Where are we in the league?

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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!

Where are we in the league?

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My local football team, the mighty Rushden and Diamonds is currently 8th in the Blue Square Premier League - that's 8th out of 24 teams.

Seeing your performance in the context of others is always informative and sometimes really useful. 

So did you know that the UK is 4th place in the EU (out of 27) for the highest rate of income tax? and 12th, out of 15, EU countries in the proportion of our energy coming from renewable sources? and top of the EU cocaine using league? and top of the EU asthma suffering league? and we were 8th in the EU days lost to strikes league table back in 2006.  This gets a bit addictive!

In terms of farmland bird population changes, the UK is 11th worst out of 40 European countries over the period 1990-2000.  And we were even closer to the bottom, as I remember it, in a previous analysis which covered the period 1980-1990. 

Farmland birds declined in most European countries (but increased in just a few) and I wonder what we can learn, maybe nothing, in terms of how the league leaders, Austria, practise their farming?  In Austria, farmland birds did pretty well apparently.  And Austria is top of the league, it seems, and if you ignore Liechtenstein (which we all do!), in terms of organic agriculture.  It can't be that simple can it?



  • Well Mark although i feel you are exasperated in a funny way this thread has given you the chance to let us have a lot of information that we seem not to search out for one reason or another so think you should see the positive side of it.Think it is just going to be a slow job getting majority of farmers on board and while you often give praise to individual farmers one or two comments from others at RSPB undermine some of the good you do as it is a fact of life whether we like it or not farmers are thin skinned about criticism of farm wildlife that is often unfair on those doing a good job.

  • syldata - provoactive!

  • Blimey.....I spend a lot of time on climate change issues and have concluded there are two types of deniers, those who are just obsessed with some kind of world conspiracy , and those who have clear motives that put them in opposition.

    To the former I keep saying that if climate scientists were any good at conspiracy we might have made more progress on fighting dangerous climate change, to the latter I just ask them to be honest!

    So Essex Peasant - what kind of denier are you?

  • essex peasant - careful, peasants shouldn't revolt too much!

    You are now slipping into just being completely negative.  I wonder why you can't acknowledge the success at Hope Farm?  Why is it so difficult for you to praise what has been achieved there?

    I don't think you are right about bird numbers at Hope Farm.  We have surveyed all bird species there since we acquired the farm - over 100 species recorded (not sure what the total is now).  We monitor all breeding and wintering bird species and lots of non-birds as well.  If we didn't count everything then we'd be mad, and you would probably say so!  But we have consistently (after a few years, so that there is a trend to look at) used the Farmland Bird Index when describing the bird numbers at Hope Farm because that's been an important measure of farmland bird populations at use in policy discussions for years (in fact, since 1999 or so).  You can find examples of us using the FBI at Hope Farm on this the RSPB website if you doubt it - I've just checked.  

    And I will leave it to others to check what we say about farmers to judge whether you are correct when you say that we 'demonise farmers as being uncaring'.  Have a look at this blog and the RSPB website as a whole.  The internet does make it a lot easier for anyone to see what we actually say rather than rely on your inaccurate version of what we say.  To start with - do have a look at the recent blog on stone curlews mentioned in my remarks to Sooty above.

  • Bob - you understand at least!  Thank you!

    Farmers are putting back many hedges that were ripped out back inthe 60s and 70s but it will, unfortunately, take quite a whole before in arable regions the hedge infrastructure has recovered completely and that means that linnets and yellowhammers may not be able to revcover very quickly - at Hope Farm hedge management has helped them to spread to new nesting areas on the farm.  

    The move away from mixed farming is one of the important aspects of intensification and is unlikely to be reversed very quickly.  

    But Hope Farm shows that if farmers do the right things, and grants to do these things are available through agri-environment schemes, then impressive increases in bird numbers are possible on arable farms with reduced hedgerows.  The RSPB's success at Hope farm shows what can be done and we have a network of advisors who work with keen farmers so that they can do similar things on their farms.

  • Sooty - there are indeed some farmers and landowners on RSPB Council.  We do not control predators at Hope Farm - maybe there would be even more birds if we had?  And, as far as predators and skylark patches are concerned - without skylark patches, skylarks tend to end up nesting along the tramlines where they are susceptible to predation by mammals walking along those same tramlines (and tractor wheels!). The skylark patches are not connected to the tramlines and so they are difficult for mammalian predatos to get to once the crop has thickened up - that might be one reason why they work.

    I agree with you about working with farmers.   The remarks here of essex peasant, a farmer who spends a lot of his life talking to other farmers about the RSPB it seems to me, shows how difficult that can be.  essex peassant puts a lot of his effort into talking down the declines in farmland birds, talking down the RSPB's work with farmers and talking down the beacon of hope that is Hope Farm (you see he calls it Hype Farm here).  None of this helps.

    And it is worth going back and looking at the blog piece I wrote on stone curlews a little while ago.  That 'story' was press released in the same way as our other farmland bird press releases but, maybe because it was a good news story, it received very little media coverage - that's one reason I write this blog - to give some of our work with farmers a little more publicity.

    And I do think that an acre or two on every farm, managed like we do at Arne, would be a great asset.  I almost hesitate to say this, because we have moved on and there's no point looking back, but that is a little like set-aside used to provide, and quite a lot like what we argued could replace set-aside - but we lost that argument to those like essex peasant!

  • Bob,

    we have reversed that intensification ( I can give you the data if you like) and yet the RSPB claim bird numbers continue to drop. Thats the conundrum.


  • Agree with every thing you say Bob which is why i asked if a couple of acres in say each parish would be a great help and think with sympathetic persuasion farmers might agree to this.

    One big problem that i feel Mark is aware of is that farmers see any comment by the RSPB as criticism and perhaps regard the RSPB as the enemy which is not true but while Mark is even handed as he quite often praises what individual farmers do some at the RSPB at the same time make silly critical comments that are only relevant to some farmers.

    For certain for farmland birds to increase or at least halt the decline the ONLY way is for RSPB and FARMERS to work together so lets hope both groups try a bit harder and do not see each other as the enemy.

    I think if there are no farmers on the RSPB main committee then there should be,surely just as important to have someone like that as to have a figure head like Kate Humble,if no farmer on committee then seeing the state of farmland birds and the fact that farmers manage almost all the land in the country it must be a serious mismanagement from RSPB i think.

  • Sooty / Mark.  I read it as well even though I am not a farmer.  What seems logical to me is that if a population declines and there is a probable reason for it doing so (whether that is farming practices or otherwise) then the population will eventually reach a position where it can't recover unless the reason for it is reversed. There is always a population level that, if reached, can't be reversed on its own and will need active management (the Tiger may already have reached this).

    If the reason for the decline in farmland birds is, even partly, intensification of agriculture then the argument that nothing has intensified since the 90s (and presumably doesn't need changing) only serves to hold the population at a low level.  To get it to return to the levels that existed 20 to 25 years ago the prescription for doing so must at least include supporting farmers to reverse some of that intensification.

  • Mark,

    you know damn well that when you bought Hype Farm you set up a matrix of 40-50 species to gauge the avian health of the farm - some species were there when you bought the farm , some weren't. The Hype Farm matrix is far more balanced than the FBI because it includes an even mix of red list, amber list and green list species which is in keeping with the trend lines of all british bird species generally. You also know damn well that if you used this set of 40-50 species on the FB Index then the graph would not look nearly so bad, the line would be far more horizontal. So why deny it and can't you understand the frustration of farmers like me who would like my farm analysed in the same way Hype Farm is to get a fuller picture of what is going on?

    I would not deny that some bird species have seen significant losses due to changes in agriculture brought in during the 1960s and 1970s, you don't have to be a genius to work out that if you remove hedges then species such as yellowhammer which use hedges for nesting and foraging will suffer.

    But farming has moved on since the 60s and 70s and the stats clearly show that. Its time the RSPB moved on aswell, you are fighting ghosts when you should be encouraging the current generation of farmers to build on their conservation successes rather than discouraging them by this permament media push and lobbying thrust of trying to demonise farmers as uncaring and causing some sort of wildlife armageddon.


  • Hi Mark  well i for one read this anyway and find it interesting,think many of your points are quite true but not necessarily the complete picture as modern farming is definitely not the only factor there are less farmland birds.

    I would like to know your opinion on whether a couple of acres such as at RSPB Arne specially for birds would have a similar benefit as you get at Hope Farm from other methods as i think you may be able to get some farmers to do that rather than what you do at H F,just my opinion and on most farms i think these Skylark patches then the predators would soon work out that a patch means easy picking,i wonder do you have to control predators at H F.  

  • essex peasant - I wonder whether anybody else is reading this - it may just be us!

    There is no discrediting of the idea of classifying birds as farmland, woodland or whatever.  But it is only useful as short-hand.  It is useful, I would agree, to look at what the individual species are doing.  And if you do, there is no getting away from the fact that many birds characteristic of Uk farmland have declined dramatically in our lifetimes.  Examples include tree sparrow, corn bunting, turtle dove, skylark and others.  And there are some species which have increased over the same period - eg jackdaw and wood pigeon.  I think that we might agree that this is a bit poor and we might agree that we wish it hadn't happened.

    You make it sound as though the Treasury got rid of the farmland bird PSA specifically, whereas I'm sure you know that the incoming government ditched the idea of PSAs as a whole - all those applying to defra were ditched at the same time as those applying to all other government departments.  We wait to see, maybe in the Natural environment White Paper, whether there will be new biodiversity targets.  Given Caroline Spelman's success at Nagoya it would be odd if there weren't.

    And you are completely wrong (again) when you say that the RSPB doesn't use the farmland bird index for our own farm.  We do!  we use it lots!  And we compare the fact the the FBI at Hope farm increased by 177% (ie it almost trebled) in 10 years whereas that for the UK, England or even eastern england where the farm is located, changed very little.  If more farmers were doing what we are doing then the UK farmland bird index would shoot upwards1

    If you do go and look at the europe-wide analysis I wrote about in the original blog which started this 'conversation' then you will see that the 'intensity' of farming across those 40 European countries in the period 1990 to 2000 is related to the fate of their farmland birds.  The more intensive the agriculture then the less well do farmland birds do - thank you for reminding me!

    And, let's be clear, agriculture doesn't have to get more intensive for farmland birds to decline.  If it is 'harmfully intensive' then that's enough.  By analogy, you don't have to eat less every day to lose weight - provided you are eating less than a threshold amount then you will lose weight (admittedly not a subject I know that much about!).  So if UK farming is bad enough for wildlife,  then wildlife will decline for many years without UK farming having to get worse all the time.  Or, to use the football analogy, when Rushden and Diamonds were in League 1 and then lost their sponsorship and most of their good players they didn't have to lose more money or more players for their fall to the Conference to be pretty inevitable even though it took about 5 years to get there.

    So where, essex peasant, would you like to go next?  How about admitting that farmland birds have declined dramatically and that the way that we manage the countryside is an important factor in that decline, and that we may be able to learn from other european countries, or indeed from the RSPB's Hope Farm, in seeing how we can turn those declines around?

  • I think this idea of classifying birds as 'farmland', 'woodland', 'disneyland' or whatever is slowly becoming discredited ( n.b. the treasury chucking it as a PSA out this summer) and will soon be consigned to just the I-Spy books where it belongs. The very idea that farm biodiversity should be assessed by reference to just 19 species is ridiculous and its interesting that the RSPB don't even bother to apply it to their own farm where they monitor and track 43 species. ON our farm we look at over a hundred species.

    I note Mark has chosen not to comment on the fact there has been no intensification of farming in the UK since 1990, quite the opposite, and yet the RSPB continue to bang on about the intensification of agriculture causing wildlife loss since 1990.  

  • essex peasant - you are trying hard to make this complicated but it is quite simple really. If you compare the fate of farmland birds in the UK and in other European countries we aren't the worst but we are towards the bottom of the table.  I've given you the link to the paper (published in a scientific journal) so the data are in the open.

  • Hi Bob i quite agree about butterflies and in fact no doubt all wildlife is under pressure but my point is really that for sure the way we all live and the resulting levels of pollution now as opposed to say the 1950s just has to be as big a factor as farming changes but the blame always laid at farmers door.Found it absolutely astonishing the number of flights from heath row each day which was talked about when cancelled by snow and incredibly some flights even go with no one on board as that slot booked,how crazy is that.The pollution from aircraft and road vehicles has to have a serious affect just to mention two.