By Niki Williamson, Fenland Farmland Bird Adviser
We like overwintered stubble in the Fens. It helps prevent the notorious ‘fen blow’, a terrifying local weather phenomenon, where dark clouds of loose peat blast across the countryside like black sandstorms, making it look like the end of the world is coming.
It’s also great for wildlife. It provides cover for mammals and insects over winter, and birds like skylarks and linnets can find food in the form of spilt grain and seeds from the other plants growing there.
But despite this, I’m always thrilled to watch some of it being ploughed up late autumn when it’s for one of our characterful local ploughing contests.
Have you ever been to one? They tend to be little publicised and attended by the enthusiast few, but if you seek one out you’ll be rewarded with a quirky, quintessentially British celebration of industry and skill.
The contest at Cottenham this year attracted a very diverse bunch of characters, and among the people I chatted to were men who had been farming for the best part of 50 years. Needless to say they had plenty of tales to tell of how the industry had changed, but the ones that shocked and saddened me were the wistful memories of how the countryside used to be.
One after another they told me tales of the enormous bunting flocks that were a regular occurrence, the days when you’d get back from a day in fields covered head to toe in insects, and the days when tree sparrows were so numerous they were considered a pest.
A colleague has already blogged in these pages about the dangers of resetting our baseline of what’s accepted as normal, and as the number of bugs and beasts in the countryside continues to fall it seems these dim and distant memories could soon be lost forever.
Of course it’s just not a possibility to return to the kind of farming that our farm wildlife evolved to coexist with. Nobody’s asking for that. There are seven billion of us to feed now.
But it has been shown again and again that doing the right stuff in agri-environment schemes – stuff like overwintered stubbles – can really turn things around for wildlife. Many farmers I met consider looking after it as much a part of their job as producing food.
What about you? Do you or someone you know have a countryside memory to share? Why not tell us about it here?
In my office, I'm often mocked for my eternal optimism. Even when asked the question "What can we do about farmland bird declines?" my answer would be 'Lots!" I'm positive that the future could be much brighter for many of the specialist birds that depend on farmland for survival, but looking at the latest figures I talked about last week, even I sometimes find it hard not to feel a little bit of despair. The graphs speak volumes about the wider health of the countryside and it doesn't look great.
It's been well-documented that farmland birds numbers dropped most severely in the late 70’s and early 80’s, with an ongoing steady decline since. Although declines seemed to be levelling off at one time, the trends have taken another downward turn in recent years, and now span a whole generation of farmers - some of whom might feel that farmland bird declines are inevitable, or don't remember how their farm sounded before numbers started dropping. There are also farmers who are stepping up to turn the fortunes of farmland birds around, and they are the reason I continue to be an optimist!
Farmland bird declines are not an inevitable side-effect of running a successful farm business. The very opposite can be true, demonstrated by the dedicated and enthusiatic farmers we work with every year. However, they cannot change the fortunes of farmland birds single-handed. Well-designed agri-environment schemes that are accessible and realistically funded are required, as well as a CAP that offers wildlife-friendly farmers a fair deal are vitally important. We offer advice and support to farmers who want to get the best out of these schemes, and learning from other farmers' experiences, difficulties and ideas is incredibly important in enabling us to develop practical solutions. In England, monitoring is now starting to show population benefits where elements of the Farmland Bird Package are put in place, such as wild bird seed mixtures and unsprayed over-wintered stubbles. For HLS agreements where farmland birds are a priority objective, Natural England now insist on at least 7% of arable land managed as farmland bird measures, and evidence suggests that bird populations will increase with this scale of management. To halt population declines, the amount of habitat is probably less than this. Farm4Bio came up with an estimate of 4% of arable land under favourable management.
The trick is to maximise the quality of habitats to minimise the quantity required - Flower-rich margins will support a greater diversity of invertebrates than grass margins, and wild bird seed mixes support more of the declining bird species through the winter than any other habitat. Our team of knowledgeable advisors have a wealth of experience in helping farmers to strike this balance, with some fantastic results.
I've spoken to farmers who are reluctant to get involved in agri-environment for various reasons, including a belief that they are unlikely to work. but the truth is, will a little bit of careful planning, so much can be achieved within the Entry Level Schemes. My hope is that by continuing to work towards getting the right options in the right places, and helping more farmers to maximise the benefits of their agri-environment schemes, there will be sufficient proof to convince those more sceptical than me that all is not lost. I look forward to the day that my eternal optimism is rewarded with the deafening sound of farmland birdsong, and I truly believe that it's possible.
Have you ever meet someone for the first time and just start talking as if you have known them for years? At a party, social evening or down on the farm? That is what exactly happened when I met Charlie Moores of Talking Naturally down on a farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens, when I was fortunate enough to spend a day with him discussing farm wildlife.
Charlie got to chat to many farmers I work with and interviewed both Michael Sly and Dick Johnson who farm high grade agricultural land in the Fens. I enjoyed explaining the habitats that had been created on these farms and we found enough time to visit not just the Cambridgeshire Fens but just as light was failing the Suffolk Brecks too.
We saw Skylark plots, wild bird seed mixtures and nectar flower mixtures, all habitats producing the goods for farm wildlife, evidenced by the numbers of farmland birds we observed, but most importantly we got to chat to the farmers too.
Apart from the results in terms of bird number increases as a direct result of these farmers’ efforts, one thing remains consistent – these 'Wildlife Friendly Farmers' are absolutely committed to producing more wildlife....but that costs money, agri-environment money - but it seems that is one way of efficiently spending public funds.
See what you think by listening here