Everybody talks about the long-term decline in farmland bird populations because this group has been effectively monitored for the longest period. But there is a growing list of other important farmland taxa that are being monitored including plants and butterflies. Defra released the 2012 report on these Biodiversity Indicators yesterday.
Since 1990, the results indicate a continued shallow decline in farmland birds and a decline in butterfly numbers. On the plus side, bat numbers seem to be picking up over the last 10 years after a sharp decline between the late 70’s and the mid-90’s. It does seem to be a reoccurring theme, that significant declines in wildlife abundance happened in the 1970’s and 1980’s, with relatively minor changes since then. However, we are confident that a recovery of biodiversity on farmland is realistic if the most can be made of opportunities through agri-environment schemes. We now have about 70% of farmland in England in agri-environment, and Defra are trying to make Entry Level Stewardship more effective at benefiting the environment.
The results for arable plants seem odd to me. They report an increase in plant species richness in arable fields between 1990 and 1998, and again between 1998 and 2007. Arable plants are one of the most threatened plant groups in the UK, making them a high priority for Plantlife . This is supported by studies on the diets of seed-eating birds such as the turtle dove and linnet, which are increasingly dependent on the seeds of very few common species. The loss of seed food on farmland generally has been one of the biggest drivers of farmland bird declines. Plants that do seem to be doing well on modern arable farms are the highly-competitive, nitrogen-demanding weeds, such as blackgrass and cleavers.
There are few more rewarding achievements for wildlife on arable farmland than properly sited and managed cultivated margins for arable plants. A huge array of flowering plants can emerge after decades of sitting in the seed bank unseen.
If, like me, you’re not from round ‘ere, then maybe it’s cream teas, ice creams on the beach, the wilds of Dartmoor, or rolling green hills. If you are “south westerly” then you probably have a very different opinion!
Actually, for me, and RSPB, the West Country is Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire.
You may already know about the RSPB’s Volunteer & Farmer Alliance Project, funded by the EU LIFE+ fund. The national project that offers farmers in every part of the UK a one-off, free bird survey with no obligations. A wonderful project to work on, that celebrates the interest farmers have in what species they safeguard on their land, their concern about the declines in farmland birds, the impressive capabilities of our volunteers in bird identification and allows RSPB to gain valuable data on farmland birds. It’s a win-win! And my job is to organise these surveys in the West Country.
Sunrise (May 2011) by Felicity Clarke
So, what is the West Country to me? I’m from Staffordshire originally, and I’m still getting to know the region. And to help me along, I’m surveying two farms in Devon this year.
For my very first Volunteer & Farmer Alliance survey of 2012, I arrive to see the sun rising over the misty Exe valley. In the oilseed rape fields opposite, skylarks are already fluttering away. There are swallows, chiffchaffs and yellowhammers before I’ve even got my binoculars out. Then, five hours later, while walking down a bridleway back to the car, orange-tips and speckled woods floating around my head.
Image of orange-tip butterfly feeding on cuckooflower by Steve Round.
Then, a week later, I visited my second farm. Despite hail showers, the results were exceptional: reed bunting, marsh tit, grasshopper warbler, willow warblers and even a dipper. Got my hair caught in bramble, though, and had to be carefully extracted (a slightly embarrassing, girly moment. I am a hardened fieldworker, I promise!).
Image of grasshopper warbler by Steve Round.
It just proves, though, the diversity of the region, and if you extrapolate that out to the area covered by the Volunteer & Farmer Alliance (from the Scilly Isles to Shetland and from London to Londonderry!), it proves the diversity of the UK: the landscapes our fantastic farmers and marvellous volunteers are surveying this spring.
Are you a farmer who has had a survey? Have you ever conducted a survey for the Volunteer & Farmer Alliance? What were your highlights? We’d love to hear from you.
By Hayley Sherwin, Volunteer and Farmer Alliance Project Officer, Northern Ireland
With the action of farmers across Northern Ireland, we are working towards safeguarding farmland wildlife for future generations. After visiting farms as part of the judging process for the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award 2012, we are certain that we have found great wildlife ambassadors for Northern Ireland.
With hard work, dedication and real enthusiasm for wildlife, Jack Kelly from County Down (pictured above with dogs Twix and Polo) has all that it takes to be Northern Ireland’s Nature of Farming Award Winner this year. Jack’s mixed farm lies at the heart of predominantly arable County Down. Although Jack is currently out of the DARD agri-environment scheme, he continues to use the options to benefit the wildlife on his farm. This includes sowing wild bird cover and retaining winter stubble to provide seed-eating birds with a valuable food source during the winter. The species-rich grassland supplies a nectar-rich habitat for insects and birds during the summer months. It really is no wonder that threatened farmland birds such as the yellowhammer, tree sparrow and linnet are all thriving on Jack’s farm!
Wild bird cover on Jack's farm
It is not only seed-eaters that use Jack’s farm. This year two pairs of lapwing have been observed nesting on the farm – fantastic news for a wader that is in major decline! Jack takes pride in his hedges and trims them into an ‘A-shape’ which provides thick, dense cover and a commuting route for birds and mammals such as bats. With an orchard, river and additional wetland areas, garden birds, kingfishers and even otters are frequent visitors! Jack’s entire family are wildlife enthusiasts and in addition to feeding the birds all year round, they have placed specially designed nest boxes for barn owls, kestrels and tree sparrows. The judges particularly enjoyed watching the tree sparrows busily fly in and out of their nest boxes. Jack claims that they are simply “doing their bit” for wildlife but we believe it is more than this – we believe Jack is an inspiration and fully deserves this prestigious wildlife award.
We were delighted that Catherine Bertrand from Butterfly Conservation was able to visit Jack’s farm and place moth traps overnight to see what nighttime critters use the farm. After eagerly awaiting to see what was caught in the traps, Catherine identified the moth species (and beetles!) one by one. Although we often regard moths as being the duller versions of their butterfly cousins, the vast array of different colours and patterns was wonderful to see. We even caught a handsome Herald moth and with its bright orange, leaf-like forewings, it was the star of the show! Catherine hopes to return during the summer months to place more moth traps to see what other winged beauties we catch.
Another farmer we are extremely proud of is Maurice Law from County Fermanagh (pictured above), who has received a Highly Commended award this year. Maurice’s farm lies amidst rural Fermanagh and provides excellent habitats for farmland birds. Maurice has decided to grow fields of both one and two year wild bird cover mixes, which provide food for seed-eating birds during the winter months and nectar-rich flowers for insects during the summer months, which in turn feed the insectivorous birds. Maurice has also planted large areas of native trees which provide nesting sites and shelter for wildlife. Maurice has a keen interest in birds and designs bird feeders of different shapes and sizes which he places around his farm and keeps well stocked all year round. The judges were extremely impressed by his innovative styles and use of recycled materials! Whilst visiting his farm, the judges were treated to a family of long-tailed tits (including tiny ping-pong ball shaped chicks) hopping amongst the hedges!
Both Jack and Maurice were presented with their awards at the Nature of Farming Award ceremony at the Balmoral Show by RSPB NI Director, James Robinson and DARD Permanent Secretary, Gerry Lavery, who congratulated both farmers for their continual commitment to wildlife-friendly farming.
Now for the waiting game…we must wait until July to see if Jack has made it through to the next stage of the competition, the national vote. One thing is certain - we are extremely proud of Jack, Maurice and all of our wildlife-friendly farmers of Northern Ireland!
The EU LIFE+ Programme funds RSPB work which supports wildlife-friendly farming that furthers sustainable development in the European Union.