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Yellowhammer Recovery Project

Male yellowhammer portrait

In 1997, a survey of yellowhammers in Northern Ireland indicated that there had been a 65% decline in numbers since 1991 (Donaghy 1998).

As a consequence, the yellowhammer is red-listed on both the Irish and UK lists of Birds of Conservation Concern (Newton et al. 1999; Gregory et al. 2002.

An estimated 5,000 pairs of yellowhammers remain in NI, and the species is now completely absent from Co. Fermanagh. A whole suite of seed-eating farmland birds including linnet, tree sparrow and skylark have followed a similar downward spiral. As a result, the RSPB set up the Yellowhammer Recovery Project in 2006 to try and reverse these critical declines in yellowhammers and other seed-eating farmland birds.

In Northern Ireland, a Species Action Plan (SAP) has been drafted by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA – then called EHS) for yellowhammers (EHS 2005). This SAP provides a framework for recovery and includes a series of actions to achieve specific targets.

To achieve the aims of the SAP, the RSPB lauched a targeted Yellowhammer Recovery Project (YRP) to help deliver many of the actions in the SAP. As statutory bodies, DARD and NIEA are listed against many of the actions in the SAP. The yellowhammer is one of many priority species for the RSPB. As we offer specialist advice, and having carried out successful recovery projects for priority bird species in other parts of the UK, we were delighted to be able to undertake the YRP partnership with our government partners.

Project objectives

  • Do the arable options in the Northern Ireland Countryside Management Scheme (NICMS) actually work?
  • Would targeted advice and uptake of these options see a farmscale recovery of yellowhammers and other declining seed-eaters?

Key dates so far

  • In winter 2005/6 CMS arable options already in place in east Co. Down were investigated to see if these arable options providing winter seed (wild bird cover, winter stubbles etc.) supported more seed-eating farmland birds than land not in arable options.
  • A similar option scale survey was carried out in the spring/summer 2006 to demonstrate that CMS arable options providing summer insect food (conservation cereal, rough grass margin) supported more yellowhammers and other seed-eating farmland birds than land not in arable options.
  • The farm scale part of the project was launched in January 2006. 22 CMS farms and 22 control farms in east Co. Down joined the project, the aim of which, to demonstrate that the provision of both winter seed and summer insect food through CMS arable options, and with advice to the farmer, bring about a population response in farmland birds.
  • A baseline survey of breeding birds was carried out on all 22 CMS farms and the 22 control sites in spring/summer 2006. A final follow-up survey was completed in the spring/summer 2011.
  • Advisory work began in January 2006 and carried out on the 22 CMS farms only.

Work planned or underway

Now that we know how well these arable options can work when targeted with advice, we want to see the project roll out further to secure better fortunes for yellowhammers and other seed eaters across NI.

Results

Results from the CMS winter arable option scale work in winter 2005/06 showed that seed-eating farmland birds were using the CMS arable options in preference to areas of land not in CMS arable options. The results from the study of the CMS summer arable options in 2006 were less conclusive. Yellowhammers and other seed-eating farmland birds were not using the rough grass margins (RGM) or conservation cereals as expected.

Further research into the RGMs began in winter 07, when the Project Officer started monitoring the effectiveness of sward management (cutting/grazing) in opening up the swards in RGM’s increasing accessibility. Funding is still to be sought for further research into Conservation Cereals.

From the start of the project, these farmers have been encouraged by the Project Officer to take up CMS arable options. The Project officer made no advisory contact with the 22 control farmers throughout the course of the project.

In the case of the red-listed yellowhammer, populations increased by over 50% at NICMS farms. However they also went up (by 21%) at unmanaged farms (control sites), demonstrating that the well-managed NICMS farms were not just pulling in birds from other areas, but were actually benefitting the wildlife in the wider countryside as well.

A more detailed examination revealed that this increase at NICMS sites was most evident at the most newly established sites (since 2006) at which the greatest levels of management advice was provided - at these sites yellowhammers increased by a remarkable 79%.

Gallery

Who to contact

Claire Barnett
Conservation Manager - Conservation Delivery (Acting)
E-mail: claire.barnett@rspb.org.uk

Partners

NIEA – Northern Ireland Environment Agency

DARD – The Department of Agriculture & Rural Development

AFBI – Agri-Food & Business Institute

Funding

The initial baseline survey in 2006 was kindly funded by the NIEA, with AFBI providing funds for the follow-up survey 2011.