August is really the end of the farming year as the final crops are harvested, here at least, and also marks the end of the breeding season. So it seems a good time to do a round-up of how our harvest went and how our breeding birds fared.
Both the crops and the wildlife on the farm are heavily influenced by the weather. Both need rain and both need sunshine. Little rain and the crops struggle to grow; likewise the vegetation critical for nesting habitat and food supplies also struggles to grow.
The other side of the coin is that too much rain, especially at the wrong time, also affects crop growth and can have a serious impact on nesting success and chick survival.
The combination of both has made 2012 a very challenging year. You may recall that in an earlier blog I lamented the drought conditions we had experienced for the two years leading to March, and then how the deluge began in April. Well the deluge never really stopped and we had the wettest and dullest summer on record in the region.
This caused serious problems for crop husbandry, the effects of which only became clear as wheat harvest progressed. Our wheat yields had been negatively affected by the lack of rain in the last two harvests, but this year we appear to have been negatively affected by too much rain and too little sun.
Despite this, the wheat crop looked good even in mid-July, and hopes were high of getting back above the 10 tonnes/hectare threshold but then as harvest began rumours began circulating of very disappointing yields despite the crops looking good to the naked eye. It appeared that the grains were very small and often of poor quality.
The double whammy was that the cost of growing this year’s wheat crop was considerably higher than last year. So, despite high selling prices, the effect of the poor yield and cost of growing the crop more than wiped out any benefit for the farmer of the increased wheat prices.
Our harvest began in late August, always an exciting time normally. But very quickly I could tell from the chatter on the radios that things weren’t good. Moisture levels were high, the straw was proving difficult to cut through and the yields were low. Further rain was also threatening so the combines worked well into the night to get the crop in as dry as possible.
The result was an average yield of about 8 tonnes/hectare. Very disappointing, but the quality was surprisingly good and on reflection the yield stands up very well compared to many wheat crops in our region.
Harvest was difficult and disappointing, but how did the birds do? Derek Gruar, the Senior Research Assistant at Hope Farm, carries out the wildlife monitoring of which bird surveys are a major part.
He surveys the whole farm up to 12 times from the start of April to the end of June, marking accurately each species he encounters on maps which are then collated at the end of the season to form territory maps. This forms the basis for our analysis of how well our management has improved the bird numbers on the farm. There were clear highlights from the breeding season: two pairs of lapwings breeding, a corn bunting holding territory for the second year in succession, skylarks reaching 43 territories (from 10 in 2000!), three pairs of barn owls.
Many other species were very similar to last year, but for several there were clear declines. Yellowhammers, whitethroats and greenfinches all declined considerably. The reasons for these declines are still being investigated but they are disappointing, especially the yellowhammer decline.
We use a multi-species index to illustrate the trend in our key bird populations as a whole. For this index we use the species which form the group used to calculate the national and regional farmland bird indices, these being the 19 species which are most reliant on farmland.
We have had 17 of the 19 holding territory or breeding on the farm since 2000: rook and tree sparrow are the missing ones. The trend has generally been very positive since 2000, but this year the index dropped compared to last year to a figure of 2.65, compared to 3.11 last year.
What does this mean? The simplest way of describing it is that the number of territories of the 17 species which we monitor intensively has increased by an average of 165% compared to 2000.
Despite an unwelcome decline compared to last year, this is still an amazing achievement, especially in comparison to how farmland birds are faring in general across the country.
My first year as farm manager has been a challenging one, but still a very enjoyable one. Of course I would like to report bumper yields and bird numbers, but the reality is that some years are better than others and some not. So here’s to a better year in 2013 - rain at the right time in the right quantities and lots of sunshine, please.
Wiltshire farmer Henry Edmunds has scooped the top prize in the 2012 RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award. Henry runs a mixed organic farm on the Cholderton Estate with a motto of 'sustainable agriculture in practice'. He is truly an ambassador for a modern farming business, and we heartily congratulate him on winning this year’s Award.
Henry will soon be appearing on this blog to tell you what the Award means to him – in the mean time you can read more about Henry and the Estate's work here.
Many thanks to everyone who voted this year - we had over 17,000 votes in this year's Award, which is a fantastic result for all wildlife-friendly farmers. The vote really helps us fight for a fairer deal for those that care for our countryside.
Harvest is never a particularly busy time for farm wildlife advice! With my phone growing cobwebs, what better time to down Stewardship applications and escape on holiday to Iceland?
A fabulous choice for nature enthusiasts as it turns out. As well as breathtaking close-up views of Humpback Whales and White-tailed Eagles, it was fascinating to observe our UK wintering birds at the other end of their migratory journey.
I saw a Redwing, trying to sing its unusual song through a beak crammed full of caterpillars instead of hawthorn berries. Whooper Swans looked graceful in serene family units, white plumage reflecting the soft midnight sun, black Fenland mud and beet tops washed clean away. And I could watch the Black-tailed Godwits nervously pursuing us over endless miles of empty pasture and know there was a fair chance we had already met as they passed through the Ouse Washes in early spring. It seems mums really have gone to Iceland...
Birds that choose a migratory survival strategy don’t have an easy time of it.
Take our UK Turtle Dove. Each spring it makes a 3000-mile journey from African wintering grounds over mountains, jungles, deserts and oceans. On the way each bird must negotiate a barrage of illegal shooting as they pass the Mediterranean, and battle disease carried by parasites.
Birds migrate because the rewards are high (my Redwing in Iceland has 24 hours of glorious daylight to find caterpillars for her family).
But imagine if you go to all that effort only to find the shelves are empty.
In the UK, the Turtle Dove and its chicks depend on seeds from plants such as fumitory and chickweed, plants which are increasingly difficult to find in our busy developed landscape. As a result, breeding success is low.
The population has now declined by over 90% since 1970 and its range has shrunk largely to eastern/south-eastern England, making the Turtle Dove the UK’s most threatened farmland bird.
That’s why I’ll be spending a lot of time this autumn helping farmers in the Fens participate in Operation Turtle Dove. By establishing plots of seed-rich plants in Turtle Dove hotspots they’ll be giving them the best chance to breed successfully and get fit for the 3,000-mile return journey at the end the summer – hopefully with a family in tow.
How you can help
If you think you can help Turtle doves on your land, please check out our advice for Turtle Doves online, or contact your local Farm Advisor. If you have seen a Turtle Dove this summer, call the Turtle Dove hotline on 01603 697527 to let us know where.