Janet Fairclough works with farmers in the North Pennines to help them give nature a home on their land. Here she explains how farmers are making small changes to give curlews the best chance of breeding success.
In the North Pennine Dales, our work with farmers and land managers helps them encourage curlews and other breeding waders to breed successfully on their land.
The curlew is an iconic bird, and their return to the hills heralds the start of spring. By the end of March, conversations with farmers in the North Pennines will mostly start with them informing me that their curlews are back. It’s clear that farmers are very proud and enthusiastic about ‘their’ curlews.
In the North Pennine dales of Teesdale, Weardale and the Allen Valleys, there are more breeding curlews than anywhere else in mainland UK. This area therefore has huge potential to help boost the curlew’s population and prospects; the farmers and land managers there are the key to safeguarding their future.
Image: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Curlews nest on the ground, which makes them vulnerable to being destroyed by farm machinery or trampled by livestock, particularly where modern farming systems are adopted. Maintaining traditional farming methods is crucial in conserving breeding curlew habitat.
Traditional hay meadows provide excellent nesting habitat for curlews. Farmers take their sheep off these fields in the spring, shutting them up and allowing the grass to grow long. By putting off mowing the grass until July, farmers give curlews enough time to nest and raise their chicks. The hay is stored in bales and provides valuable food for livestock during the winter, when the grass in the fields stops growing.
Grazed pastures and allotments also provide a home for curlews, as long as the right numbers and types of livestock are available to provide a mixture of short and long grass across the farm. Grazing with both cattle and sheep provides the right mixture of grass length and density for curlews and reducing the number of livestock in a field during the breeding season helps to prevent nests being trampled.
Soft rush – a thick type of grass - is an important aspect of the landscape. It provides shelter for stock, particularly young lambs, and is an important habitat for a wide range of wildlife. Whilst a scattering of soft rush tussocks across a field provides shelter, unfortunately soft rush can also be invasive and troublesome, and sometimes needs to be kept it in check. If more than a third of a field is covered, it will no longer be suitable for breeding waders.
There are several ways to stop soft rush taking over. Small areas can be maintained by cutting them after the bird breeding season has finished. However, when there is far too much rush, we need to do more than cutting them, so have mostly been using a method called weed wiping.
A weed wiper is a machine that is towed behind a quad bike and is a useful way of tackling large infestations. It has a rotating brush which is set to a suitable height so that it applies a herbicide directly to the rushes stem. This means we can kill the rush without damaging the other grasses or any flowering plants in the field.
Robert Ridley farms in the Allen Valleys, Northumberland. He is one of 20 farmers in the area that benefited from us producing a rush management plan last year.
He says: “From a farmer’s point of view, areas of rush, if left unchecked, encroach more each year, which is detrimental to both wading birds and livestock. Farming and conservation works hand in hand in the North Pennines, as most of the time we share the same goals.”
If you're interested in finding out more about the curlew. read our blog on everything you need to know about curlew. To hear the evocative call of the curlew for yourself, you can listen to a recording here.
Find out more about how the RSPB is working with farmers to secure a home for nature across the UK, as well as projects that are underway to help facilitate a better environment for species like the curlew here
Posted on behalf of Georgina Bray, Hope Farm Assistant Manager
We have entered Spring for 2017, a fresh start, and possibly the most exciting time of year. Our spring barley has recently been drilled, T1 applied to the winter wheat which is looking remarkably good and the patchy oilseed rape crop is in bloom. New migrants are arriving every week. Some, such as the ring ouzels and redstarts, have flown vast distances across the globe to be welcomed with open arms. We are also finding the ever more obvious signs of new life, with territories established, nests prepared, and even the first eggs laid. Last but not least, we are celebrating another successful year of winter counts to demonstrate how well farming and wildlife conservation can coexist. With so much going on at the farm, the bees aren’t the only thing causing a buzz amongst the farming conservation team.
Just last week, we heard the first swallow, serving to remind us of the soaring forked tails that will cut across our skies for another summer and the chicks that decorate our barns! Our starlings have started to fill the nest boxes not just with nest material, but with eggs that should hatch in only a matter of days. With an incredible increase in starling numbers from 3 breeding pairs in 2001 to 15 breeding pairs in 2015, we really are reaping the benefits of the work that everyone who helps us run and manage Hope Farm puts in to provide food, habitat, and careful monitoring to measure the success of our efforts.
As well as a flurry of bird activity, we are starting to see many more insects around the farm, pollinating the early-blooming flowers and making the most of the spots of sunshine. Our thick hedgerows are full of blackthorn blossom, providing valuable resources for our pollinators, and nesting cover for our birds. Most vividly across our agricultural landscape, we are also seeing a flash of yellow in the oilseed rape fields, coming into flower this month. The oilseed rape is not only a fantastic provider of rich seed for oil, but of early flowers for the pollinators, cover for nesting birds, and food for birds like linnet seen en masse across the farm.
So spring is in full swing, but that is not the only thing for us to be excited about. In February, we finished our winter bird counts that start each year in December, and once again, we have shown that the wildlife is benefiting no end from our work on this farm. This winter, we counted 1362% more birds wintering on the farm compared to the baseline created in 2001 (graph 1). Similarly, almost all of the key farmland birds have increased considerably since we bought Hope Farm (graph 2).
Graph 1: Increase in farmland birds, calculated using the winter counts from December, January and February each winter since 2000/01. The dashed line represents a baseline, taken from the 2000/2001 winter bird counts. The red line shows the trend of farmland birds counted to provide a winter bird index each year.
Graph 2: difference in maximum winter farmland bird counts between the 2000/01 winter and 2016/17 winter.
Recognising our success in conserving the birds at Hope farm is brilliant, understanding why we have been so successful here is equally, if not more important. Thankfully, the answer to that is really quite simple, we provide plenty of good quality food, seed and invertebrate-wise, and we provide plenty of habitats required for cover to help avoid predators.
Wild bird seed and crops are an essential component of food availability over winter, and our wild bird seed, provided to us by Oakbank, is of an exceptional standard. We have a mixture of 11 different seeds in our wild bird seed areas, covering 2.2% of our crop area under the agri-environment scheme. This means we can provide a variety of food to suit a variety of birds all through the winter months where food may be sparse elsewhere. The seed is particularly important for birds like the grey partridge, whose population fell across the UK by 92% between 1970 and 2016. Bucking trends like is something that we strive for, so increasing our grey partridge max counts in winter from 0 to 51 individuals since farming here has been fantastic.
Invertebrates are important for species that do not rely so much on the winter bird seed for food, such as the jackdaws, lapwings, starlings, and rooks. To support invertebrates living in the ground and on the surface of soils, you need plenty of organic matter in the soil. Unfortunately, in the last half century UK soil health has declined. With less suitable soil habitat comes fewer invertebrates, and a decrease in the availability of food for invertebrate-eating birds. At Hope Farm we have started to address these issues, to restore the soil quality and increase the sustainability of arable farming, whilst helping our birds out too.
Cover crops, adding green compost to some fields, animal grazing, and maintenance of our margins under agri-environment have been crucial to ensure an abundance of food for our invertebrate-eating birds. For a long time we have maintained margins left out of production, and the soil quality in these areas has been much better compared to the cropping fields. These margins have been able to naturally develop into well-aerated and well-nourished soils, through the promotion of delicate and complex root systems, and the cycling of nutrients to boost organic matter in these areas.
We have also introduced cover crops, and experimented with the use of green compost since 2015, to increase organic matter in the soil. This has the potential to benefit crop yields and improve soil quality to support soil dwelling fauna.
Spring sown crops have increased in abundance, particularly in recent years, as part of the black grass battle in east of England. This has meant that the arable land has become much more attractive to ground nesting birds, like the lapwings in our fields. These sorts of changes to farmland management have taken a lot of time and effort for our contractors on the farm, so thank you for all your help – it really has paid off.
Lastly, a quick introduction. I am Georgina Bray, and I am the new Assistant Farm Manager at Hope Farm. I am currently completing a Masters degree in Zoology at the University of Nottingham, and have grown up on an arable farm in Essex. So naturally, I feel like the cat that’s got the cream in landing such a job with the RSPB!
Both conservation and farming are close to my heart. I have been working a few weeks now, and with my days alternating between learning how Hope Farm works, breeding bird monitoring, and organising Open Farm Sunday in June, I have loved every minute so far. You should hear a lot more from me in the future, and will see me around the farm if you would like to pay us a visit.
Posted on behalf of Tom Lancaster, Senior Policy Officer
For everyone interested in agriculture and agriculture policy, attempting to keep up with Government policy developments recently has felt like a thankless task. In England, delays to the 25 year plans for the environment and food and farming have led to jokes about them being 24, or even 23 year plans when they’re finally published. The announcement of a General Election on 8th June is likely to further derail Defra’s plans for consulting on the future of food, farming and fisheries policies in the coming two months.
Across the UK, there is deep uncertainty about what policy will look like after we have left the EU, and what degree of commonality or difference there will be between the four countries of the UK.
For those of us interested in getting a good outcome for farming and nature after we have left the EU, this degree of uncertainty can make you feel discombobulated to say the least. It can lead to a sense of drift, as we wait to see what governments do. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that no one really knows what’s going on.
So if we assume that to be the case, we can either put our feet up and take a nap until someone in a government somewhere arrives with a plan, or we can crack on and start figuring out what we want.
We’ve opted for the latter.
Cirl bunting habitat. Image: rspb-images.com
In February we set out, with sixteen other organisations, top level principles for a future Sustainable Farming and Land Use policy in England. Across the UK, we have been working with others to set out our stall on more detailed asks for a future policy, with a recent paper published through Scottish Environment Link calling for a Future Farming and Rural Land Use Policy to renew Scotland’s rural areas.
Common to all of these positions is the argument that public money invested in agriculture should secure genuine public goods, such as more wildlife, better flood risk management and resilience to climate change. This would be a step change from the status quo of area-based subsidies, but one that is needed if the taxpayer is to see real value flowing from their investment in farming and land management.
Farming and nature both need long-term stability, but now more than ever, every pound of public money spent needs to be justified. The need to secure the future of our natural resources commands support across the political spectrum, and delivers tangible benefits for society that can’t be paid for over the counter.
Yellowhammer. Image: rspb-images.com
Because of this, we believe that making the environment the central focus of future agriculture and land use policies in the UK is not just needed to maintain and restore our natural environment; it is also the best way of securing long-term, stable support for the sector.
Do you agree? We’d love to hear what you think.