By Andrew Taylor, Great Bustard LIFE+ Project Adviser
Thanks to a reintroduction project on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, the great bustard can now be seen on farms in south west England for the first time since the early 19th Century. Perhaps the UK’s rarest farmland bird, this spectacular species should become a more frequent sight in the future.
Great bustards are huge. The males, which can be up to twice the size of the females, are amongst the heaviest flying birds in the world. Surprisingly given their size, they can be extremely elusive. They are shy and wary and will not permit close approach. Individuals go missing for months at a time, and we are often reliant on the reports of farmers to track them down.
At its peak, the population stretched from Dorset to Yorkshire, but then declined steadily until extinction in 1832. Their final demise was accelerated by hunting and egg collecting, but changes in agricultural practices had made them more vulnerable. As hand weeding was replaced by mechanical weeding, the probability of nests in fields being destroyed became much higher.
Salisbury Plain was one of the last strongholds of the great bustard in England, and is relatively unchanged since bustards last roamed the area. The open, undisturbed grassland fringed with large arable fields is ideal bustard country. Nevertheless, we do need the help of local farmers, especially through stewardship schemes. We want to give the birds we release the best possible chance of surviving and then raising their own young in the wild.
For many of the UK’s farmland birds, tried and tested HLS and ELS options exist. Put the right option or combination of options in the right place and you can be confident that the birds will respond. For great bustards, we are at a much earlier stage in the process. The first nesting in this country took place just three years ago – as a result we are still working out how best to give the bustards what they need.
The most sensitive time of year is the breeding season. Bustards nest on the ground, in vegetation long enough to cover the female and short enough that she can raise her head and look around. Suitable sites include winter wheat and long grass, but nesting females can very easily be disturbed by farming activity.
Over the next few years we intend to trial existing stewardship options, looking for a combination which is irresistible to your average female bustard. Nesting attempts in specially provided habitat should be much safer and more productive. Options like extended overwintered stubble or an autumn-sown cereal mix for breeding corn buntings could well do the job for bustards, while helping other farmland birds at the same time.
Find out more about the project or get in touch by visiting our website, www.greatbustard.org/life_project
All images courtesy of David Kjaer. The Great Bustard Project is funded by the EU LIFE+ Fund and is a partnership between the Great Bustard Group, RSPB, Natural England and the University of Bath.
Mention the word 'farmer' in a sentence and most people would understand that you that you were talking about someone who produces food of some description. That's a farmer's job, right? Hmmm.
What if that same person was described as a 'multifunctional rural resource manager'?
That's a term I came across last week at a research seminar hosted by the University of Exeter, and it stuck with me. Modern farmers aren't just responsible for growing food - their job encompasses other responsibilities including looking after our water courses, our wildlife, our landscape. But the question is, when what you know is how to grow food, do farmers have the necessary skills, knowledge and expertise to become effective 'multifunctional rural resource managers'?
This was really what the research seminar was focussed on, following a long-term experiment on how to make agri-environment schemes most effective. Two sets of farmers in two separate areas of England were selected to take part in the experiment, half of whom were given training on how to create and effectively manage two agri-environment options under ELS - wild bird seed and nectar flower mixtures. The other half, like most farmers who enter agri-environment schemes, were expected to just get on with it without any training. No prizes for guessing which group found the establishment and subsequent management of the options more successful, and therefore more rewarding! The trained groups of farmers were encouraged to take the same professional approach to managing their ELS land as they did with their crops, had a greater understanding of what to expect and a source of advice and further information should they need it.
Strikingly, at the start of the process, there was a 75:25 split between farmers entering ELS for business/income benefits vs environmental benefits respectively, but towards the end of the trial, the split was almost the complete opposite, in favour of environmental benefits by all farmers (both trained and untrained).
When it comes to training, it's not just the how that proved important - understanding why the options were of value meant the trained farmers had a greater level of engagement with what they were being asked to do, greater confidence in their ability to deliver it, and greater expectations of their own success. There were some interesting discussions with the farmers in the room about whether training should be provided as part of the ELS package, with some clearly for this as a way forward and others adamant that they would want to choose who to receive advice from, and when, should they feel they need it.
That’s where we come in! The farmers in this study represent a tiny fraction of those involved in agri-environment schemes, and we're committed to helping all farmers to fulfil the multifunctional role - that's why we host training courses on making the best use of agri-environment schemes, offer free, expert advice to farmers across the UK and showcase the very best to inspire and encourage others to do the same through our Nature of Farming Awards and farmer case studies.
If you're a farmer reading this, I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts...
Quinoa by Andy Hay (www.rspb-images.com)
I've just come back from the RSPB's annual Members Weekend - three days of inspiring talks and a chance to chat to some of our wonderful supporters. On Saturday morning Marco Lambertini, Chief Executive of BirdLife International, gave a fabulous talk called 'Global partnership, local action'. He opened his talk with something that really struck me:
1) More than ever before we understand how fundamentally important nature is to us all2) More than ever before we understand the impact that man is having on the planet3) Despite this, we still find it hard to translate that knowledge into living within our planet's resources
This really made me think about the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award. The Award recognises and celebrates great UK farmers who are translating that knowledge, and are going the extra mile for wildlife on their farms. Every day.
The Nature of Farming Award helps share knowledge of commercially viable wildlife-friendly farming practices both with other farmers, and crucially, with the general public. We (at the RSPB) are working hard to raise awareness of the vital role that farmers play in protecting and enhancing the nation's wildlife, and the need for wildlife-friendly farmers to be fairly supported through the Common Agricultural Policy. Great UK farmers need - and deserve - great support from those that live on our home turf.
The Nature of Farming Award is already the UK's biggest farm wildlife award, but the bigger it gets, the better it will be in raising the public profile of wildlife-friendly farming and its enormous value to us all. So enter the 2012 competition today - hurry, entry closes Friday 20th April (yes, that's the end of this week).
(If you're not a farmer, but know a fabulous wildlife-friendly farmer, please share this with them, and encourage them to enter. They could win up to £1,000!)
Highland cow by Ben Hall (rspb-images)
By Vicki Swales, Head of Land Use Policy, RSPB Scotland
Does Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment in Scotland, want the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to promote greener farming? Or does he need some gentle persuading?
On past performance, we think the latter, which is why I spent some time last week responding to the Scottish Government’s consultation on CAP reform for RSPB Scotland. Not the most exciting thing on my ‘to do’ list but absolutely vital if wildlife friendly farming is to get the support it deserves. The consultation takes the form of three questionnaires which ask whether you agree or disagree with proposed changes to the CAP. There’s a lot of technical detail but one or two key questions on which we want Mr Lochhead to get some clear answers.
The more people respond, the louder the message will be. If you want your voice to be heard – and why not since the CAP is funded by taxpayers hard earned money – you can find the questionnaires here .
If there’s one key question to answer, you’ll find it in the ‘direct payments’ questionnaire in the second section. It asks ‘Do you agree that 30% of Scotland’s direct support budget should be devoted towards Greening the CAP?’ Highlighting the ‘Strongly Agree’ answer will send the right message to Richard Lochhead. You can select ‘Neither agree/disagree’ or ‘I don’t know’ for all the rest of the techy questions unless, of course, you have a view on these. You’ll need to do it before 24th April for your views to be registered.
Alternatively, and perhaps more straight forward, is to write directly to Richard Lochhead . You can tell him in your own words why you want him to support a greener CAP and to ensure that more of the funds are used to help Scotland’s High Nature Value farming and crofting systems. Wildlife friendly farmers, and birds such as the elusive corncrake and insects such as the rare Great Yellow Bumblebee which depend on them, will thank you.
Spotted on my way home from work – a 100-strong mixed flock of buntings and yellowhammers, with the odd tree sparrow thrown in for good measure. Tweeting, jangling hissing and popping away, they are restless, exuberant and full of spring energy, torn between winter flocking behaviour and breaking away to establish territories.
An uplifting but not wholly unusual sight? Well here’s some more context...
In the middle of the Fens, and with only 4,000 inhabitants, the village of Manea is hardly an urban setting, but this is certainly the first time I’ve noticed bushes in the village centre with their branches heavy with farmland birds!
The reason? Ironically, planning permission for development.
The birds are homing in on a disused field near the edge of the village. The field had a wheat crop in it last year, which was very poor by Cambridgeshire standards and was never harvested. The field now stands abandoned, and has the air of a potential building plot.
But in the mean time, spilt grain and weed seeds have provided a fantastic late winter food source and the thin weedy crop of volunteer wheat will no doubt be excellent nesting habitat for the lucky few who manage to hold territories here.
One thing that strikes me is how evocative of a bygone age it feels. This kind of transient feeding and nesting habitat is exactly the kind of opportunity that farming of old would regularly have presented. The speed with which the buntings have turned up to exploit the food source and the numbers they have turned up in are extraordinary, and shows how well adapted they are to this kind of foraging.
Smaller groups of corn bunting singing from telegraph wires and bushes also seem more numerous in the immediate area, quite possibly because of overwinter survival and local numbers being boosted by this one enormous bird table.
Thankfully, Environmental Stewardship options like stubble fallows, wild bird seed mixes and sacrificial crops provide just this kind of opportunity. Increasing numbers of farms near the village are Stepping up for Nature and employing these simple measures, as well as others which should provide nesting habitat for the dispersing flock.
And a good job too - now the people of Manea have experienced the kind of street party a flock of farmland birds can throw, I don’t think they’ll be satisfied with anything less.