I grew up in Belfast when DeLorean cars were being made. Of course these cars were made infamous by the series of Back to the Future films of that era. While the films look dated now, the idea of time travel is still something we often dream about.
I certainly dream about it. What did the Fens look like prior to the start of large scale drainage in the 17th Century? What did the Flow Country in Scotland look like many centuries ago? Most important of all what was the wildlife like in those areas then. Closer to home I often think what did Hope Farm look like at the turn of the 20th Century and, more recently, post-war?
The maps clearly show that while the outer boundary of the farm can clearly be identified, the internal boundaries have changed considerably. For example the 1887 map of this farm shows at least 36 fields, whereas we have 18 now. It was a very different farm then of course. If the then farmers were able to travel forward in time I’m sure they would find the farm and the way we farm unrecognisable. Certainly the machinery, field sizes, crops and number of people working the land have probably changed out of all recognition.
The wildlife on the farm will also have changed considerably. As a conservation farmer I often wonder how many skylarks, tree sparrows, grey partridges, turtle doves and skylarks there would have been then. We simply don’t know.
The benchmark that current day conservationists use to compare bird numbers and trends with is 1970, which is when widescale, scientifically robust bird monitoring began in the UK. This was initially through the Common Bird Census and latterly the Breeding Bird Survey both run by the British Trust for Ornithology. These long-running surveys have shown that many of the species which most depend on farmland have declined considerably since 1970, many of them by over 50% and sadly a few by over 90%.
While I don’t own a DeLorean, this winter I think I have had a small glimpse of what bird numbers may have looked like way back in 1970 when I was a toddler growing up in Belfast. Our winter bird surveys have found staggering numbers of birds this winter.
Since the RSPB bought Hope Farm in 2000 wintering bird numbers have generally increased every year as we started to provide over-winter seed food which was previously absent. Word got out that we were providing this food, through unharvested wild bird seed mixes paid for under agri-environment, and seed eating birds in particular started to appear in good numbers each winter.
Flock of yellowhammers and tree sparrows. Copyright: RSPB Images
Of course weather can play a part in the fluctuating number of birds feeding here and we had, at that time, record numbers in the relatively hard winter of 2010/11. Those records have been smashed this winter (Table 1), which is slightly odd as it's been a mild winter so far.
Table 1. Maximum counts of key farmland birds at Hope Farm during winters 2000/01 and 2015/16.
Why has this happened? I think the simple answer is food availability. We have increased the area that we use for wild seed mixes to 3.5 ha under our agri-environment obligations and as a Fair to Nature farm. But we have also managed the crops to increase the quality of our mixes so the amount of seed available for the birds is maximised. The seed for these ‘crops’ is bought from Oakbank and is managed by our conservation contractor, and for me the birds are giving a big thumbs up to both of them.
Those of you who are sharp will have already spotted that not all the species in the table are seed eaters. Lapwings, starlings, jackdaws and rooks feed on invertebrates more than seeds. So why have they increased so much?
For several decades the majority of Hope Farm has been in continual arable production, with these crops most often being planted in the autumn. With hindsight we now know that this type of farming, while providing considerable quantities of food, does come at a cost. In this case that cost has probably been a reduction in soil organic matter over time leading to a reduction in soil quality and much lower numbers of surface and subsoil invertebrates.
However, we have now entered an era when spring cereal cropping is making a come back, for many reasons including helping control competitive grasses without relying solely on chemical control and better profit margins compared to autumn sown crops.
This has allowed us to adopt different management techniques in these fields, using cover crops and green composts to enhance soil quality and the abundance of soil invertebrates. The cover crops in particular will also help reduce the losses of nutrients and soil itself during the winter rains.
Added to this, it has allowed us to put livestock back onto one of the arable fields for the first time in decades. The sheep, provided by a local grazier, are providing a priceless service for us. Not just are they eating the cover crop off in that field making it easier for us to establish the following millet crop, but they are also providing us with fresh organic manure. For fields which have been in continuous arable production for so long, the addition of this manure will potentially have enormous benefits for soil health and quality, and for the number of invertebrates in the soil, which lapwings, starlings etc find irresistible.
Flock of sheep. Copyright: Andy Hay/RSPB Images
Just to be clear, the RSPB is not advocating that we need to return to the ways we farmed in the 1960’s. No, but we can use tools and learn lessons from the past to help us farm Hope Farm in a much better, more sustainable way.
My personal goal here is to manage the fields much better so that we can grow crops for many decades to come, but also to continue to increase wildlife for the benefit of us all. This won’t be done overnight, but with the continued help of local farmers and farming businesses we can certainly aim to continue producing good yielding and quality crops for many years while at the same time making Hope Farm a home for flocks of so many birds, and I think the yellowhammers agree with me.
Last year the Scottish Government launched a discussion document on the 'Future of Scottish Agriculture' and in it stated its ambition for Scotland to be a world leader in green farming. Since then, RSPB staff in Scotland have contributed ideas to the discussion on how to make these ambitions a reality.
In case you missed it, you can read more from Director of Scotland Stuart Housden on the vision for farming in Scotland here