I am really looking forward to taking part in the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count in the second week in February. It is a great excuse to take an hour out to appreciate the birds on the farm, and it is always useful to know which species are using the farm, so that the conservation work we do can be tailored to the birds present.
At Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire, we grow bird cover crops to feed seed-eating birds throughout the winter. This draws in birds from other farms so that our winter bird numbers are much higher than our breeding numbers for many species. Bird numbers on our Hope Farm are very high this winter, with the bird covers still feeding lots of yellowhammers and reed buntings and, for the first winter since we bought the farm, tree sparrows! There are currently about 200 yellowhammers on the farm!
If you want to take part in the Big Farmland Bird Count then you can register on the GWCT website and find all the details about how to take part and submit your results. When you have done your count, you can get advice on how to help the birds that you find on the farm from the RSPB website www.rspb.org.uk/forprofessionals/farming/advice/
A new programme of agri-environment schemes is being launched across the UK this year, providing funding for farmers who want to help wildlife. In England, there will be funding for farmers to help wildlife through ‘Countryside Stewardship’. This includes the ‘Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package’ to support all wildlife on lowland farmland. It is the best designed package for wildlife that English agri-environment schemes have ever funded, and a must for all wildlife-friendly farmers. This will be launched in the summer.
By Richard Winspear
After an absence of nearly 30 years, choughs returned naturally to Cornwall in 2001 when 3 pioneering birds from Ireland settled on the Lizard peninsula. Choughs have successfully bred every year since their return, establishing a small population which is gradually re-colonising the Cornish coast. There are now almost 40 Cornish choughs frequenting the cliffs from Padstow in north Cornwall, the Penwith and Lizard areas, and even as far west as the Roseland peninsula. Members of the crow family, choughs are identifiable by their bright red legs and bill, their rasping ‘cheeow’ call and their daring acrobatics whilst in flight.
Choughs are coastal birds, whose favoured habitat is short maritime grassland and heathland, grazed coastal slopes and cliff–top pastures which provide insect-rich areas for foraging, and high cliffs and sea caves which offer safe sites for nesting. Loss of suitable habitat played a central role in the chough’s demise in the region; as traditional farming methods shifted, stock no longer grazed the cliffs year-round, and the favoured short-sward pastures became rank and unusable for the birds. Now that choughs have returned to Cornwall, establishing sufficient habitat to support the growing population is a priority.
Choughs ‘digging’ for insects in short maritime grassland. (Image: ©Anthony Miners).
Choughs are ground feeders which specialise in digging out invertebrates from exposed soil and short open swards using their strong curved bills – Palores their Cornish name translates as digger! Crane fly larvae are their most favoured prey, with beetles, ants and their larvae also very important. Ideal habitat features a mosaic of vegetation that includes large areas of weather maintained cliff slope with plenty of bare earth exposures, and grazed slopes and pastures where sward heights are shorter with an open structure, so that the birds can access the earth to forage. Choughs have a close association with grazing animals, whose dung provides a rich source of invertebrates – a particularly important food source for young birds. The year-round grazing of coastal slopes and heathland by cattle, ponies and sheep helps keeps invasive scrub at bay and maintains the open mosaic grassland which is so important for these captivating crows.
Choughs are closely associated with grazing animals which maintain the open grassland mosaic needed for them to forage. (Image: ©Tony Blunden)
In the breeding season good foraging habitat should be in close proximity to nest sites to increase breeding success – ideally within 300 metres. In the autumn and winter months choughs also target seeds, so leaving spring-sown stubbles over winter provides an important supplementary food source. Additional features which are important for choughs include traditional stone and earth banks, and well-walked footpath areas, where the very short turf and bare earth can be probed for invertebrates.
Chough foraging in a traditional stone and earth bank. (Image: ©Alan Murray).
Land management practices which are detrimental to choughs include abandonment leading to bracken, bramble and scrub, low grazing pressure, winter sown cereals, habitat monoculture and intensive use of avermectin de-worming drugs. Much of the work undertaken to improve habitat for choughs has been through targeted use of agri-environment schemes to reduce these practices and encourage a mosaic of vegetation. Farmers and land managers around Cornwall’s coast have been very supportive and embraced management for choughs, often their hard work and dedication turning long abandoned areas back to beautiful species-rich grasslands.
Grazing management for choughs has also benefitted the floristic and invertebrate diversity of maritime grasslands. (Image: © Geoff Rogers)
Such conservation management has also benefited other priority species which have suffered due to the decline of grazing on the Cornish coastal fringe. Cornwall’s species-rich maritime grassland is home to numerous declining species, including 19 UK BAP priority species. These include plants such as wild asparagus Asparagus prostrates, rare and threatened invertebrates such as the silver-studded blue Plebejus argus, as well as BAP vertebrate species such as the greater horseshoe bat Rhinolophus ferrumequinum, the corn bunting Emberiza calandra, the cirl bunting Emberiza cirlus and the slow-worm Anguis fragilis. Like choughs, these species rely on a mosaic of heathland and grassland, scrub and hedgerows, alongside associated farmed habitats. Re-instatement of grazing, scrub removal and over-wintering of stubble in critical areas is essential to their conservation.
Most importantly, a good variety of practices on any one site can maximise conservation benefit to numerous species. The long-term success of choughs in Cornwall relies on an integrated approach, which works with land managers to continue to maintain favourable habitat, whilst recognising the challenges and realities of modern farming systems.
By Claire Mucklow, RSPB Project Manager
Interested in keeping up-to-date with news on Cornwall’s choughs?
The RSPB produces an annual newsletter: Contact Claire Mucklow for details: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also keep track online at www.cornishchoughs.org and on Twitter @cornishchoughs