Meadow pipits and redwings were trickling steadily overhead, fieldfares called ‘chak chak’ in the distance and reed buntings ducked deep into wild bird seed mixes. I stood in an open field – one of a group of figures each wrapped up against the wind – and reflected that it was turning into a pretty good day.

It was the first event organised for farmers taking part in the Axholme and Idle farmland bird project. Straddling north Nottinghamshire and the fringes of south Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, the project works with local farmers to benefit birds associated with arable farming. Through a combination of farm-specific advice and bird monitoring, we hope to demonstrate that enough farm-level conservation can add up to landscape-level benefits for farmland birds.

Finding the win-wins

Project Conservation Advisor Jim Lennon had organised this small gathering for local farmers focused on blackgrass. Blackgrass is an annual weed that competes with cereal crops and is a particularly prolific seeder, so in some parts of the country it can be a real headache for arable farmers. This might seem an odd topic for a wildlife project event, but there are ways to control blackgrass that can also provide spin-off benefits for farmland wildlife.

Ian Dillon, the RSPB’s Hope Farm manager, came along and spoke about his experience with blackgrass. He told us it hadn't all been plain sailing. He shared several of the approaches used including late autumn drilling, longer rotation, use of spring-sown crops, direct drilling as well as winter cover crops (with associated benefits for insect-eating birds in winter). Some years blackgrass levels have been high on the farm, but this year control has been better.

I also presented a few options available in the Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship scheme that could be used by farmers to help deal with blackgrass, whilst also benefiting wildlife. Options such as the two-year sown legume fallow, which can be mown to prevent blackgrass seeding in the first year before also including a period for legumes to flower for wild pollinators in its second year – all whilst offering a helpful payment.  

Over an excellent ploughman’s lunch provided by our hosts at Medley Farm shop, the conversation quickly turned to soil health. Walking around the farm afterwards we talked about cropping challenges and saw some Stewardship options in place.

Farmer group

It was a really positive day, and highlighted how much conservation can be achieved whilst still going ‘with the grain’ of conventional agronomy.

Whose bird is it anyway?

Farmland birds need all the friends they can get. Perhaps more importantly, they need friendly neighbourhoods. Because birds – obviously – fly around. An island of wildlife-friendly management in an otherwise difficult landscape to thrive in can never be as attractive to a passing bird as a large area providing patches of great nesting and feeding habitat.

It’s this collective conservation work by lots of farmers that projects such as this aim to support. Here, we’re aiming for 75% of the arable area to be in good condition for farmland birds by 2023. Key to this is the area of features that provide seed food in winter, and flower and insects in the spring and summer. Scientific evidence is accumulating that suggests that just 2% of farmland as seed food, and 2-3% as flower-rich features, can be enough to halt declines of farmland birds at the farm level.

Wild bird seed mix

Since the Axholme and Idle project began in 2013, we’ve recorded farmers providing at least 140 hectares of winter food (ahead of forecast progress) and 74 hectares of flower-rich habitat. So, farmers are stepping up and creating the right conditions for farmland birds, but will the birds notice?

Monitoring results 2017

As well as directly supporting farmers creating and managing these key features for farmland wildlife, the project monitors a sample of the farms to look for any impact on local breeding bird populations. Just over thirty farmland sites are surveyed by volunteers – each one once every three years. This year volunteers successfully covered over 1,090 hectares across 14 sites, which were last surveyed in 2014.

They recorded an impressive 98 different bird species, the most common of which were blue tit and chaffinch. However, more unusual sightings included avocet, black-tailed godwit and merlin.

Of the target birds for the project, linnet, oystercatcher, reed bunting, tree sparrow, yellow wagtail and yellowhammer all appear to have increased on the sites compared to three years ago.

Unfortunately, this year’s surveys also showed that corn bunting, grey partridge and skylark seem to have declined since 2014, and lapwing remain at similar levels. Turtle dove were recorded, although not frequently enough to be regarded as holding a territory. All these trends are roughly in line with national trends over a similar time period.

Next spring another set of farms will be offered their repeat surveys. Having struggled to cover all the sites this year, we would love to have a few more surveyors to help. If you’re interested in finding out more about what’s involved, email anna.broszkiewicz@rspb.org.uk

Meanwhile, farmers in the area will continue to look after and expand their shared network of farmland bird friendly features. For more information about the Axholme and Idle project this year, take a look at the attached newsletter.