A new and updated plan to help livestock farmers provide for wildlife is now available from the Farm Wildlife partnership here. This plan brings together the knowledge and expertise of all the partners involved in the project to provide the essential habitats and farm management that wildlife relies upon in the farmed landscape.
Six key measures are the focus of the plan:
- Established wildlife habitats such as woods, trees and ponds, are particularly valuable for wildlife and need to be looked after.
- Field boundaries are important places for wildlife, so well-managed hedges, ditches and margins can provide a fantastic resource.
- Wet features, such as farm ponds, rivers and scrapes, provide an important habitat for many species which live, feed or breed in or near water.
- Flower-rich areas to support pollinators and other insects.
- Seed-rich areas to support farmland birds through the winter.
- Even the farmed area can provide wildlife with space to thrive with a few simple adjustments.
The general principles which underpin the plan are applicable anywhere in the UK, and the site provides sensible, easy-to-follow guidance on why each measure is important, and how to create and manage them - not just for the benefit of wildlife, but also the long-term sustainability of the farm. Find out more at www.farmwildlife.info.
Posted on behalf of Stuart Croft, Cirl Bunting Project Officer
As a youngster growing up in the south Midlands in the 1970’s, my fascination for discovering the birds around me was fuelled by one bird book in particular – The Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds. Not a conventional guide used for assisting with bird identification in the field – its generous dimensions and not inconsiderable weight put pay to that - this was a book intended for more leisurely reference. Between its covers the illustrations brought each species to life like no other book for me. I can remember looking at page 88 where a singing male cirl bunting is illustrated. What a beautiful bird – this is one I had to see! The small distribution map gave some hope that I might....
Image: Male cirl bunting (Nick Tomalin)
Alas, I never did see a cirl bunting in the south Midlands during that time and I never really stood much of a chance. What I hadn’t realised was that that little distribution map was struggling to keep up with the plight of a species in crisis.
By the late 1980’s the cirl bunting’s demise was almost complete. Around 120 pairs remained, mainly restricted to the coastal strip of South Devon between Plymouth and Exeter. Whilst hope existed, the RSPB set about working out a plan of recovery. Research highlighted that the crux of the problem for this farmland bird was the availability of suitable habitat. Changes in farming practices during the latter half of the 20th century had deprived cirl buntings of their basic requirements.
The switch from spring to autumn sowing removed the over-wintered stubbles that are so important in providing naturally-occurring weed seeds for cirl buntings, and other farmland birds. Intensively-managed pastures affected the composition and structure of grasslands, as well as reducing the abundance and availability of the insect food for chicks. Removal and frequent cutting of hedgerows and areas of scrub, limited nesting opportunities. Three basic requirements – nothing too complicated – surely, not too much to wish for?
Image: Stubble (Stuart Croft)
By working closely with landowners and farmers in South Devon, the RSPB was able to provide advice on the key management for cirl buntings, initially through set-aside and later through Countryside Stewardship. This saw a gradual return of the arable and pastoral habitats within traditional, mixed farming systems vital to the survival of cirl buntings.
By regularly monitoring the population, it is clear to see that the fortunes of this bird have turned around in South Devon. Twenty years on and the population had increased seven-fold to 860 territories by 2009. Great progress of course, but the story doesn't end there.
More content to stay at home than see what’s beyond the horizon, cirl buntings are one of those species not known for their pioneering spirit. This is clearly seen in their distribution throughout their recovery. Bodies of water like the Exe Estuary and Tamar River complex, or other unsuitable areas like the major conurbations of Exeter and Plymouth are significant obstacles limiting any expansion in range for cirl buntings.
And so it was that in 2006 a reintroduction project began, to attempt to bring cirl buntings back to a part of their former range in South Cornwall and to a geographically separate area that could provide additional security for the still vulnerable UK population. For each of the following six years, a quota of chicks was taken under licence from the most-healthy populations in South Devon and reared in captivity, before being released on the Roseland Peninsula. Though there were set-backs and unforeseen challenges on the way (which are to be expected for a novel project like this), persistence paid off and the project was declared a success in 2015, with the formation of a self-sustaining population – the first successful reintroduction of a passerine (perching bird) in Europe.
The key to success for this project is down to working in partnership. The RSPB, Paignton Zoo, Natural England, National Trust and Zoological Society of London channelled their collective skills and resources towards the shared goal, whilst the local farming community have been fundamental to success. Their desire and will to adopt agri-environment schemes and provide the necessary habitats which cirl buntings require is crucial for the long-term well-being of the population.
Image: Hand-rearing (Andy Hay)
This year we have taken a stock-take of the whole UK population of cirl buntings – something that was last carried out in 2009. With all the data entered, it’s clear to see that the population has not just increased, but has gone on to exceed 1,000 territories! The culmination of 25 years of working alongside landowners and farmers in the south-west – to reach this milestone is most rewarding and satisfying and provides inspiration for us all.
Image: male cirl bunting (Mike Dryden)
In these times when nature is under threat on so many different fronts, it’s so pleasing to see success like this. The recovery of cirl buntings in the UK clearly demonstrates that conservationists and landowners can work together and that profitable food production need not be at the expense of nature and all the benefits that it provides.
Read more about the cirl bunting on the website here - www.rspb.org.uk/thecirlbuntingstory
Farm to fork project between RSPB Ramsey Island and a Pembrokeshire restaurant highlights the positive elements of environmentally friendly farming.
You might travel further than three miles to your workplace, taking the children to school or when attending the gym. Nevertheless, this is the short distance RSPB Ramsey Island’s lamb and venison travels to be sold at St Davids Kitchen, a Pembrokeshire restaurant, as part of the adopted farm to fork ethos.
Ramsey Island. Image: David Wooton
RSPB Ramsey Island sold all 66 of their ‘ram lambs’ along with eight red deer to St Davids Kitchen this year. Having travelled the mere three miles to their new home, the lambs grazed under the hill of Pen Beri on the St Davids Peninsula until they were ready for the restaurant.
Welsh mountain sheep graze the island’s fields throughout the year. This traditional management is essential for the protection of many high priority species.
Greg Morgan, RSPB Ramsey Island site manager, explained: “We have eight pairs of chough – the UK’s rarest species of crow – breeding here and Wales holds over 50% of the UK population of less than 400. The chough relies on short grass in order to feed effectively on soil invertebrates, and the sheep act as natural ‘lawnmowers’ by managing our acid grassland habitat, whilst their dung is also vital for beetles that chough feed on.”
RSPB Ramsey Island need more grazing in the summer than they do in the winter, and given it’s a logistically challenging mission to move sheep on and off the island each year, husband and wife team Greg and Lisa Morgan started lambing on Ramsey eight years ago.
Lisa Morgan said: “We bought and trained a border-collie pup and learned all our lambing skills from a neighbouring farmer. At the end of each summer, the island sells the ram lambs and keeps the young ewes to replace any older sheep in the flock. Sheep numbers are then reduced from around 250 to 150 for the winter.”
The red deer on the other hand were on the island long before it came under RSPB ownership.
Greg said: “When RSPB bought the island in 1992, a small herd was already present having been introduced in 1976 by private owners. RSPB decided to maintain a small herd and monitor the impact they had on the island, and soon realised they proved beneficial for the internationally important water plants and provided grazed areas for the chough.”
Red deer stag on Ramsey Island. Image: RSPB
However, grazing on a small island requires a fine balance. If red deer numbers become too high, damage is caused to native flora and the rapidly increasing Manx shearwater population’s habitat. Maintaining the correct number of healthy deer also ensures they survive the tough island winter.
Greg continued: “For these reasons we carry out periodic deer culls, using licensed stalkers to maintain a healthy population of around 10-15 animals. Seeing our lamb and venison sold in St Davids is so satisfying, as we approve the restaurant’s ethos and the minimal transportation of our animals. Their Christmas menu says it all, as it states all produce is brought to you by eight local suppliers, seven of which are within three miles of St Davids.”
St Davids Kitchen, owned by Neil and Ruth Walsh, tries to ensure that the community is at the heart of everything sold at the restaurant.
Neil Walsh said: “Being a local family allowed us to negotiate relationships to get the best local produce possible. We can track our family back well over 215 years in the St Davids area, and our son Alfie is at least eighth generation. Serving local produce is crucial to the way we work.”
He continued: “The fact that we had RSPB Ramsey Island lamb and such a unique product as the venison is awesome. I genuinely believe the produce that we’ve had from RSPB Ramsey Island and other producers, all within the three mile radius, is on a par with any restaurant in the country. It is an absolute privilege to plate them for our patrons – and myself!”
Neil and Ruth Walsh hold a whole lot of pride in the local produce they use, so much so that they have a canvassed map of the St Davids Peninsula hanging in the restaurant, showing the provenance of each and every ingredient.
RSPB Ramsey Island will be delighted to see their name being added to the map.