Farmers on birds

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Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

Farmers on birds

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Last Saturday I was glad to see two letters published in the Independent newspaper.  Both were replying to an original letter by Guy Smith, a well-known and vocal farmer from Essex. 

Mr Smith's letter was basically saying that although some species of birds have declined on farmland (I think he does accept that they have) others have increased significantly - particularly crows, magpies and raptors. 

One of the replies was from another farmer, a Mr Harrison from Northumberland. Mr Smith's letter didn't please Mr Harrison at all and he wrote as follows: 'I cringe with embarrassment at the terrifyingly crass response to this vital issue by my "fellow" farmer, Guy Smith...' and his letter ends thus : 'It is sad that some farmers are defensive of their tragic modern role as a downtrodden link in a chain of huge chemical corporations, ruthless "food" manufacturers, and giant retailers.'. 

The second letter was from a Mr Palmer from Nottinghamshire who may or may not be a farmer but is clearly a land owner who knows his birds.  Mr Palmer suggests that better care of hedgerows should be required of farmers and that this would replace some of the invertebrate life that has all too often been lost from farmland.

Now you must make your own mind up about the rights and wrongs of the issues discussed.  In fact, although I have had many a good-humoured difference of opinion with Guy Smith the point he makes in his letter is not completely off the mark even if it isn't completely on target either.  But what I did enjoy was seeing a farmer speaking out so strongly and clearly for nature as Mr Harrison did.  If the RSPB had written his letter then we would have been called anti-farmer whereas that is not a criticism that can be levelled at 'fellow' farmers.

Guy Smith is an NFU Communication Spokesman, and I see he was talking at the Suffolk NFU Annual meeting last week on 'Better communication for the NFU and farming.'. I wonder how much Guy Smith had to do with the NFU's response to the consultation on the Natural Environment White Paper. 

The NFU's line, unless I have misinterpreted it (so do read it yourself), is that the environment is fine and that the big issue now is food production.  I don't expect much environmental sense from the NFU and I don't find much compassion or understanding of wildlife issues in this response. I wonder what Mr Palmer and Mr Harrison would think of it.  I wonder what Sooty thinks of it?  I wonder what other readers of this blog think of it. I wonder what the average NFU member thinks of it.  And I wonder what the public - who pays for the Single Farm Payment and agri-environment payments - might think of it.

The NFU line certainly flies against the Defra line of biodiversity being a top priority and 'getting more from less' so I also wonder what Defra Ministers might make of it. 

When the NFU starts from the position that there isn't a problem then there is little common ground with conservationists.  Little wonder that our best moments with farmers are working with those farmers who realise that there is a problem and are keen to put biodiversity back into our countryside.  They are the farmers who are true farming leaders.


  • Carduus we obviously agree to differ but i do agree there would be more food for birds if trimming was less often hence the compromise in schemes to do it every two years.One big problem  with a hedge that is laid is that unless kept trimmed you have a problem in a few years time that it is extremely difficult to lay again perhaps almost impossible.

  • MatthewNaylor,

    I am not against flailing per se as a tool for hedge management, but I am against hedges being heavily cut back every year with the result that they end up in extremely poor condition. This is especially the case in hedges which are not required to be stockproof, such as those between arable fields or where there is an accompanying fence. I also suspect that continual trimming along the top of the hedge at the same height leads to it becoming less dense, because the trunks of the bushes become thicker and there is very little regeneration of shoots from the base, just regrowth from the top and sides.

    With regard to berries, annual cutting at any time of year prevents these on hawthorn whether done before or after winter - hence the recommendation for a minimum 2-year frequency.


    As I said, I am not suggesting that all hedges should be done manually. I was merely pointing out that if we were to go back, say 100 or 200 years (or more), then most hedges would not have been trimmed annually because of the enormous amount of labour required. Annual trimming is a modern development enabled by powered machinery.

    When I get round to it, I will take some photos of the kind of hedges I am talking about to illustrate my point.

  • Carduus no to go back to hand work you know is ridiculous,what i meant was,you stated your belief was that one of the main reasons farmers trim back hedges so heavily and so often is because with modern machinery it is very easy to do so.Which is not the reason at all and you are totally ignoring the fact it is still a costly operation.Without doubt from 40 years of experience of hand trimming,hedge laying and flail trimming the best hedge as far as farming is concerned is to trim each year which nowadays means the flail trimmer,as a compromise for wildlife which as i understand it wildlife societys are happy with many,many farmers enter schemes and then cut hedges every alternate years but  from experience the hedge is not as thick in the bottom as trimming every year.People pay for the RSPB and lots of other groups to do things in certain ways and if the general public want to dictate to farmers what to do with hedges they will have to do the same and fund it some way.

  • Actually Carduus I believe that flail mowers have some merits for small nesting birds; it's a question of timing.  Obviously it is absurd to destroy berries before the winter or to flail two sides of a hedge in one year.  I maintain that a well-maintained hedge with a tight canopy provides small birds with much more protection from predation.

  • Sooty,

    Are you really disputing my basic assertion that to trim, say, 1 km of hedge with a flail trimmer is substantially quicker than doing the job using hand tools? Really?

    My main point is that hedges kept 'neat and tidy' by annual flail trimming have an extremely low value for wildlife. Do you dispute this as well?

  • Carduus- do not know your particular knowledgeable subject but would suggest you consider that on farming matters the professionals i e farmers probably know best about hedges and where your assumption that flail hedge trimming is quick and easy falls down is that lots of farmers in fact almost all in this county pay a contractor considerable sums of money to trim the hedges.

    Always what the general public fail to grasp with hedge trimming,pesticides,animal medicines etc etc is that they are all expensive and farmers would not use unless necessary but as usual all and sundry know more about hedge trimming than the professional.

    Wonder what the reaction would be if farmers went around telling everyone how to do their job.    

  • I agree completely with Mirlo's comments about over-frequent hedge cutting - an enormous number of the hedges in this area (Herefordshire) are flailed at least annually with the result that they are very short, gappy and devoid of berries. Their value for birds is minimal, either in terms of cover or food, whereas tall, bushy hedges generally support quite a variety of small bird species. This is not to do with stockproofing, because in many cases these are hedges separating arable fields which could easily be left for a few years between trimmings.

    In answer to Sooty's comments, if 200 yards of hedge only contains as many berries as 1 hawthorn tree then I think that only serves to highlight the poor quality of the hedge management rather than anything else. I'm all in favour of trees/bushes being allowed to grow as well, but that's no excuse for the rest of the hedges being flailed excessively. Regarding garden hedges, while there are clearly lots of people who place too high a regard on tidyness, it's not really reasonable to justify the practices of large-scale countryside management on this basis. Quite apart from anything else, on an area-for-area basis gardens are much more biodiverse than typical intensive farmland, whether arable or pasture.

    I'm willing to be corrected on this, but my belief is that one of the main reasons many farmers trim back their hedges so heavily and so often is because, with modern machinery, it's very quick and easy to do. i.e. if they had to do it all by hand then it wouldn't be done nearly so often. Obviously hedges would require labour-intensive laying every few years, but in other years they'd be left to grow unmolested and so become of much more value for wildlife.

    There is also the question of hedgerow trees - flailing destroys many young saplings which might otherwise be left to grow. Obviously not too many or they'd take over, but a certain number of hedgerow trees is definitely desirable. I'm not advocating a return to large-scale manual maintenance of hedges, since the amount of labour required would be enormous, but I do think there has to be a better way than annual flailing.

    With roadside hedges, while it's important that these are maintained to keep the road clear and to allow sight lines at critical points, I also think there is scope for better management here as well. For instance, on a long straight road, there's no reason why hedges need to be kept trimmed very short so long as they're not actually overhanging - they could easily be allowed to grow up and out (away from the road) with trimming used to maintain the road side face of the hedge.

  • Mirlo when farming the cost of hedge trimming each year came to perhaps £300 so if it could have been saved obviously a advantage,in this part of the country we would prefer to cut each year to make the hedge thick in the bottom but those in schemes cut every two years but is done primarily to benefit birds with more berries not really much financial gain,in fact farmers could make a case that they do not gain financially on smaller farms by having to pay experts for the complicated paperwork mostly,always seems strange that lots of people think farmers get rich from these schemes.They can always quote someone who got say £20,000 but neglect to say how much per acre and compared to what that person had invested in that farm the scheme payments would be more or less peanuts and on that large farm if done correctly the benefits to wildlife should be considerable.  

  • Sparrow

    I have looked at The English Nature's  Nature on the map website for this area and it shows that more than  80% of the land area is incuded in the Entry Level Scheme. If each of the included hedges were cut every 2 years then at least around 30%  of hedges would be fruiting or berrying in any year but they certainlt are not. I do not know the regulations of the ELS but I thought that roadside hedges were supposed to be faced annually for road safety but only topped every 3 or 4 years.

    It is good to hear from someone like you who puts wildlife welfare high in their farm management plan. Please tell me is it any more difficult or time consuming to cut hedges on a 3 or 4 year rotation rather than annually. I would guess that most of the reason for annual hedge cutting would be purely the tidy syndrome

  • Good link Mirlo but comes up page not available,you have to go to fwag main page to find it under sub headline or at least i had to.All farmers on scheme cannot cut more often than 2 year intervals and several decide to cut half of hedges one year and other half following year.In my opinion wildlife and farmers would be better off doing what fwag suggests in one of their quotes leaving a few very large bushes uncut in the corner of fields.The berries on such a large hawthorn is unbelievable.  

  • Think someone said one large hawthorn bush/tree call it what you will has as many berries as 200 yards of hedgerow so if this is true we should promote this as it is not a big problem to leave one big bush in the corner of a hedge,must be a reason why so called environmentalists do not promote this,to keep a hedge stock proof 99% of population do not understand you have to trim a hedge every year,how many garden hedges cut every 2 or 3 years.Another case of general public saying do as i say farmers not as we all do.  

  • mirlo, the stewardship schemes are policed, with hefty fines associated with them. Perhaps those farms you refer to are not in a scheme. Plus roadside hedge are allowed to be cut every year and are not part of the ELS scheme.

    Out of interest I've always cut my hedges on a 3 to 4 year rotation to maximise the bird food and diverse structure. Recently I was verbally abused by one of the city gents who "lives" in our village, because I was making "his" countryside looking untidy, unlike my annual cutting neighbour, who knew how to farm properly. What do they say about pleasing everyone ... :-)

  • In relation to the comments about wildlife and hedgerows ,  FWAG produce an excellent leaflet about hedgerow management\


    However in this part of the country (N. cumbria) very few hedgerows are managed in this wildlife friendly way. I would go as far as saying that the majority of hedgerows are almost wildlife free zones at least as far as our visiting winter bird migrants, Most hedgerows seem to be cut annually and are kept in a manicured form which doesn't allow the development of fruits and berries. This was brought home to me the other day when I was walking alongside a tall hedge covered in berries. There were hundreds of blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares and also a good number of bullfinches as well, The next hedge which was low and heavily trimmed held no birds at all.

    i enjoy wildlife photography and know from experience that hedges with a taller diverse structure provide feeding and breeding habitats for many many times more bird, insects and mammals . Something needs to be done to ensure any environmental payments for maintaining boundaries are not wasted and are targeted at producing good wildlife friendly hedges.

    The entry level stewardship conditions state that hedges should not be cut more than once in every 2 years. This certainly rarely happens as the vast majority are being cut annually and therefore some form of policing needs to take place to ensure that the environmental payment conditions are being followed

  • Jocky sad as it maybe that a permissive footpath closed i wonder if it was because people abused it for example lots of footpaths abused by dogs off of leads and no one comments on a permissive path opened.

    Mark,think we all know there are unfortunately more corvids but it is more smaller birds we need and i have said many times each parish needs a couple of acres devoted to growing crops for small birds which would allow the rest of the parish to grow food that will be needed as at the very least it saves money on imports which at the moment must be important.Nothing wrong with HLS they work quite well in most parts of the country and nothing is perfect.Think farmers are adapting to being wildlife friendly but need time to adjust to today's environmental friendly ways.Do not think NFU speak for many farmers on wildlife or anything else for that matter,certainly when i was farming we crossed swords too often when they should have been on my side which when you are a member cannot be good.

    Cannot understand the letter from Mr Palmer saying better care of hedgerows as even if trimmed each year which some people do not like cannot see it affecting the invertebrates and in fact may be better for them by keeping a nice thick hedge low down.

    Think today we have to have a balance between efficient farming and wildlife but of course these forums are very biased as almost 60 million do not give a monkeys about wildlife or they would join RSPB or similar.

    Wonder if it is true what wildlife the RSPB found at their stand that they had at a erotic show,i know people say increased membership but at the risk of looking prudish wonder how many will not renew membership,surely cannot be true they had a stand must be a April fools joke.

  • Once again the RSPB is getting stick from some commentators for daring to comment on the very real issue of wildlife loss in our countryside (maybe some people take it personally - they shouldn't) and once again those commentators are missing the point. How we protect our finite land mass from wholesale agricultural industrialisation actually matters a great deal to us ultimately and not just a few Blue Tits. If there was no protection and no one was held accountable we'd be back to the good old days of over production, indiscriminate use of pesticides, ripping out of hedges and ancient woodland to squeeze out every last drop of profit - I don't particularly want to go there and I suspect the majority of farmers don't want to either. And how can we as a nation criticise other countries for cutting down rain forests, resuming hunting for whales etc etc when we can't even halt substantial and serious declines in some of our most iconic wildlife species? Yes, there are practical issues to resolve - but to say there are no problems is short sighted in the extreme.