Is it nearly Spring yet?
Well, it depends who you ask. While we patiently hang on for the 21 March, optimistic Celts have already celebrated Imbolc on 1 February. Its arrival was also heralded on 1 February by chicken farmers the world over, as they celebrated the day of their patron saint, St Brigid (it's on Wikipedia, it must be true...). Candlemas on 2 February is regarded as the last day of winter by some, especially any Groundhogs that awoke to see their shadows.
For wildlife, this time of year is known as the ‘hungry gap’ – at the moment it looks more like winter than it has all year and Nature’s larder is looking depressingly empty.
For farmland birds, this is when planted wild bird seed mixes come into their own. They contain a mixture of seed-bearing plants and can be designed to take a number of things into account, including the rate at which plants drop their seeds, the dietary preferences of target bird species, and the soil properties of the area.
Location of the mix is key to the usefulness of the mix – some species prefer to be in the open so they can see predators coming, while others prefer a place where they can remain secluded for much of the time. The amount is important too, with larger blocks suffering less from edge effects and able to host larger flocks.
So for example, if you want a fat, healthy population of corn buntings ready to get stuck straight in to the breeding season, establish a couple of acres of mix containing some of their favourites such as barley, oats and triticale, in an area that’s mostly open with a few isolated bushes.
It can be quite technical stuff - as a farmer, it could prove one of the more complicated crops you grow if you don’t have the proper guidance on what to include and how to establish and manage it.
Luckily, free advice is something that’s readily available through several RSPB projects. Mixes are proving to be a great success wherever farmers have worked with us to get them right.
With the right components, game cover can provide lots of seeds for small birds. Could you keep yours a little longer..?
Another early February date is the end of the shooting season on 1 February. Do you have game cover containing the kind of seed bearing plants that can help small birds survive the winter? You may think it’s now outlived its usefulness, but I know of a small flock of 90 corn buntings in the game cover near my office that would disagree with you!
If you can, please consider keeping it until the weather starts to improve. That way, as spring really kicks in, our corn buntings will be well fed enough to turn their thoughts to other things. After all it is nearly Valentine’s Day. Now there’s a date we can all agree on....
Do you have wild bird seed mixes on your farm? What birds have you seen using them this winter?
I lose track of the number of acronyms I come across every day, but there are some that are more memorable than others in this business. LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) is one of them.
As an organisation, LEAF work to promote the integration of environmental protection into farming and understandably we cross paths with LEAF, and LEAF farmers, on a fairly regular basis. Robert Kynaston, Nature of Farming Award (or NoFA!) winner for the Midlands region in 2011, is a great example of one of those LEAF-y farmers who has taken up measures in environmental schemes that we like to call 'The Big Three' (no acronym for that one!). Purely and simply, The Big Three provides all that farmland birds need to thrive - seed food through the winter, flower-rich habitats to support insects in the summer and in-field nesting sites. This principle is incorporated into the Farmland Bird Package (or FBP), which our expert advisors are helping farmers to build into agri-environment schemes (AES) to really benefit wildlife on their farms.
Each year, LEAF organise Open Farm Sunday (or OFS!) where farmers open their gates to the public and encourage them to learn more about where their food comes from. If you're a farmer and you're interested in hosting an event this June, LEAF are organising some events to help you get the most out of it - find out more here to see if there's one near you.
If you're not a farmer, why not go along to an OFS event and see if your local LEAF farmer is delivering the FBP, entered into NoFA or in an AES!
Some of the things to keep an eye out for include:
Skylark plots for nesting (image by Chris Tomson)
Cultivated margins for summer food (photo from Natural England)
And wild bird seed mixtures for winter food (Picture by Richard Winspear)
More information on all these options, practical advice on how to manage them and the real difference they can make for farmland bird populations can be found here.
Today the Queen has commemorated her Diamond Jubilee by reiterating her pledge to serve us all.
Serving the nation is something UK farmers know all about. Providing food for our growing population whilst also being stewards of our countryside for future generations takes particular care and dedication. We celebrate their hard work each year with the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award.
The 2012 competition is now open, so if you think you could be crowned the UK’s most wildlife-friendly farmer this year, visit our website to download an entry form today. You could win £1,000!
But the biggest prize is spreading the word about the vital work that so many farmers are doing for wildlife. Each year we ask the public to show support for UK wildlife-friendly farmers by voting for the overall winner. Last year the Award was featured in the national and farming press, radio (including a mention on the Chris Evan's breakfast show, which gets 9 million listeners), TV, and was tweeted and blogged about by celebrities such as wildlife film maker and presenter, Gordon Buchanan.
Watch our video to hear more about the award from farmers themselves. Hear from last year's winners - 2011's king and queen of wildlife-friendly farming Somerset and Carolyne Charrington, finalists Robert Law, Robert Kynaston and David White, and regional winners Andrew Jackson, Andrew Hughes and Gethin Owen. Also see our website for details for more fabulous Highly Commended farmers who were pipped to the post, but are definitely diamonds too. Could you be on that list for 2012?
The EU LIFE+ Programme funds RSPB work which supports wildlife-friendly farming that furthers sustainable development in the European Union.
The current Cornish chough population (six breeding pairs in 2011) is the only one in England, having returned naturally to the Duchy in 2001. There is also a small edge of range population of corn buntings on the north coast of Cornwall and you can now see choughs and corn buntings feeding together in the same stubble field!
Image of corn bunting spring barley habitat by Claire Mucklow, RSPB
Since the late 1990s the RSPB has worked with landowners along the coastal fringe in Cornwall to establish the right sort of habitats for corn bunting and choughs, specifically giving advice and undertaking applications for - back then - Countryside Stewardship, now Higher Level Stewardship schemes on behalf of farmers. We are currently helping some farmers enter their third successive scheme and third decade of wildlife friendly management. We have met, advised and helped many of the landowners from Lizard Point to the Devon border, that’s some 300 km of coast covering many thousands of hectares of land (not counting our more recent work on the cirl bunting recovery project on the south coast).
Newquay to Pentire, known as ‘Corn Bunting Country’, is where a network of incredibly supportive farmers has put in place specific measures to ensure corn buntings have safe places to nest and food sources to get them through the year. The population though small, (approx 55 singing males) seems to be bucking the national trend and is stable thanks to the farmers supported by Natural England doing all they can to ensure they are not lost, (there are lots of positive benefits for other threatened species too, especially arable plants and butterflies). Interestingly, the farmers I met and helped set up corn bunting agreements for in the early days are now managing for choughs too, as these iconic birds increase their range in Cornwall.
Image of corn bunting by Derek Dennis
Habitats used by chough e.g. maritime grassland and heath, are also important for a range of rare and threatened invertebrates and plants, and are important habitats of European significance - Many Priority BAP species in Cornwall, at least 150 of them, share ecological similarities with chough and benefit from similar positive management. Grazing stock used to restore and maintain suitable heath and cliff habitat is vital for the health of our coastal biodiversity. Such grazing management is economically marginal but has high public, social and environmental value. Agricultural support through agri-environment schemes is vital to continue to maintain and enhance these sensitive grazing initiatives if the benefits to biodiversity and the local economy are to be sustained.
Image of chough by Richard Bedford
Sightings of choughs from the Welsh population are increasing on the North Devon and Somerset coasts, and this is where our project advisory work will expand into next. The choughs’ recolonisation of Cornwall, and potential for range expansion in the future, provides an important step in linking the Breton, Welsh and Irish populations, facilitating exchanges and linkages between these isolated populations.
What do you think about these projects? Have you seen any chough along the Cornish coast? Why not also follow the Cornish Chough blog and find out how things are going? We’d love to hear from you.
By Claire Mucklow, Cornwall Projects Manager
By Derek Gruar, Senior Researcher, Hope Farm
One of the core tasks here at Hope Farm is monitoring the numbers of birds that are actually using the farm. In summer this requires walking the farm boundaries and recording birds that are seen and heard onto maps. Compared to winter this is straight-forward as from spring-time onwards, birds are starting to hold territory and males readily sing to announce that this part of the field or hedgerow is theirs. Repeated visits over the summer allow maps to be plotted for each species and it soon becomes apparent that that individual birds are found in the same place on subsequent visits, the birds territory.
However in winter, most birds have no territorial hold on a discrete area and are free to roam where they like, the main driver of all this is of course food. Put food out in your garden and birds will soon take advantage of your generosity.
On the farm to determine bird numbers over the winter we conduct monthly whole farm counts where the farm is divided into small sections and is surveyed simultaneously by a small number of hardy volunteers that brave the weather and the mud! All birds seen using the farm are recorded on maps and after a thorough review to make sure that we don’t count the same flock of yellowhammers, or covey of grey partridges, twice; we calculate a figure for the numbers of birds seen on that particular day.
For example, in 2001 on the first ever January count 534 birds of 30 different species were recorded as using the farm. Woodpigeon was the commonest, contributing 216 of these birds. Of the farmland birds of conservation concern this count included 15 skylarks, only a single each of yellowhammer and reed bunting and no linnets or grey partridges. Common birds found included 50 blackbirds, 27 blue tits, 18 dunnocks and 16 robins.
In 2011 during one of the harshest winters in recent times, the farm attracted 1338 birds of 39 different species. Woodpigeon was again the commonest contributing 307 of these birds. Of the farmland birds of conservation concern this count included 113 skylarks, 157 yellowhammer and 49 reed bunting, 12 linnets and 31 grey partridges. Common birds found included 58 blackbirds, 57 blue tits, 14 dunnocks and 25 robins. These have shown some small increases but nothing in the scale of the increases of the birds that are dependent on farmland. We attribute these increases to the presence of winter bird food on the farm as in winter 2010/11 we had several small (0.5ha) areas of wild bird cover, unharvested crop strips (both winter wheat and oilseed rape) and 1ha enhanced fallow (EF22 Plot) all of these producing seed resources for farmland bird species.
After the harsh winter came the drought, and the associated problems with crop growth and establishment particularly of bird cover crops. For winter 2011/12 this has meant that we have a massive reduction in the area of winter bird food available with just one small wild bird cover plot and 0.5ha of unharvested winter wheat. With this lack of food the January 2012 count was lower than previous years with 1016 birds of 39 species, Woodpigeons the commonest bird with 178 recorded. 118 skylarks and 35 grey partridges were exceptional counts and only 16 yellowhammer and 3 linnets illustrated the lack of food available for these species currently on the farm. It’s interesting to see diversity has increased over time, but it is compelling evidence that winter food availability is a considerable factor in attracting birds onto farmland in winter.
Photos: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)