Posted on behalf of Dr Rebecca Laidlaw, Conservation Scientist
Last year Dr Jen Smart wrote a guest blog for Martin Harper called “Where have all the waders gone and how are we going to get them back?” In that blog, she identified some key things that will be important if our vision of landscapes with thriving wader populations, such as lapwing and redshank, are to be realised.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had the time and money to do everything we could to benefit waders everywhere? But the reality is that time and money are scarce, so lots of effort has gone into places where breeding waders still occur, and that just happens to be nature reserves. Now we definitely need to manage those reserves to the best of our ability so they produce a surplus of young waders. But, there would be little point in reserves being wader factories if the surplus didn’t have anywhere to go. Providing great wader habitat on farmland between and around nature reserves is a sensible strategy if we want to fill wetland landscapes with waders again.
(Image: Norton, Mike Page)
This sounds like we have this whole problem worked out, doesn't it? But it’s complicated because our research tells us that waders are also limited by predation. The focus of our current research is to understand whether the way we manage wet grassland landscapes has any influence on wader predation. When we look at this over a large number of years and at the scale of a nature reserve, we find that lapwing nests that have lots of neighbours, in wet areas that are close to patches of tall vegetation are more successful. We think this is because more neighbours equals more eyes and better defence, water may make it difficult for land predators to move around and that patches of tall vegetation provide alternative food for the predators in the form of small mammals. But, maybe we are still thinking too small in terms of scale, after all generalist predators like foxes move over very large areas. Also, there could easily be differences between nature reserves and farmland in the way that predators affect waders, there are far fewer waders, the grasslands are drier or the other food available to predators may differ. So we are scaling up our research to consider these processes across whole landscapes, but to do this our most important partners are farmers.
Across the Broads, RSPB and UEA with assistance from Natural England, are working with forty farmers and other grassland managers in an ambitious research project to understand whether the way these farmers are managing their wet grasslands for waders has any influence on how successful those waders are. This project started in 2013 and is funded for two years by Defra.
(Image: Lapwing, Kevin Simmonds)
Last week I found myself in a village hall in the Norfolk Broads with a great bunch of farmers, land agents and conservation managers discussing our research work and landscape management for breeding waders. The event was really just a way of saying thank-you to everyone involved so far and a great opportunity to gain feedback about last years research and to talk about plans for the coming breeding season.
We also heard about a great initiative called Broads Land Management Services, where RSPB staff, use their specialist knowledge and equipment to help farmers in the Broads deliver the right sort of management for breeding waders. How do farmers fund this sort of management? Fortunately, agri-environment schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship provide the financial support for exactly the sort of special management measures that waders need.
(Image: Redshank, Kevin Simmonds)
While it was good for us to be able to describe our research work face-to-face, the highlight for me was when we opened up the discussion. It quickly became clear that while individuals will be able to do their bit for breeding waders, thriving wader landscapes will only be possible with co-operation between different landowners, often with different priorities. Days like this give me real hope that by working together and talking to one another we can highlight any practical issues we might face when it comes to implementing our research findings. Hopefully this means that breeding waders will be able to benefit from our research – and soon!
If you were asked to identify the most hotly contested element of the recent CAP deal, many of you would point to modulation (or ‘inter-pillar transfers’, as modulation is now officially known).
In the run up to Christmas, all eyes (and plenty of commentary) were on the four UK governments, and how much funding each was going to transfer from Pillar I direct payments into Rural Development.
The RSPB made a strong case for maximum transfers and we did this alongside our supporters, including many wildlife-friendly farmers who are committed to using CAP funds in a smarter way. Agri-environment schemes, which are funded from Rural Development coffers, are one of the few ways public money can be used to support farmers to make space for nature on their farms, as well as building more resilient and diversified farm businesses. But due to an extremely disappointing EU Budget deal (agreed well in advance of the CAP deal itself), Rural Development funding was hit hard and the only way to mitigate this would be to transfer funds from Pillar I.
In December, after intense debate and even more intense lobbying, each of the four UK countries announced their transfer decisions:
But what do these decisions actually mean? Well, clearly, the higher the percentage, the more money will be distributed to farmers via Rural Development, including agri-environment schemes, than via Pillar I direct payments. And as the recent State of Nature report tells us, we definitely need to be doing much more to address ongoing biodiversity declines across the wider countryside.
This made the Welsh Government’s decision one to celebrate from the rooftops, and the English and Scottish decisions ones that just didnt goe far enough. And in Northern Ireland? Outrage, plain and simple. As the CAP cupboard is bare, the NI Executive must look elsewhere to find the funds to protect the environment and recover threatened wildlife.
But as important as these funding decisions are, there are others that need to be taken before we can really know what the impact will be on wildlife and wildlife friendly farmers.
The first is what proportion of each country’s Rural Development budget to spend on agri-environment schemes and we will continue to work hard to get as much allocated as possible. In England and Scotland, these decisions have already been announced (or at least very strongly indicated) and they reveal some striking contrasts – in England, 87% of the Rural Development budget will go to agri-environment and woodland schemes, in Scotland it’s just 46%.
The next stage, and one that is also being discussed right now, is what to prioritise in agri-environment schemes. The RSPB has 20 years of experience of developing, using and advising farmers about these schemes and we know what makes them work. It’s vitally important that they are used to support the delivery of things that have few other ways of being delivered. Biodiversity, farmland wildlife to you and me, is the classic example. We also need to ensure that sufficient resources are given to advisory services so farmers can continue to benefit from expert, face to face advice and get the very best from their schemes.
It’s a worrying time for many farmers – there is still great uncertainty about how the CAP will operate across the UK, including who will be able to enter an agri-environment scheme. But in order to protect the future of these schemes, we need more of the farming community to stand up and make the case for them. Peter Kendall, soon to be ex-head of the NFU in England, recently claimed agri-environment schemes were bribes to farmers which make them permanently dependant on public hand outs. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as many wildlife friendly farmers will testify. But we need more of you to make this case - to your fellow farmers, to your union reps and to the public. Wildlife, and a more resilient, sustainable future for farming, depends on it.
Posted on behalf of Hayley Sherwin, Conservation Advisor in Northern Ireland
For anyone who lives in or has visited east County Down you will agree that it is a beautiful region of Northern Ireland with an array of habitats and special places. You only have to travel down the Ards Peninsula with Strangford Lough glistening in the winter sunshine or take a stroll over the rolling hills with the Mourne Mountains as a backdrop to realise just how stunning this part of the country is. Not only is east Down pleasing to the eye, but it is also rich in wildlife.
East Down is home to many of our priority wildlife species including the red squirrel, Irish hare, pipistrelle bats and, of course, the delightful yellowhammer. As a child, my favourite family days were those spent out in County Down, walking in the Mournes, flicking stones over in rockpools or getting lost in the majestic forests. I remember the first time I saw a yellowhammer and it took my breath away. At first I heard the unmistakeable song that farmers in this area will know only too well and then I saw the brightest bird I have ever seen. Not only did I see one yellowhammer that morning but an entire flock of these little beauties along a bushy hedgerow. On a recent school visit where the children were tasked with sowing a mini patch of wild bird cover, we heard it; the distinctive song of the yellow fellow: ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’.
The children watched in awe as a pair of yellowhammers started to feed on the grain we had just sown. Their faces lit up with excitement and pride; another yellowhammer moment I will never forget.
I have the privilege of hearing the song of the yellowhammer on a regular basis as he defends his patch of hedgerow. Yellowhammers or ‘Yellow Yarnies’, as they are locally known, have sharply declined over the last thirty years due to reductions in seed-rich habitat. As a result, they are now absent from much of Northern Ireland. County Down, as the main arable region, remains the stronghold for this red-listed farmland bird.
Many farmers within this area have been involved in the Yellowhammer Recovery Project which tested the effectiveness of these arable options under Agri-environment schemes. Combined with RSPB habitat management advice over the five year period, yellowhammer numbers increased by 79% on project farms, highlighting the importance of these schemes in the effort to halt the declines of some of our most threatened species.
Of course where yellowhammers are supported, other species will be too. Tree sparrows can be seen and heard along hedges and tree lines. On a recent farm visit I was treated to a flock of over 100 linnets flying over a field of wild bird cover; they would suddenly drop into the cover, picking off the seeds, then all lifting again with their undulating flight.
East Down is not only special for its birds but for a range of wildlife. When surveying a farm at the crack of dawn one morning, I suddenly heard a screaming noise, and to my surprise it was a leveret, a young hare, crouching in the long grass waiting on its mother’s return. After having a look at the youngster, I was sure to cover it back up again with the long grass, thinking to myself how fragile nature is. Fragile, perhaps, but nature can adapt to changes, as long as the basic needs are met.
Yellowhammers, like most wildlife, need three basic things; a summer food source, a winter food source and a place to raise their chicks. Since their introduction over a decade ago, Agri-environment schemes have helped to secure the survival of yellowhammers in our countryside. Measures such as sowing wild bird cover mixes help to provide insects and seed food all year round. Through retaining post-harvest winter stubbles this offers a reliable seed-rich habitat during harsh winter months when food would otherwise be scarce. Rough grass margins bordering fields act as an overwintering site for insects which the birds can feed to their chicks during the nesting season. In light of the recent decision for a 0% transfer of funds from Pillar I to Pillar II (which includes Agri-environment schemes) in Northern Ireland now is more important than ever to support farmland wildlife which continues to decline in our countryside.
Last summer more farmers have come on board to receive surveys and increase the suitability of their land for wildlife. It has been an absolute joy to meet many farmers in this region who are keen to make space for nature on their land. We will be delivering free wildlife surveys on farms across east Down this summer so if you would like a survey on your farm or seek advice on supporting wildlife on your land please contact Hayley Sherwin on 028 90491547 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Through working together with nature, we can continue to support our most iconic farmland species and keep the ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese song’ alive in the countryside.