Farmland birds have been in decline for several decades, mainly due to changes in the way we farm. Some of the species that have declined are real icons of our countryside: grey partridge, lapwing, turtle dove, skylark and yellowhammer. Hearing skylarks singing in the spring and the purring of turtle doves in the summer gives nearly everyone who hears and sees them a real lift.
Skylark on a fence post Copyright RSPB Images
Despite the best efforts of many conservation charities and organisations, and the agri-environment schemes that have been available to farmers for several decades these declines continue. For one species in particular, turtle dove, there is a very real possibility that it could go extinct as a breeding bird in Britain within our life time.
Turtle Doves getting cosy on a farm Copyright RSPB Images
There are many farmers who do care passionately about the wildlife on their farms. They will be providing safe nesting habitat, abundant seed food in the winter and plentiful insect food, mainly on flower rich areas, on their farms often supported financially by agri-environment schemes.
Some farmers are incredibly knowledgeable about the wildlife on the farms, others may wish a little help in understanding the needs of wildlife so they can do their bit to help them. A crucial stepping stone to helping wildlife is to be able to identify what is on the farm. Some species, often large and with striking colour patterns, are easy to identify but others are often tricky. Those little brown birds that never sit still, are too far away or are often only seen in flight.
In 2014 the Game Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) began a project called the Big Farmland Bird Count. This encourages farmers to take a walk around their farm in February, identify and record the number of each species they see and send their results to GWCT. In 2015 over 950 farmers took part, recording 127 species on their farms. A real success.
Bird surveying Copyright RSPB Images
The aim is to make the 2016 count even bigger and encourage even more farmers to take part. To help them GWCT have organised a series of Bird Identification workshops across Britain in January and early February. At the workshops experts from GWCT and other conservation charities and organisations will be there to talk about some of the tricky species, how to identify them by sight and sound, and also the crucial bit: how to help those species become more common on their farms.
If you are interested in attending one of the workshops details can be found here and here. Book a place quickly though as many of the workshops only have a few places left.
One of the workshops is taking place at RSPB Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire. We’re delighted to be able work alongside GWCT and farmers to raise the profile of farmland birds. If you are attending the workshop at Hope Farm then I am really looking forward to welcoming and meeting you, if you are at another workshop then I hope you have a really great day.
But most of all I would encourage you to take part in the Big farmland Bird Count in February.
Guest blog from Darren Moorcroft, Head of Species and Habitats Conservation
Every year in January, Oxford is inundated by farmers flocking to the two annual conferences which are now held there. It’s an opportunity to discuss existing challenges and set the new agenda for the coming year.
This year, the RSPB hosted a session at the Real Oxford Farming Conference for the first time, where we heard from two innovative businesses who presented their ideas for farming in a different way to an expert panel. The panel included a wealth of farming, retail and wildlife knowledge and included Tom Macmillan, Director of innovation at Soil Association, Caroline Drummond, Chief Executive at Leaf, Simon Lyster Non-Executive Director at Natural England, Naomi Oakley Principal Specialist at Natural England and Pasture Fed farmer, and Johnathan Sutton, Head of Agronomy and Technical Manager for all fresh produce at Marks and Spencer.
Tom MacMillan from Soil Association offers feedback to one of the innovative projects we heard from (Image: Kathryn Smith)
More than 100 people packed the room to hear from Harvey Sayce from Feathered Friends (a wildlife-friendly bird food business) and Stephen Briggs, an agroforester who farms in Cambridgeshire. I had the honour of chairing the session. For me, it highlighted the appetite which exists to do things differently and develop farming systems which are beneficial to wildlife, the environment and people.
A packed room at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (Image: Kathryn Smith)
Harvey’s business developed out of an interest in feeding garden birds but quickly led to an interest in the sustainability of bird food. In searching for more sustainable local sources he has ambitions to grow his own organic bird food and expand this niche area. The panel advised on communication, marketing and possible routes for funding as well as looking at how other farmers might be engaged to take part in similar projects. One of the challenges for Harvey will be satisfying the two sets of customers that he has – the people who buy his seed and the birds who eat it!
Harvey Sayce and EnviroAbility describe the work they are doing to grow and sell bird seed in a sustainable way (Image: Kathryn Smith)
In his use of agroforestry principles, Stephen’s farming operations are radically different from most peoples’ ideas of British farming. He explained that by using trees within the landscape, he can farm in three dimensions; deep below and high above the soil as well as what appears on the surface. Stephen was particularly keen to explore how some of the current barriers that he has encountered could be tackled, including a lack of data to show how well agroforestry can work from a business and biodiversity point of view, and the difficulties that he and many others face in making radical changes to land where he is only a tenant.
Stephen Briggs talks through his agroforestry work on his farm, and challenges the panel to think about how others might be encourage to adopt similar practices (Image: Kathryn Smith)
Although two very different approaches, there are some common themes highlighted by these two individuals and their pioneering attitudes. Not only are they exploring a different way of doing things, they are engaging with others in order to grow their markets, tapping into networks to share experiences and data and seeking opportunities to further propagate knowledge. Most evident was the passion and commitment that both presenters have for their work and their desire to encourage others to think a little differently.
It’s clear that there are growers and sellers with not only an appetite for change but also an eye on the benefits that these different approaches can bring; to the bottom line but also, importantly, for people and wildlife. Ultimately many of these are constrained by the status quo which exists within the policies that govern how we grow, sell and buy within UK agriculture. Here at RSPB we believe that there is a need for a fundamental reform of current food and farming policies in order to facilitate a more sustainable approach to farming. Working with individuals such as these is inspiring and makes me very optimistic that we can build a real movement for change, with truly sustainable farming at its heart.