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East Sussex farmers and volunteers team up to provide snapshot of birdlife

Last modified: 25 November 2011

Flower-rich margin at Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire

Now in its 12th year, the RSPB’s Volunteer & Farmer Alliance surveys (V&FA) are continuing to provide a vital picture of how farmland birds in East Sussex are faring.

Thanks to the hard work of volunteer surveyors, the V&FA has so far covered an impressive 40,960 hectares of farmland across the RSPB’s south east region since 2000.

This year was no exception with 57 volunteers surveying nearly 4,000 additional hectares – the equivalent of 4000 rugby pitches.

In East Sussex specifically, 15 farms covering a total area of 835 hectares were surveyed this summer in Lewes, Hastings, Robertsbridge, Hailsham, Rotherfield, Hartfield, Rye, Newhaven and Mayfield.

Roddy Mair, whose Rye farm was surveyed, said: “We’ve done a lot over the last 10 years for wildlife, so to have species such as barn owls and to see the small bird populations’ increase over this time is very encouraging.”

In the south east, as across the rest of the UK, over 70% of the landscape is farmland, which is of fundamental importance in providing feeding and breeding habitat for birds and other wildlife. Indeed, many species such as Lapwing, Skylark and Yellowhammer, have become specially adapted to live on it.

Unfortunately however, many farmland birds have declined significantly over the last 40 years and are now of major conservation concern. 

This is largely the result of changes in farming practice such as the loss of mixed farming and changing cropping patterns, as well as field drainage and the increased use of pesticides.

This is how projects like the RSPB’s Volunteer and Farmer Alliance can help by working with farmers to manage their land in a way that provides birds with their three basic requirements: a safe place to nest, food in spring and summer for growing chicks, and food and shelter over the winter - the so-called ‘Big 3’.

Fay Pattinson, V&FA coordinator, said: “We’ve had more farms than ever in East Sussex taking part in the surveys this year which gives those farmers an excellent idea of what birds are present on their holding”.

“Farmers really value the information and once they know which birds they have on their land and where, we can advise them on how to manage their land appropriately with these species in mind”.

“We couldn’t do it without the help of a dedicated team of volunteers who go out in the early mornings to record the birds they see.”

The surveys take place over three visits between April and July, in the early morning when birds are most active and there is the best chance of seeing as many as possible.

Common birds such as the Blackbird, Chaffinch and Blue Tit were found on 98% of the 54 farms surveyed. Robins were also present on 94%, with the Great Tit and Wren present on 93% of farms.

Fay added: “It was encouraging to see the farmland birds Skylark, Song Thrush, Linnet and Yellowhammer present on well over half of the farms surveyed this year”

“Some of the least sighted birds were the real farmland specialists like Corn Bunting, Tree Sparrow and Turtle Dove, which have declined by around 90% over the last 40 years.

“These are the species that need urgent help through really targeted conservation measures and working with farmers to do this is vital where these birds are found present on their land.”

Maps produced from the surveys show where priority species are on the farm so that the farmers can put in place the appropriate conservation measures such as leaving grassy crop margins for nesting Corn Bunting, uncropped, cultivated strips to provide seed food for Turtle Dove, and plots of wild bird seed mix to provide overwinter seed food for Tree Sparrow.

By working with the farming community in this way we hope to safeguard bird populations for future generations, within a competitive farming system.