January, 2012

Farming

Farming
Welcome to this group for all farmers and anyone with an interest in farming. Read our blog to see how we're working with farmers and to find out where you can meet us at events.

Farming

Find out more about how we're working with farmers and others to provide space for farmland nature in the landscape. Join in the discussion on farming issues and share tips for wildlife-friendly farming.
  • What do corn buntings and choughs have in common?

    The current Cornish chough population (six breeding pairs in 2011) is the only one in England, having returned naturally to the Duchy in 2001.  There is also a small edge of range population of corn buntings on the north coast of Cornwall and you can now see choughs and corn buntings feeding together in the same stubble field!

         Image of corn bunting spring barley habitat by Claire Mucklow, RSPB

    Since the late 1990s the RSPB has worked with landowners along the coastal fringe in Cornwall to establish the right sort of habitats for corn bunting and choughs, specifically giving advice and undertaking applications for - back then - Countryside Stewardship, now Higher Level Stewardship schemes on behalf of farmers. We are currently helping some farmers enter their third successive scheme and third decade of wildlife friendly management. We have met, advised and helped many of the landowners from Lizard Point to the Devon border, that’s some 300 km of coast covering many thousands of hectares of land (not counting our more recent work on the cirl bunting recovery project on the south coast).

     Newquay to Pentire, known as ‘Corn Bunting Country’, is where a network of incredibly supportive farmers has put in place specific measures to ensure corn buntings have safe places to nest and food sources to get them through the year.  The population though small, (approx 55 singing males) seems to be bucking the national trend and is stable thanks to the farmers supported by Natural England doing all they can to ensure they are not lost, (there are lots of positive benefits for other threatened species too, especially arable plants and butterflies).  Interestingly, the farmers I met and helped set up corn bunting agreements for in the early days are now managing for choughs too, as these iconic birds increase their range in Cornwall.

      Image of corn bunting by Derek Dennis

     Habitats used by chough e.g. maritime grassland and heath, are also important for a range of rare and threatened invertebrates and plants, and are important habitats of European significance - Many Priority BAP species in Cornwall,  at least 150 of them, share ecological similarities with chough and benefit from similar positive management.  Grazing stock used to restore and maintain suitable heath and cliff habitat is vital for the health of our coastal biodiversity. Such grazing management is economically marginal but has high public, social and environmental value. Agricultural support through agri-environment schemes is vital to continue to maintain and enhance these sensitive grazing initiatives if the benefits to biodiversity and the local economy are to be sustained. 

      Image of chough by Richard Bedford

     Sightings of choughs from the Welsh population are increasing on the North Devon and Somerset coasts, and this is where our project advisory work will expand into next. The choughs’ recolonisation of Cornwall, and potential for range expansion in the future, provides an important step in linking the Breton, Welsh and Irish populations, facilitating exchanges and linkages between these isolated populations. 

     What do you think about these projects? Have you seen any chough along the Cornish coast? Why not also follow the Cornish Chough blog and find out how things are going? We’d love to hear from you.

    By Claire Mucklow, Cornwall Projects Manager

  • Weathering the weather

    By Derek Gruar, Senior Researcher, Hope Farm

    One of the core tasks here at Hope Farm is monitoring the numbers of birds that are actually using the farm. In summer this requires walking the farm boundaries and recording birds that are seen and heard onto maps. Compared to winter this is straight-forward as from spring-time onwards, birds are starting to hold territory and males readily sing to announce that this part of the field or hedgerow is theirs. Repeated visits over the summer allow maps to be plotted for each species and it soon becomes apparent that that individual birds are found in the same place on subsequent visits, the birds territory.

    However in winter, most birds have no territorial hold on a discrete area and are free to roam where they like, the main driver of all this is of course food. Put food out in your garden and birds will soon take advantage of your generosity.

    On the farm to determine bird numbers over the winter we conduct monthly whole farm counts where the farm is divided into small sections and is surveyed simultaneously by a small number of hardy volunteers that brave the weather and the mud! All birds seen using the farm are recorded on maps and after a thorough review to make sure that we don’t count the same flock of yellowhammers, or covey of grey partridges, twice; we calculate a figure for the numbers of birds seen on that particular day.

    For example, in 2001 on the first ever January count 534 birds of 30 different species were recorded as using the farm. Woodpigeon was the commonest, contributing 216 of these birds. Of the farmland birds of conservation concern this count included 15 skylarks, only a single each of yellowhammer and reed bunting and no linnets or grey partridges. Common birds found included 50 blackbirds, 27 blue tits, 18 dunnocks and 16 robins.

    In 2011 during one of the harshest winters in recent times, the farm attracted 1338 birds of 39 different species. Woodpigeon was again the commonest contributing 307 of these birds. Of the farmland birds of conservation concern this count included 113 skylarks, 157 yellowhammer and 49 reed bunting, 12 linnets and 31 grey partridges. Common birds found included 58 blackbirds, 57 blue tits, 14 dunnocks and 25 robins. These have shown some small increases but nothing in the scale of the increases of the birds that are dependent on farmland. We attribute these increases to the presence of winter bird food on the farm as in winter 2010/11 we had several small (0.5ha) areas of wild bird cover, unharvested crop strips (both winter wheat and oilseed rape) and 1ha enhanced fallow (EF22 Plot) all of these producing seed resources for farmland bird species.

    After the harsh winter came the drought, and the associated problems with crop growth and establishment particularly of bird cover crops. For winter 2011/12 this has meant that we have a massive reduction in the area of winter bird food available with just one small wild bird cover plot and 0.5ha of unharvested winter wheat. With this lack of food the January 2012 count was lower than previous years with 1016 birds of 39 species, Woodpigeons the commonest bird with 178 recorded. 118 skylarks and 35 grey partridges were exceptional counts and only 16 yellowhammer and 3 linnets illustrated the lack of food available for these species currently on the farm. It’s interesting to see diversity has increased over time, but it is compelling evidence that winter food availability is a considerable factor in attracting birds onto farmland in winter.

    Photos: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

  • Bugs and Birds form alliance

    If you want to help corn buntings what do they need? A load of large bodied insects during the breeding season is a good start. What about Tree sparrows? Well a good supply of water borne invertebrates makes for tasty meals for any young tree sparrow.

    Making room for farmland birds on a farm requires the creation of habitats that will rebuild the ecosystem that supports that farmland bird. This may include more seeding or nectar rich plant species and in turn those habitats will support a range of nectar loving or even seed eating invertebrates.

    The success of many farmers in the South West ensuring the Cirl Bunting has a future on their farms means they haven’t just simply protected this beautiful bunting but they have also increased the numbers of crickets and other insects through careful management and creation of habitats.

    And that’s the thinking behind Buglife partnering with the RSPB in the East of England. So if you happen to be farming in the East give your local adviser a call about bugs, birds or any other farm wildlife you want to help and we will do our best to help you do just that.

    The partnership hopes to significantly increase the number of farmers across the region receiving advice on bug, bird and other wildlife friendly farming methods, and provide a one-stop-shop to help them protect a wider variety of wildlife on their land.

    Buglife is working to protect a range of rare farmland invertebrate species in the East of England including the Shining ram’s-horn snail which is found in ditches and the Large garden bumblebee that needs wildflower-rich meadow land and wetland

    My new bug-loving friend Richard Smith, Buglife farming & Pollinator Officer said: “Working with the RSPB is good news for invertebrates and good news for the countryside. Invertebrates are very important: they play a vital part in pollinating our crops and wild plants, and helping to maintain healthy soil. By providing farmers with the appropriate advice, they will be able to help conserve our essential farmland invertebrates”.

    As a result of this new partnership, RSPB advisors in Eastern England will be able to deliver advice on protecting a multitude of invertebrate species including slugs, snails, bees, wasps, ants, spiders, beetles and butterflies.

    East Anglia is dominated by arable farmland, an area on which many species rely for their survival. With 1.47 million hectares of land in the region dedicated to agriculture, to ensure a healthy future for some of our most vulnerable creatures, it is crucial that the management of this landscape takes the needs of wildlife into account.

    If we are to support the EU governments target to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020, it is increasingly important for conservation organisations like the RSPB and Buglife to work together with many more farmers.

    The new partnership means that we can now pool our resources to assist farmers across the East to save all nature. Protecting and enhancing farmland bird populations requires the reconstruction of broken ecosystems and since insects provide essential food for birds, it makes sense that we help farmers to protect them too.