Testing new farmland solutions to reverse farmland bird decline

Working with government and farmers to test new farming solutions to reverse the decline of farmland birds.

RSPB Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire, England


Many species of farmland birds have declined throughout the UK and Europe.

The RSPB is working with the government and farmers to reverse declines in some of our most iconic farmland bird species by diagnosing the causes of decline and then testing innovative solutions which work for the birds and are practical for landowners to implement.

Many of the solutions we have tested have been subsequently included in agri-environment schemes which provide funding to farmers and land managers to farm in a way that supports biodiversity and improves the quality of water, air and soil.

The ongoing programme of solution testing covers a wide range of species, with each project designed to deliver the key ecological requirements particular to a species in a manner which has minimal impact on farming operations.


Our programme of solution testing for farmland birds aims to restore key breeding and foraging habitats which have become scarce as a result of long-term changes in agriculture driven by landuse policy. The solutions are not reliant on returning to historical methods of production. Instead, we seek novel ways to deliver food and nest sites which can be integrated into a modern farmed landscape.

Examples of our work include:
  • Skylark plots – taller and denser structure of modern winter wheat crops makes them unsuitable for birds such as skylarks which nest and forage on the ground. Creating small, bare areas within winter cereal crops allows skylarks to breed for longer and raise more chicks than in normal winter cereals.
  • Providing seed food for turtle doves – since the 1960s the breeding season has become truncated, with the average number of clutches per pair per year now approximately one-third to half the 1960s total, probably due to shortages in seed food. During the same period the diet has changed from predominantly weed to crops and, increasingly, seeds probably originating as grain spills or from bird-feeders. These spills are often infected with the Trichomonas gallinae parasite, one strain of which can be fatal to turtle doves.
  • Corn bunting plots - modern farming creates uniform cereal crops, encouraging corn buntings to nest close to crop edges where preferred thick patches still occur, but where nests are often predated. Farmers can simply add extra seed to attract nesting further from crop edges, allowing corn buntings to produce a sustainable number of chicks for reversing population decline.
  • Winter crops for seed eating birds – to meet the challenge of providing seed-rich habitats in livestock rearing areas (in the absence of arable crops) we have shown allowing ryegrass to seed is a practical solution; we have recently tested its effectiveness in restoring yellowhammer populations in North Wales.
  • Starling diet and breeding performance - research initially focused on productivity at nestbox colonies in Cambridgeshire and around Bristol, but we are now investigating movements and exposure to environmental threats outside the breeding season.


Key Dates

  • 2002-06: Skylark plots tested 
  • 2011-14: Turtle dove sown seed plots tested 
  • 2012-13: Corn bunting plots initial trials
  • 2016-17: Corn bunting plots final testing



  • Skylark plots, turtle dove sown seed mix and seeded ryegrass rolled out in the Environmental and Countryside Stewardship schemes in England.
  • Corn bunting plots available as an advisory measure in the new Countryside Stewardship scheme.


Planned Work

  • Testing safe ways to provide turtle doves with supplementary seed, whilst minimising the risks of disease transmission is ongoing. 
  • Final testing of corn bunting plots in mid-field locations.



  • Fields with skylark plots retained a higher proportion of territorial birds into late summer and the annual number of fledglings was significantly higher.
  • Turtle dove seed plots contained abundant seed but additional management was required to prevent them becoming too overgrown for doves to use them. On sites where the vegetation structure allowed access to food, turtle dove population trends were more favourable than on sites with no additional food provision.
  • In the corn bunting plot study, areas where extra seed was added by farmers attracted most nests while analyses demonstrated clear population benefits when nests occur at least 100m from cereal crop edges.




Coast on a stormy day

Dr Tony Morris

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

Coast on a stormy day

Dr David Buckingham

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

Coast on a stormy day

Dr Rosemary Setchfield

Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

Tagged with: Country: England Country: Wales Habitat: Farmland Species: Corn bunting Species: Skylark Species: Starling Species: Turtle dove Species: Yellowhammer Project status: Ongoing Project types: Research