding birds had increased and the work that he was undertaking to secure its future.
Then it was off over to the Suffolk Coast, to meet up with another colleague Mel. We arrived in good time to speak to Sam and Jane before the reporter arrived and inform them of how the meeting had gone in the Brecks. We all then set off to the field where the stone-curlew had been seen in the past. Sam was full of enthusiasm as he told the reporter of his days gone by. Jane spoke of her commitment to encourage the birds back onto their farm after all these years.
It was now all down to the reporter to put the article together and then it was fingers crossed and hope that someone would come forward with some records, so we could then contact the landowners with a view of asking them to put safe nesting plots onto their land.
After sweating for a while, wondering whether any calls would come through, a call came through from Steve who believe it or not worked on stone-curlews in the 1970’/1980’s. He was happy to show us where they had nested in the past. Success! As I commented earlier, they will nest in areas they have used for years, as long as the habitat is still suitable. The problem is we do not know where these are.
Just to let you know, I have since received a phone call from Jane, whose ELS/HLS agreement started last November. A stone-curlew was seen this year (2014) on the same field where they had been seen all those years ago by Sam. Could this bird be one of the ancestors from the 1950’s/1960’s, who knows?
Since RSPB bought and started managing Hope Farm in 2000 we have hosted a wide range of visitors, from groups of farmers, industry representatives, government officials, MPs and Ministers. All have come to see how we have successfully halted and reversed the declines of farmland birds and farmland wildlife in general, all while producing great crops as well.
Amongst all the visitors, a small number have been from abroad – Bulgaria, Germany, Netherlands, France, Spain, Finland, Sweden, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa amongst others. They are very interested to see what we are doing here at Hope Farm because declines of wildlife linked to agricultural changes is not unique to England, or the UK. It is a problem wherever rapid changes in how we grow and manage crops have taken place.
This is particularly true in western Europe, and it is quite possible that the fortunes of farmland birds in England, and the UK, are inextricably linked to how populations of the same species are faring in Europe. Hence our Birdlife partners in Europe lobby their Governments and the European Union just as vociferously as RSPB does.
Some of the most enthusiastic European visitors have come from our Birdlife partner in Germany, NABU. In 2013 representatives from NABU and The Michael Otto Foundation visited Hope Farm to specifically learn about what we have done here and how feasible similar projects may be in Germany.
Image by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
It is therefore really gratifying to learn that Hope Farm is being used as an example of good wildlife-farming practice in a widely read and respected German newspaper, Die Zeit. The article can be read here, but you will need to able to understand German!
If Modern Languages aren't your strong point, you can download an English version below, kindly translated by Richard Carden.
We are really pleased to be helping our European, and indeed international, conservation colleagues in their campaigns to protect wildlife across their farmed landscapes.