Posted on behalf of Derek Gruar, Senior Research Assistant at Hope Farm
Starlings are often described as a “marmite” bird you either “love them or hate them”. I’m very much the former and find them endlessly fascinating. Lately the profile of starlings has increased markedly with natural history programmes and even TV commercials using the allure of murmurations where thousands of starlings perform breath-taking pre-roost aerial displays.
Alas, our often-maligned noisy avian neighbour, has suffered a severe and prolonged population decline since the 1980’s. Across the UK the starling population has declined by over 60% since 1995 (BTO Breeding Bird Survey Data).
The exact causes of this decline have yet to be found. Research in Denmark found that declines in rural starling populations were most likely linked to changes in cattle grazing regimes and the effect this has on the availability of soil dwelling invertebrates such as leatherjackets and earthworms that are the main food for nestlings.
monitoring a starling nest box at Hope Farm, Credit: Chris Gomershall, RSPB
In the East of England, the area of grassland grazed by cattle or sheep has declined over the past few decades. Indeed half a century ago the farm that was to become RSPB Hope Farm was once a mixed farm with cattle. Today though we have just under 4% of the farm (6.5 hectares) as grassland which is grazed by both sheep and horses. It is thought that these small pastoral pockets of land within a landscape dominated by arable farming may benefit insectivorous birds such as the starling, in the way that small pockets of arable land in areas dominated by grassland have been shown to benefit granivorous species.
When RSPB first bought Hope Farm there were a small number of starlings nesting in old trees around the farm. By 2002 a number of nest boxes had been put up around the orchard and farmyard to see if it would be possible to increase numbers. Uptake of these boxes was quite steady and the number of boxes around the whole farm was expanded to around 50 by 2005. These boxes are systematically monitored each year for nesting starlings to determine occupancy rates, breeding success and also to take growth rate measurements of nestlings.
The bar chart below shows the number of starling territories the farm has held since 2000. The higher number of territories from 2008-2013 coincide with increased densities of sheep grazing on our paddocks linked to experimental research trials. In the past five years we have averaged around 13 territories per year, 2018 fitting into this pattern with 12 territories.
Number of Starling Territories RSPB Hope Farm 2000-2018
Each year we monitor the boxes from when the first eggs are laid until the last chicks fledge. The first eggs in 2018 were laid around 20th April over a week later than usual and two weeks later compared to some years.
Starling chicks aged 6 days and 16 days that had been feeding on cherries (note the stones in the nest). Credit Derek Gruar, RSPB
Number of Fledglings
All the nestlings are ringed and biometrics (tarsus length and weight) are taken on two dates before fledging (usually between 5 and 14 days old) to determine growth rates. On average each year our nest boxes fledge 52 birds. It’s sad to report that after the first broods in 2018 only 28 nestlings had fledged successfully. We think that the very dry conditions over the past month may have made it difficult for adults to forage for soil dwelling invertebrate food. We hope that some second clutches will be laid over the next couple of weeks to potentially increase the numbers fledging this year.
I’d personally like to thank volunteer Maureen Reeves for her hard work and help in monitoring these nests with me. Without her invaluable assistance we would not be able to collect such data.
May and June is our busiest time of year in terms of visitors and events that Hope Farm. We are yet to take a visitor on a walk since May without the sun beating down upon us, which could be both a positive and a negative. As a positive, in true British style, anybody coming along is pleased to make the most of any warmth outside as you never know if another 3 months of rain is hiding around the corner, but as a negative the visitors’ attention is perhaps harder to maintain with warm weather lending itself to a siesta rather than brain-engaging conversation. Despite this we have had a fantastic few months, sharing what we do and importantly learning from what many people have tried on their land as well.
In May we had a Fair to Nature training day, with 35 NSF auditors and farmers coming to top up their training as part of their membership, and to see what we do for wildlife on the farm. Fair to Nature is an accreditation scheme that rigorously ensures any farmer with this label on their produce puts land aside to look after nature on their farm. It was great to meet likeminded farmers, share a lot of knowledge from both sides, but also speak about the difficulties we have experienced during this late, wet spring and very dry summer, like every other farmer.
Fair to Nature Auditors and Farmer members in a turtle dove plot, hearing about our work to provide summer breeding habitats
Following the Fair to Nature training, the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust came to look at how we manage the farm for wildlife with the company of Nicholas Watts. This proved to be another fruitful event for knowledge exchange and building up important relationships across organisations, and it is always to speak with people who came and saw the farm a few years ago, who have noticed the progress Hope Farm has made since their previous visit. Finally, we welcomed a group of farmers from across East Anglia to the farm. This was a diverse group from those of varying soil types, stages in their career, and aspirations for what species they wanted to conserve on their farm. A walk around to discuss our integrated pest management system, showing them the insects on the farm that we try to promote to help control aphid and other insect pest densities in our crop, followed by a well earnt lunch served as the perfect platform for engaging discussions about sustainably farming for wildlife.
Farmers from across East Anglia discussing the benefits of wildflower corridors through fields as part of an Integrated Pest Management system.
Aside from our LEAF Open Farm Sunday event on the second Sunday of June, we have been making the most of the sun with yet more visitors having a look at what we do for wildlife in agriculture. SEO Birdlife are working to conserve farmland birds, and in the Aragon region of Spain a 1000 hectare farm is demonstrating wildlife friendly farming to encourage others to do the same. It was very useful for both us and our visitors to compare notes of achieving similar goals in very different landscapes and cultures. More recently, the National Trust also joined us to see investigate higher nature status farming, and what it means to us.
Having visitors to the farm is a big part of our work as a demonstration of wildlife friendly farming. By opening the doors to anybody interested in our work and looking to see how they can use some of our methods to improve wildlife on their own land, we can fulfil one of main aims – to help create many more wildlife friendly farms in the wider landscape.