Respite for Countryside Stewardship opens window of opportunity for farmers to come to turtle doves’ rescue

Rupert Masefield

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Operation Turtle Dove partners the RSPB, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Conservation Grade are urging farmers in turtle dove hotspots in East Anglia and the South-East of England to apply for Countryside Stewardship agreements to help the UK's fastest declining bird, after the Treasury and DEFRA promised continued support for agri-environment schemes in the wake of July's vote to leave the European Union.

Operation Turtle Dove's Samantha Lee said: "We're breathing a sigh of relief - along with a lot of farmers who want to help wildlife like turtle doves on their farms. The immediate question about whether Countryside Stewardship agreements in the pipeline will be funded appears to have been answered. Natural England, which administers Countryside Stewardship in this country, has been doing an admirable job in difficult circumstances since Brexit threw the future of Countryside Stewardship into doubt. Now hopefully DEFRA will support Natural England with the resources to process farmers' applications during the current window, so that our farm wildlife and environment does not lose out as we navigate Brexit."

Countryside Stewardship agri-environment agreements offer farmers financial support to manage parts of their farms for wildlife. For turtle doves, whose numbers have declined by 93 per cent since 1994, what this means is that farmers can apply for subsidies to help them create nesting and feeding habitat for the birds on their farms, and many farmers are already taking advantage of this support to help turtle doves on their land.

Operation Turtle Dove partner Pensthorpe Conservation Trust is working alongside farmers in a Countryside Stewardship facilitated group in the Upper Wensum in Norfolk. The group chose turtle doves as their flagship species and are committed to creating and enhancing vital foraging and nesting habitat these measures will also benefit many other farmland bird species.

Elsewhere in East Anglia, RSPB farm conservation adviser Samantha Lee has been working closely with farmers to tailor turtle dove management options to their individual farms and support Countryside Stewardship applications. Farmers have also played a vital role in helping to monitor turtle dove numbers, investigate the reasons for their decline and test solutions that, it is hoped, hold the key to saving them.

Samantha Lee: "We hope assurances from the Chancellor and from the Environment Secretary that agreements signed before the Autumn Statement will be fully funded even beyond the UK's departure from the EU, will give the many farmers who want to help threatened wildlife like turtle doves the confidence to apply to the Countryside Stewardship scheme in the knowledge that the Government will continue to support their efforts to help nature thrive in the countryside."

The current window for Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship applications is open until the end of September, so farmers and landowners who submit successful applications by the 30 September deadline will have their agreements fully funded, but there remains a question mark over what will happen in 2017.

The future of agri-environment schemes like Countryside Stewardship beyond this year remains a real concern for conservationists, farmers and land owners working to manage land for wildlife and the environment.

Samantha Lee: "There have been no announcements about plans for new agreements under these schemes beyond this year's Autumn Statement, only a few months away. Thousands of farmers have existing agri-environment agreements expiring next year and beyond. Given their importance as the primary financial mechanism for delivering environmental and wildlife benefits in the countryside, we cannot afford to lose any time clarifying the way forward."

Farmers and land-owners interested in joining the Countryside Stewardship scheme can find out more by visiting www.gov.uk/countrysidestewardship

As part of Operation Turtle Dove, RSPB turtle dove conservation advisers are able to support famers in turtle dove hotspots in the East and South-East of England by providing free habitat management advice and assisting with Countryside Stewardship applications. In Eastern England, contact Samantha Lee, samantha.lee@rspb.org.uk. In the South-East, contact Les Edwins, les.edwins@rspb.org.uk.

Find out more about the work of Operation Turtle Dove, and what you can do to help, by visiting operationturtledove.org.

Follow Operation Turtle Dove on Twitter: @SaveTurtleDoves

1. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chancellor-philip-hammond-guarantees-eu-funding-beyond-date-uk-leaves-the-eu

On Saturday, in response to widespread uncertainty about the future of schemes that depend on EU funding streams, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond said: "I am confirming that structural and investment funds projects signed before the Autumn Statement and Horizon research funding granted before we leave the EU will be guaranteed by the Treasury after we leave. The government will also match the current level of agricultural funding until 2020, providing certainty to our agricultural community, which play a vital role in our country."

Following shortly after this announcement from the Treasury, Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom commented: "This guarantee of funding is excellent news for our farmers and our environment.

"It means farmers are assured of current levels of funding until 2020 and any agri-environment schemes agreed before the Autumn Statement will be fully funded - even when these projects continue beyond the UK's departure from the EU."

2. The latest (2015) report on the findings of the annual UK Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), published last week, contained the news that turtle doves, whose numbers had been known to have fallen dramatically by 97 per cent since the 1970s, have been continuing in the same vein in more recent decades, declining by 93 per cent since 1994. https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/bbs/bbs-publications/bbs-reports

The Common Bird Census (CBC) / BBS trend is of severe declines in Turtle Dove abundance, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing to the present. Hunting during migration is a possible cause of the UK decline, to add to those related to agricultural intensification that have been postulated for other farmland seed-eaters. https://www.bto.org/birdtrends2010/wcrturdo.shtml

This news follows the addition last year of the European turtle dove to the global Red List of threatened species for the first time, in recognition of the global extinction threat this once common bird now faces. www.iucnredlist.org/details/22690419/0

The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) started in 1994, and involves thousands of volunteer birdwatchers carrying out standardised annual bird counts on randomly-located 1-km sites. A report is produced every year containing population changes and other results from the scheme. The BBS is the main scheme for monitoring the population changes of the UK's common breeding birds, providing an important indicator of the health of the countryside.

The BBS is run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and jointly funded by the BTO, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC, the statutory adviser to Government on UK and international nature conservation, on behalf of Natural Resources Wales, the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ is widely recognized as the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species. In 2015 the European turtle dove was 'uplisted' to Vulnerable. It has undergone rapid declines in much of its European range. www.iucnredlist.org/details/22690419/0

3. Operation Turtle Dove is a partnership conservation project between the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Natural England and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and was launched in Spring 2012. The partnership aims to identify the primary causes of the turtle dove decline and develop and deploy urgent practical solutions. operationturtledove.org

Tagged with: Country: England Topic: Farming Topic: Habitat conservation Topic: Species conservation