Two decades of nature friendly farming see bird numbers soar more than ten times

By Jenna Hutber

Friday 6 November 2020

Farmland covers 75% of the UK making it vital in the fight to reverse nature’s decline

Twenty years of nature-friendly farming at the RSPB’s Hope Farm has shown that with the right support it possible to produce healthy food that’s good for people, the climate and our wildlife. However, the future of farming and the incredible wildlife that call our farmlands home hangs in the balance as the UK Government has started drawing up new plans rowing back on pledges made to farmers and for nature.

 

Adopting nature-friendly farming techniques, the RSPB’s Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire has demonstrated it is possible to reverse the declines in farmland wildlife and maintain a sustainable and profitable business if farmers are given the right support.

 

On the farm in Cambridgeshire, wildlife numbers have skyrocketed over the past two decades, while the business has continued to maintain a steady profit. Simple actions such as growing wildflowers, creating ponds, improving soils and cutting out insecticides boosted wildlife, show how the future for farming and nature in the UK could look.

 

Butterfly numbers are up 409%, compared to a 10% decrease nationally since 1990, and there are 19 times as many bumblebees on Hope Farm than a nearby control farm. There are now regular sightings of endangered farm birds such as the lapwing, grey partridge, linnet and yellow wagtail, which were never recorded on the farm 20 years ago, and winter farmland birds are up by more than1,200%.

 

With the England Agriculture Bill returning to the House of Commons this month, the RSPB is urging the UK Government to draw on this experience to guide the development of new agriculture legislation and nature-friendly farming schemes in England.

 

Jenna Hegarty, RSPB Deputy Director for Conservation said: “The government must wake up and smell the coffee – Hope Farm has proved our farms can become havens for wildlife and maintain profit if farmers are given the right support.

 

“We have reached a fork in the road – the UK Government can rebrand failed policy and face another lost decade for nature. Or they can seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way we farm; supporting and rewarding farmers for protecting our precious wildlife. The stakes could not be higher. The UK Government must stand by its promise to rewrite the future for farming and nature to help revive our world.”

 

Nature is in crisis: 15% of UK species are at risk of extinction, and the Farmland Bird Index has dropped by 57% since 1970. The UK is languishing near the bottom of the league table as one of the most nature depleted countries in the world (1). Farmland covers 75% of the UK, meaning farmers are critical to efforts to restore nature and tackle the climate crisis.

 

Whilst an increasing number of farmers are supporting nature friendly farming and would like to do more (2), incentives through farm subsidy systems have done too little to support them.

 

Defra has started to design a new support system, the Environment Land Management Scheme (ELMS). But initial plans appear to repeat failings of the old system, lack ambition and fails to support new farming practices which work with nature.

 

Georgina Bray, Hope Farm Manager, said: “Farmland covers the majority of our four countries, making it an absolutely critical part of the solution if we are to reverse the decline of nature. Farmers are under a huge amount of pressure, but what’s been amazing about managing Hope Farm is that I’ve seen how nature can help to produce richer, healthier soils and crops and remain productive in the long-term.”

 

Chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network and Hope Farm contractor Martin Lines said: “It’s been great to witness and support the turnaround of nature at Hope Farm. The huge increase in butterfly numbers, birds and other wildlife is an incredible achievement. The benefits of nature-friendly farming practices not only produce amazing results for nature and the environment but also deliver fantastic benefits for farming productivity.”

Notes for editors:

  1. RSPB Lost Decade Report

https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/review-our-world/

  1. https://www.nffn.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/NFFN_report_v7.1.pdf

Survey of Nature Friendly Farming Network farmers reveals that an overwhelming majority (95%) believe that farming with nature will play a critical role in addressing and mitigating climate change, and 99% see nature friendly farming addressing environmental protection and improving biodiversity.

  1. https://www.fwi.co.uk/news/eu-referendum/10-things-michael-gove-said-oxford-real-farming-conference

At the Oxford real Farming conference in 2018 the then Secretary of State Michael Gove said: The heart of farming is always going to be about food production. But ultimately, public money should go towards people who are working hard in order to ensure that our environment isn’t harmed. “If we are going to have £3bn spent, then that £3bn should be an investment for the future, rather than an incentive to carry on just as people have been doing ever since the Second World War – farming in an intensive way.”

Wildlife friendly farming techniques at Hope Farm included:

  • 15% of the land set aside for conservation, currently paid for through countryside stewardship or used in research trials
  • Growing winter bird seed mixes and supplementary feeding year on year has helped to improve farmland bird survival and has been key to the increases in winter farmland bird numbers. It also resulted in more birds arrive in spring in good breeding condition
  • Management of field margins for wildflowers, insect food, and of course bird food -to provide a network of connected habitats across the farm. This enables us to harness the benefits of pollinating insects and birds as pest control which was key to reducing our reliance on pesticides
  • Management of soil with cover crops, reduced cultivations, and the addition of organic matter to create an underground, nature-rich ecosystem with soil biology at the ready to help us grow our crops, whilst reducing our reliance on synthetic fertilizers which are damaging to nature and contribute to climate change. Monitoring demonstrates the importance of all these measures to boost worms and other wildlife crucial to a sustainable farmed system
  • Wider rotations with more crops to help us spread our risk in crop prices as a business, but also for greater flexibility and more tools to sustainably manage potential pest and disease issues.
  • Hedgerows managed for invertebrate and bird habitat, both to feed, find shelter and breed. 

 

More information can be found on these techniques on the farmwildlife website .

https://farmwildlife.info/

 

Hope Farm’s 20th anniversary - background and major stats

 

The wider context - farming and nature

In 2019 the most comprehensive review of the state of nature, the IPBES Global Assessment, found that agriculture and land use change is the single biggest driver of biodiversity loss around the world.

On a more national scale, a recent study from 2016 identified agriculture as the single biggest driver of biodiversity loss since 1970 in the UK. With three-quarters of land in the UK belonging to the agricultural sector this presents a huge opportunity to reverse the decline of nature.

Timeline

For the first decade of managing Hope Farm, the RSPB’s goal was to demonstrate the farm’s core purpose as a profitable wildlife-friendly farm. After 2010 the focus was on developing wildlife-friendly solutions to arable farming problems.

2000 Hope Farm is purchased with help of Hope Farm founders who helped raise £1 million.

2002 The first wildflower margins and seed mixes are sown, initial skylark plot research trials started at Hope Farm.

2003 Bean crops introduced into the rotation which make better nesting habitat for birds like lapwing and reduced nitrogen use. Forty starling boxes were provided with annual monitoring afterwards. In 2000 there were three nest sites but by 2011 this had increased to 22.

2004 Grey partridge return thanks to increase in insect food. They’ve returned every year since.

2005 In-ditch ponds created to provide more wet habitat features.

2006 Lapwing returns partially through reintroduction of beans. In 2019 four territories recorded.

2007 Hope Farm enters the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme, paying for our conservation management.

2008 Skylark plot research refined the best method of re-establishing these birds.

2009 Barn owls first nest on the farm.

2010 Breeding farmland birds up 200%, wintering farmland birds up 1000%, butterflies up 100%.

2012 Research shows importance of pollen and nectar habitat to provide seeds.

2015 Hope Farm becomes Fair to Nature accredited, a scheme for farmers that dedicate at least 10% of land to conservation habitat and the whole farm to sustainable management. Cover crops and spring cereals introduced into rotation.

2016 Research published with GWCT demonstrated importance of hedge management to improve songbird chick survival. Cover crop and compost experiment started to investigate how they can help nature and soil health.

2017 The farm starts to grow and sell millet under Fair to Nature. Processed and sold as RSPB food.

2018 Start of ASSIST project investigating ways to sustainably increase production.

2019 Hope Farm goes insecticide free with no reduction in yields. Research begins to investigate how the farm can reduce its carbon footprint.

Outreach and sharing learning

From 2013-19 we had visitors from Japan, Chile, China, the USA, Bulgaria and Sweden to name a few, as well as from governments, the public, policy officers, academia, farming and media. 850 visitors came to the 2019 Open Farm Sunday to learn about nature-friendly farming.

Profits

In 2019 the Farm did a benchmarking exercise with other local farm businesses to see how costs and profits compared. Hope Farm sat in the average range of profitability amongst some of the most innovative farmers in the area. This is despite taking over 15% of land out of production, including research trial areas. This doesn’t include our profit from conservation areas.

Invertebrate growth

The 2019 survey recorded a 409% increase in butterflies equating to 6,200 individuals of 24 species. This compares to a 10% decrease nationally since 1990.

Every year since 2013 the team has done three monthly bumblebee surveys per year. Results showed that bumblebees are 19 times more abundant at Hope Farm compared to a control farm.

 

 

No. territories

2000

2019

 

2000

2019

Kestrel

0

1

Jackdaw

0

4

Grey partridge

0

3

Starling

3

12

Lapwing

0

4

Greenfinch

18

4

Stock dove

2

6

Goldfinch

3

19

Turtle dove

0

0

Linnet

6

19

Skylark

10

32

Yellowhammer

14

27

Woodpigeon

33

61

Reed bunting

3

13

Yellow wagtail

0

2

Corn bunting

0

1

Whitethroat

25

34

 

 

 

Breeding bird monitoring

The table opposite details the increase in territories covered by breeding birds on Hope Farm . The species are coloured according to their status on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern list –red is of highest conservation concern while amber is the next most critical group.

Barn owls also returned in 2019 with seven owls fledged from two broods.

In 2019 we recorded 16 Farmland Bird Indicator (birds dependent on farmland and not able to thrive in other habitats) species putting us in the top 1% of UK sites for FBI plus the top site in Cambridgeshire. Locally we sat in the top 1% for yellowhammer, linnet and lapwing.

 

 

Dec 2000

Jan 2001

Feb 2001

Dec 2019

Jan 2020

Feb 2020

Kestrel

0

1

0

3

1

1

Grey partridge

0

0

0

28

12

25

Lapwing

0

0

0

0

0

2

Stock dove

0

0

0

17

73

52

Woodpigeon

17

216

114

1899

64

188

Skylark

5

15

35

24

39

81

Jackdaw

0

0

0

52

65

38

Rook

1

0

0

10

2

11

Starling

0

7

11

41

18

28

Tree sparrow

0

0

0

6

4

0

Greenfinch

9

17

42

2

0

4

Goldfinch

0

1

0

25

21

24

Linnet

0

0

0

440

280

187

Yellowhammer

0

1

2

380

130

206

Reed bunting

3

1

3

140

50

41

Corn bunting

0

0

0

0

0

22

Winter bird surveys

There were massive increases in grey partridge, stock dove, skylark, starling, linnet, gold bunting, yellow hammer, gold finch and reed bunting populations.

During the winter of 2019 a total of 6,962 individuals of 54 species were observed during the three surveys. We recorded at least one of all 16 FBI species, compared to just seven in 2000.

Grey partridge

On the first day of Christmas, as the song goes, your true love gave to you ‘a partridge in a pear tree’. But there’s a risk that the grey partridge might disappear from the UK forever. Since the 1960’s, we have lost 90% of them across the UK and they are now on the Red List of UK Birds of Conservation Concern. This is due to a whole myriad of factors, including the increased use of pesticides, changing use of farming policies which led to the removal of vital habitat such as hedgerows, and predation.

But this means that with the help of farms, we can once again bring grey partridges back – and Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire has demonstrated how this might be possible. When the RSPB took over management of the Farm in 2000 there wasn’t a grey partridge to be seen, but by providing key habitats like field margins, they were able to encourage them back again. They’ve now been breeding at Hope Farm every year since 2004, and have been surveyed on farm every single winter. With more and more farms adopting the same techniques, there is every hope that grey partridges will one day be a familiar to the UK people all year round, and not just as pictures on Christmas cards.

Lapwing

The lapwing used to be a common sight and sound to farmers all around the UK. Both its round-winged silhouette, and its display call that sounds remarkably similar to a child’s slide whistle, are unique. Even on the ground its quirky back-flipped crest is a dead give-away! This farmland bird is, however, now much less familiar, and its plummeting numbers have landed it on the Red List of UK Birds of Conservation Concern. This is in large part because of the changes over the last few decades in how we use land, and with farming policies driving a change in practices. Throughout centuries lapwings evolved to live amongst sown spring cereals, root crops and meadows, flocking to pasture and ploughed fields in the winter. As farming practices changed, however, their populations started to decline – pesticides affected their food, and an increase in winter cereals made for less suitable nesting habitats.

Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire, however, is demonstrating with other farmers, that we can reverse that decline. When the RSPB took over management of the Farm in 2000, there was not a single lapwing to be found. Over the next twenty years, the inclusion of winter beans in the rotation, spring cropping, and wildflower habitats, has enabled the provision of more nesting and feeding opportunities. By 2019 they were found in four different territories of the Farm. There’s still work to be done to help this bird to breed successfully on a large enough scale on farmland, but there is every reason to hope that, with the continuing uptake of nature-friendly farming, lapwings will be soaring over UK farmland once more.

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