The last two years have been very challenging at Hope Farm with lower numbers of breeding birds than our high point in 2011, and disappointing crop yields. The summer of 2012 will long be etched in many of our memories with the incessant rain after a prolonged drought, which had a considerable impact on the crops, and almost certainly led to reduced breeding success for our birds.
It was a salutary lesson that, even on a farm where we deliver the Big 3: safe nesting habitat, abundant insect rich habitat and plentiful seed rich areas, the weather can have such a big impact on our wildlife. The poor breeding success in 2012 could have well have had a knock on effect leading to reduced numbers of adult birds during the 2013 breeding season, and our breeding bird index dipped to an uncomfortably low level although still well above the level we found in 2000 when we first bought Hope Farm.
How much worse would it have been for our farm wildlife if we hadn’t put in place all the quality habitat and full range of resources through our agri-environment scheme and voluntary measures?
Thankfully, the weather during the summer of 2013 was kinder to us and breeding success was much better than in 2012. This gave us some confidence that the number of breeding birds in 2014 would increase again. Despite having this confidence it was still a nervous period when the breeding bird survey began. Would the skylarks bounce back? Would the kestrel and lapwings return?
I am very pleased to tell you that any lingering doubts were soon allayed, skylarks were back in abundance, kestrels were seen on most of the surveys and lapwings exceeded all expectations.
Having been at Hope Farm since 2006 it is very easy to become blasé about the number of skylarks and other birds here, but it really is amazing to think we have virtually quadrupled our breeding skylark population from 10 territories in 2000 to 38 territories this year, and a high of 44 territories in 2009. The only thing we do to help our skylarks is provide safer nesting habitat by providing ‘skylark plots’, small bare areas within each wheat field, which research has shown increases productivity by around 50%. Sadly very few of my fellow farmers have these plots on their farms.
It was also a delight to see lapwings displaying over the farm again, after an absence last year. An arable farm is a challenging place for lapwings to nest at. They prefer large areas of bare, or sparsely vegetated ground. The predominance of autumn sown crops on arable farms isn’t to the liking of lapwings, they much prefer spring sown crops, or fallow.
We had two fields of fallow this year. This was an agronomic decision to allow us to tackle a very high blackgrass burden in these fields, as well as improve the field drainage. The lapwings found these fields to their liking, along with a field where the oilseed rape crop had failed. We found four nests, which is the most during RSPB ownership, of which three successfully hatched. Sadly only one chick definitely fledged, but even that was a considerable boost to our morale.
Overall, our breeding bird index rose again to the third-highest recorded since 2000. On average this means that the 17 species we intensively monitor have increased their populations by 190% since 2000. This is especially gratifying when the trend of the same group of species across England and East Anglia is still going down.
And it hasn't just been limited to birds, our butterflies had a great year as well. Gone are the dark days of that summer of 2012 when seeing more than 10 butterflies in total on a farm walk was a challenge. The last two years have been a real pleasure with clouds of butterflies, especially in late summer over some of our flower-rich margins. While the farm's butterfly index has fluctuated much more than the breeding bird index the trend is similar and our early estimate is that overall our butterfly numbers are up 178% since 2000. 23 species were recorded this year which I think is a remarkable achievement on a conventional arable farm. For me pride of place goes to the clouded yellows which appeared in good numbers for the second year in a row. A particularly memorable moment came when our Conservation Director identified one as it flew by Defra Deputy Director Nick Joicey, who was on a visit here.
How have we managed to do this? By ensuring we deliver sufficient areas of high quality habitat and resources, mainly through our agri-environment scheme. Of course there are many farmers out there delivering equally good, or even better, habitat and resources but unfortunately they are a minority and the majority of ELS agreements fail to deliver the Big 3, and hence do not reach their potential or increase breeding bird numbers.
The new agri-environment scheme which will be starting in 2015 will considerably raise the bar in terms of what has to be delivered, although it will be available to many fewer farmers than the current scheme. Time will tell whether fewer delivering better will help farm wildlife across England better than more doing less, but RSPB farm advisors will certainly be ready to help farmers make the most for wildlife on their farms within our key focus areas.
Of course being a farm our crops are also very important to us. Watching harvest and the grainstore fill up is as rewarding to me as listening to yellowhammers singing or seeing coveys of partridges. While our oilseed rape and peas didn’t produce particularly good yields this year, our wheat did much better than in recent years. There is still a little way to go to recover to highs of 11.7 tonnes/ha in 2008 but as we have moved to growing bread standard wheat rather than feed wheat it may be unrealistic to use that as a benchmark.
The lorries are now going in and out of the farmyard taking the wheat to the mill and our latest batch of Hope Farm rapeseed oil has been pressed and bottled, so hopefully before too long you may be sampling a little bit of Hope Farm produce in a loaf of bread, packet of biscuits or through the oil on your salad.
The Caithness Wetlands and Wildlife Initiative (CWWI) showcased its new aerator at a farm event run by the Soil Association this month. The RSPB Scotland, the Scottish Rural College and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust lead the initiative with a focus on delivering tangible benefits for rare, endangered or declining wildlife populations in Caithness. These include breeding farmland waders like lapwing, curlew, redshank and snipe, the great yellow bumblebee and twite.
Caithness is a nationally important site for breeding waders due to its open landscape and relatively low intensity farming systems, which create a good mosaic of suitable habitats. However, waders have suffered large scale declines across Scotland over the last couple of decades and initiatives like the CWWI are trying to tackle this problem across a variety of fronts. One of these is the availability of food. Waders and their chicks feed on invertebrates in the soil, particularly earthworms. If soils are heavily compacted or very acidic, earthworm abundance tends to be low. Use of an aerator in conjunction with a soil improvement programme can help to increase earthworm availability. Therefore, farmers that borrow the aerator are asked to carry out soil tests to determine whether liming in conjunction with aeration would be beneficial.
The CWWI also owns a rush topper that farmers can use to improve the agricultural quality of their ground while improving swards for breeding waders.
The aerator and the topper are available to all Caithness farmers for a small administration fee of £70. For more information, call the Thurso SAC Consulting office on 01847 892602
Bridget England - North Scotland Region
Tracking down corn buntings on several farms throughout Angus and Fife this summer was an amazing experience – walking for hours (and miles) on end through fields and pastures, often in the sunshine, listening to a variety of birds as well as the buzzing of bumble bees and talking to local farmers about their farms, their crops and their wildlife. I learned a lot.
Finding some of the corn buntings was easy as most of them were presenting their songs at the top of their lungs from very visible perches and song posts. Some were more difficult to track though, hidden away in not very accessible areas such as rather large fields of peas, where I got stuck several times amidst jungles of scentless mayweed covering the ground.
A recently published study in Eastern Scotland revealed that the population decreased by 83% between 1989 and 2007 making it one of the fastest declining birds in Scotland. But all is not lost - in partnership with over 70 farmers in east Scotland solutions have been found. Targeted management options for corn buntings delivered through agri-environment schemes (AES) and integrated into commercial operations, have proven to be effective at halting and even reversing corn bunting declines. Whilst corn bunting populations showed an annual decline by 14.5% on farms with no target management, an annual increase of 5.6% was recorded in areas where farms adopted corn bunting management options and corn bunting numbers stayed stable on farms implementing generic AES options.
Management options aim to deliver the three main requirements: safe nesting places, insect-rich summer foraging habitats and sources of winter seed food and one simple measure combining all three is to establish an area of wild bird cover crop.
We recently received funding to deliver the Angus Corn Bunting Recovery Project which is supported by the Angus Environmental Trust through ENTRUST’s Landfill Communities Fund. This project is helping us to build capacity with farmers to engage in corn bunting management and to promote the plight of the Corn Bunting through demonstration events and interpretation. It allows us to supply free seed mixes and make a compensational payment to participating farmers based on the size of the area given up to the wild bird cover crop.
In addition, we are currently trialling a new cereal-based seed mix within the scope of the Biodiversity Areas for Buntings and Bees Project which is a partnership between Mark & Spencer, Kettle Produce, RSPB Scotland and four farmers in Fife. The new seed mix contains a variety of flowering plants and is designed to benefit pollinators and a range of farmland birds alike. The crop provides nectar and habitat for pollinators and a large number of bees, bumble bees, hoverflies and other insects used this seed mix in the first year of the trial as pollinator surveys showed. The crop also provides nesting sites for Corn Buntings and, as the patches are left unharvested over winter, winter seed food and cover for a wide range of farmland birds and other biodiversity.
If you are interested in establishing a wild bird cover crop on your farm, get advice or attend one of our demonstration events organised in partnership with local farmers in Aberdeenshire, Angus and Fife, please get in touch with Yvonne Stephan: email@example.com.