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Study offers winter lifeline for struggling farmland birds

Last modified: 01 August 2011

Yellowhammers feeding on ground

Conservationists have come up with a solution to the ‘hungry gap’ – the annual problem of farmland birds struggling for survival in late winter and early spring.

Small birds like yellowhammers and reed buntings often suffer from a lack of seed food during winter. This is a particular problem in the grassland areas of western Britain. Even the best measures by farmers to tackle the problem run out of seed long before the winter ends leading to what conservationists call the ‘ hungry gap’. But RSPB scientists have published a study proposing a new answer.

The study, funded by Defra and published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment this month, shows that by simply leaving patches of common ryegrass to go to seed instead of cutting them for silage, birds have an abundant supply of seeds to last them through the winter.

RSPB conservation scientist David Buckingham said: “We carried out trials on 12 farms in the West Midlands and found that when small patches of ryegrass around the edge of fields was left to go to seed we managed to attract high numbers of birds.

“Because of the way our countryside has changed over the years the supply of seeds that small birds like yellowhammers rely on often runs out in the depths of winter, leaving them struggling to survive. It is vital that these birds make it through the winter so they can produce a healthy new brood in the spring and help restore population numbers.

“Farmland bird numbers have declined by half since 1970 and we want to work with the many farmers out there who are doing their bit to reverse this trend. Ryegrass is grown for grazing and silage across the UK so this is a simple, effective measure that can be put in place on any dairy or mixed farm to help struggling farmland birds.

“We hope this study will eventually lead to a new measure in the Government’s environmental stewardship schemes for farmers. If this happens then farmers will get support and advice to put this measure in place and the birds will have a better chance of making it through the winter.”

The study found that ½ hectare patches around the edge of ryegrass fields which were left after the first silage cut in May put seeds needed by wintering birds back into the farmland.

Other agri-environment measures to help wintering birds include leaving over-winter stubble and sowing seed-rich cover crops – however these often run out of food before spring arrives.

The seeded ryegrass measure is of particular importance in the West of England where the problem of winter seed food hits birds the hardest. Defra are currently considering the proposal to include the measure in the Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship schemes.

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