None of those who work at Hope Farm are social media junkies, but yet we cannot completely escape that world. Whether we’re exposed to Twitter, Facebook or even the BBC we see this term ‘trending’ everywhere.
Yet, trends as opposed to trending are very important to us. They give us clear indications as to whether the work we are doing at Hope Farm to benefit farmland wildlife is working or not, and it also allows us to compare how we are doing with the wider national picture.
There is another important reason why we focus on trends rather than focusing on the fine detail and that is because often data is collected and analysed in different ways. For example nationl breeding bird data is collected using a two visit breeding bird survey, whereas at Hope Farm we use a 10 – 12 visit Common Bird Census technique. Normally such data aren’t comparable but using trends is a neat way to overcome this barrier.
Last week Defra released the data for the UK wide breeding bird and butterfly indicators. They did not make good reading especially if you were a bird or butterfly that calls farmland your home. Overall populations of the 19 key farmland bird breeding populations had fallen by 54% since 1970, and by 11% between 2008 and 2013. Similarly with butterflies of the wider countryside, which have fallen 41% since 1976, although the trend from 2009 to 2014 apparently shows little change.
We don’t have data doing back to 1970, or 1976, at Hope Farm. RSPB bought the farm and started managing it in 2000 and that is the year that we compare each subsequent year to. The evidence suggests that the breeding birds on Grange Farm, as it was then, had experienced the same massive declines as experienced elsewhere in lowland farmland and that by 2000 the populations were at a very much lower level then formerly.
A view across Hope Farm in 2012. Copyright Andy Hay/RSPB Images
We can therefore easily evaluate how much impact our management for wildlife has had, going from a farm where less than 1% of the croppable land was managed for wildlife with very low levels of wildlife, to a farm where about 6% was managed for wildlife in 2015. A key point though isn’t just that it is managed for wildlife but it is how it is managed.
We aim to provide the Big 3: safe nesting habitat (in-field and around boundaries), plentiful flower rich habitat which is alive with insect life providing food for all those chicks trying to grow in their nests, and abundant seed food during the winter. By providing all three we are providing for the whole annual life cycle of those birds which remain in the UK all year round. Migrants, which spend the winter in Africa but breed in the UK, of course do not require to be fed during the winter at Hope Farm, but migrant thrushes and starlings from Europe do.
Quality is important too! As I travel around England I do as much looking over the hedge as any other farmer. I’m looking at how their crops are growing but also what agri-environment prescriptions I can see. Despite 70% of farmers in England being in one of the various agri-environment schemes it can be quite difficult to find areas managed for wildlife other than occasional wide grass margins, important as they are for some moths, butterflies and small mammals along with some resource protection in places. But once in a while I come across a lovely flower rich margin or a great wild bird cover crop and it is easy to see the attention to detail that has been applied by the farmer and the subsequent quality of the habitat they are providing for wildlife.
Flower rich margin at Hope Farm. Copyright Andy Hay/RSPB Images
So, we have provided the Big 3 and spent a lot of time and effort on the quality. What difference has it made? I think the figures speak for themselves: farmland breeding birds up 174% since 2000. In the period 2008-2013 when farmland birds declined 11% across the UK, they rose 119% at Hope Farm. The charts provide further evidence that farmland birds are generally increasing at Hope Farm, whereas they are generally decreasing strongly across the UK as a whole.
The butterflies have done remarkably well too, increasing by 160% since 2001. I still am amazed that we have recorded 26 species of butterflies since 2000, with 22 of those species annual, and over 350 species of moths. During July as I walk home through the farm it is really is amazing to be surrounded by more butterflies than you can accurately count on one of our flower rich margins.
What if? It really is an enormous what if?! What if all of those 70% of farmers had delivered the Big 3 and delivered high quality habitat? I’m sure the figures released by Defra would have been very different. Environmental Stewardship would have put Hope Farm out of business simply because farmland wildlife would have recovered to previous levels. We now have a new agri-environment scheme, which while it is having severe teething problems, should ensure that most of those who successfully enter the scheme are providing the full range of requirements. Perhaps a future Defra release on breeding bird and butterfly trends will show real long-term recovery and we can all celebrate, and we might all see flower rich margins and meadows as we drive around our great countryside