Winter is a tough time for wildlife, but especially so for those species which call farmland home. Many farmland bird species such as grey partridge, yellowhammer and corn bunting depend on seeds to survive. Other species such as thrushes and bullfinches depend on berries, fruit and grubs found along our hedgerows.
Hawthorn hedgerow with berries. Copyright: RSPB Images, Andy Hay
In arable areas the widespread change to autumn sowing of crops, reduction in over-winter stubbles as a result, increased use of herbicides which has removed many of the arable plants which set seed, increased efficiency of harvest leading to less spilt grain and the intensive management of hedgerows, have all combined to make our farms very challenging places for birds in the winter. There is a dearth of seeds and berries with the result that birds have to move to find food elsewhere, or perish.
An example of this was Hope Farm during the first winter (2000/01) of RSPB ownership. All our crops had been planted in the autumn, there was no over-winter stubble and no wild bird cover plots providing seed. Our farm bird count in December 2000 found a total of 203 birds of 22 species.
Since then we have relaxed our hedgerow management so the hedges are now dripping with berries for the thrushes and bullfinches, and use about 3ha of the farm to grow wild bird cover. Wild bird cover is mix of cereals and oilseeds which is left unharvested and provides lots of seeds for a variety of farmland bird species to eat.
Jack Kelly inspecting his wild bird cover in Down, N.Ireland. Copyright: RSPB Images, Andy Hay
Why is there a mix of crops in wild bird cover? Well, like you and I who probably have different favourite foods, a yellowhammer prefers cereals grains, such as wheat and triticale, or millet, whereas a linnet prefers oilseeds such as mustard or fodder rape. So we have to provide a range of crops to cater for the diversity of tastes in our birds!
The lenient hedgerow management and provision of wild bird cover is paid for though the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) via the agri-environment schemes. This is a critical mechanism to ensure farmers who do care for the wildlife on their farms and do provide these great habitats and resources are paid for doing so. In England, we are about to start a new agri-environment scheme, Countryside Stewardship. Farmers who are successful in applying for agreements and funding will be encouraged to put even more seed rich habitats around their farms, and manage their hedgerows to provide abundant berries for our winter visitors.
So has this worked at Hope Farm?
Last week a team from our Conservation Science department carried out the regular December count. It was a dry and fairly calm day, not too cold but still very wet underfoot. They covered the whole farm, recording all the birds as they went. Back at the farmhouse, over bacon and eggs, the counts were analysed and counted up.
The result: an amazing 1604 birds of 44 species! That’s nearly 8 times as many birds as in December 2000, and double the number of species.
What’s even more amazing is that we counted 236 yellowhammers alone, all using the wild bird cover crops. That’s more yellowhammers than all the birds in December 2000 added together. Really fantastic!!! Even better than that was the first tree sparrows wintering on the farm since 2000, maybe a little sign that this species is recovering from the cataclysmic declines of the 1980's and 1990's.
Tree sparrow feeding on seed. Copyright: RSPB Images, Andy Hay
You can tell, that as manager of Hope Farm, I am really proud of what we have achieved here. It is a huge pleasure to see these flocks of wintering birds, to tell you about them and to show them to our visitors.
So it would be great to hear what you have on your farm this winter. In fact, it would be even better if you could also take part in the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count taking place from 7th to 15th February 2015, which encourages farmers to count the birds on their farms for half-an-hour and let GWCT know what you saw. Do bear in mind though, the more habitat and resources you provide, the more birds you may have. So if you want to have more than your neighbour, or us here at Hope Farm, then do apply for a Countryside Stewardship agreement when your current Environmental Stewardship agreement runs out, and put in place the best options for birds and other wildlife so you too can be loud and proud about the wildlife on your farm.
The Axholme and Idle valley farmland bird project is one of a suite of local initiatives supporting groups of farmers working for wildlife across different landscapes. Up here in the low, open flatlands where Nottinghamshire meets Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire, volunteer birders and farmers have just received the results of this season’s bird monitoring. And they show beautifully that there’s more than meets the eye in this arable landscape.
Bird records from the last decade had already highlighted that this was one of the most important parts of England for birds that rely on arable farming. So, the surveys that started last year focused on tracking these species – such as corn bunting, grey partridge and skylark.
This year 13 new sites were surveyed, and across them volunteers found a staggering 101 different bird species. For the species that the project focuses on, the number of territories recorded are:
As the sites surveyed this year were different to those surveyed last year, we can’t yet assume from these results that this shows actual change in bird populations across the whole area between years. We’ll need a few more seasons of data to work that out for sure. However, controlling for the different size areas between years (that is, comparing the number of territories per area surveyed) shows that most species seemed to do as well or better this year than last. The main exception was yellow wagtail. It was also sad to note that, like last year, no turtle doves were recorded at all.
If we compare the number of birds per area with those measured by the British Trust for Ornithology (latest figures available), then this project area still shows many times more of each of these species than an average part of the English countryside.
The number of bird species recorded on each site varied from a very healthy 35 to an astonishing 65. Skylark was recorded on every site, and linnet and yellowhammer were close behind. Among the more unusual bird records this year were red kite, marsh harrier, peregrine and nightingale – all uncommon locally - and must’ve been real treats for their finders.
Project officer, Jim Lennon, will be talking with each of the farms taking part over the next few weeks about their results. For those that would like to give their special wildlife a little extra help, the next few months could be very important. Agri-environment schemes are the biggest and main source of Government funding for biodiversity, but changes taking place over the last year or so have meant that it’s been quite hard to access this support lately. Natural England’s new agri-environment scheme, Countryside Stewardship, is due to launch in 2015, with new agreements and payments starting in 2016. There’s a lot of detail yet to become clear, but it’s very likely that support will be preferentially given to those that are able and willing to help nationally scarce farmland wildlife.
Whatever agri-environment opportunities develop for local farmers, the Axholme and Idle valley farmland bird project is planning for next year’s bird monitoring. Monitoring officer, Anna Broszkiewicz, particularly welcomes any new farms that would be open to having a survey, as well as local birdwatchers who can offer a few early mornings over the spring and would like to visit places not normally accessible to the public. Get in touch with her to find out more about what’s involved – but don’t wait too long. The deadline for 2015 participants is 5 January. Call her on 07736 722184 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks must go to each of the volunteer bird surveyors for all their hours of skilled fieldwork this spring, and to each of the farmers taking part. Together we’re starting to better understand how this area is special for farmland birds, and support local wildlife-friendly farmers.
With the successor to the previous agri-environment schemes in England nearing it's final stages of development, Farming Minister George Eustice made a trip to visit the RSPB's Hope Farm earlier this month to see how we've been giving nature a home on the farm.
Image: George Eustice (centre) at Hope Farm (Amy Bell, DEFRA)
Hope Farm is run as a commercial enterprise which faces similar challenges to other arable farms around the UK, and like 70% of others we entered the farm into ELS to support some of the environmental land management we carry out on the farm, skylark plots, flower-rich margins and wild bird cover. Over the last 14 years we have been successful in achieving a significant increase in the number and variety of birds on the farm. Against the backdrop of a sharp decline in farmland birds nationally, our results have been ‘quite remarkable’ according to Mr Eustice. We’ve used our own ecological expertise to make sure that our ELS agreement is providing the big 3 for birds - safe nesting habitat, food in winter to help them survive the colder weather and lots of food (often insects and invertebrates) in summer to grow healthy chicks. If one of the three is missing, or if the scale or location is inappropriate, the circle breaks and potential for the farm to deliver for wildlife is compromised.
What we've done is not remarkable - or at least it shouldn't be. Similar results could be achieved by any number of farmers across the UK - but the current scheme is fundamentally flawed in its inability to guide farmers to making the best choices for their farm and the environment. There are a lot of farmers who are in ELS and doing their best, but it is unfair to expect every farmer to have sufficient ecological knowledge to build the best scheme for their farm and its wildlife, or to expect them to deliver sometimes challenging options with little or no support or advice. Our farmland advisors have been working hard across the UK to support farmers in that task, but they can’t reach every farmer. As a result, we have seen the mass uptake of the simplest options which in isolation do not deliver the benefits for wildlife that we all want to see - the Big 3 'circle' is broken.
Our experiences with Hope Farm demonstrate that a good quality ELS really can work - but it relies on the right options being put in the right place and at the right scale to see the dramatic improvements for farmland birds that we so desperately need.
The Higher Level scheme in England, however, has had much better results due to its more targeted approach and greater level of ongoing support and advice for farmers who are in the scheme to help them get the best results. But this comes at a cost, and there is less money available for agri-environment as a result of the latest CAP review. So the question now is surely one of quality, rather than quantity – although this will mean that fewer farmers will be able to participate in the new environmental land management scheme (NELMS) being developed, we believe that a more targeted future for agri-environment will enable farmers to really see the difference that their management can make. NELMS is a great opportunity to learn the lessons from ELS and HLS and develop a scheme that works for all involved - the farmers who commit themselves to making a positive difference, the wildlife that has the potential to thrive on their land, and the public who support British agriculture through their shopping habits, their taxes and their enjoyment of the countryside
Time is not on the side of farmland birds if we continue to deliver agri-environment in a broad and shallow way, so it is encouraging to hear Mr Eustice’s commitment to provide “support for things that really benefit farmland birds.” We are hopeful that when the new scheme is finally available, it will have been designed to set farmers up for success in achieving positive results, and that in years to come we will see the benefits across the wider countryside as our farmland wildlife starts to recover.
Read the full story in Farmers Guardian here