The results of the 2018 Big Farmland Bird Count were announced recently. Launched by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust in 2014 to highlight the positive work done by farmers and gamekeepers in helping to reverse the decline in farmland bird populations, this fifth event was the most successful yet.
Over one thousand farmers took part in the week long count in February recording 121 species over 950,000 acres. The most commonly seen birds were blackbirds, woodpigeons, robins, blue tits and pheasants. It is exciting that 25 species from the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern were recorded, with five appearing in the 25 most commonly seen species list; fieldfares, starlings, house sparrows, song thrushes and yellowhammers. The most abundant of these were the first two, which were seen on almost 40% of the farms taking part.
The five most abundant birds, rather than those most commonly seen, were starlings, woodpigeons, fieldfares, rooks and chaffinches. Eight of the most abundant species are on the Red List; starlings, fieldfares, lapwings, linnets, redwings, herring gulls, yellowhammers and house sparrows. 53% of the farmers taking part are participants in some form of agri-environment scheme whilst 41% provide food for the birds through growing wild bird seed mixes and/or through supplementary feeding. The results are in line with previous years.
To put this in perspective, populations of farmland birds have declined by 56% since 1970. This is an average with some increasing but others falling drastically. Most of the decline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s but numbers are still going down albeit at a much slower rate.
Yet there is evidence that this long term decline can be reversed. New research funded by Natural England and Defra has shown that farms in agri-environment schemes can actually increase bird populations. Sixty farms, all in the Higher Level Scheme of Environmental Stewardship in three regions of England, were studied over six years from 2008 to 2014. The Farmland Bird Index on those farms increased by between 31% and 97% during the period, whilst the average response of the 17 priority farmland birds was an increase in numbers of 163%. This shows what can be done and should act as an incentive to roll this out over a wider area.
All wildlife needs three things to thrive: a good habitat, abundant food and water throughout the year and a relative freedom from predation. In terms of habitat, farmland birds need nesting cover, brood rearing cover and winter food and shelter cover. Ground nesting birds require sheltered tussocky grasses in which to nest, which can be provided by grass margins preferably alongside hedges. Many, such as the grey partridge, are dependent upon insects for a protein rich diet in the first few weeks of life but these have all but disappeared over the years leading to poor chick survival. These insects live on arable weeds and it is the use of herbicides rather than insecticides that has caused the decline. This can be rectified by conservation headlands where fertilisers and pesticides are not used or by pollen and nectar crops such as clovers. Finally they need food and shelter over winter which can be provided by wild bird seed mixtures containing cereals, kale, quinoa and other plants.
All of these requirements can be grant aided through Environmental, now Countryside Stewardship. If more farmers took up the options we could see the same sort of results as in the research described above. But the covers have to be in the right place. There is no point in providing brood rearing cover if it is at the opposite end of the farm from the nesting cover.
Food is the second requirement, especially during the late winter and early spring when there is little natural food available, known as the ‘hungry gap’. Providing supplementary food for farmland birds at that time of year is also grant aided under Stewardship.
That leaves the most controversial requirement, freedom from predation. Whilst there is overwhelming evidence that predation by foxes, corvids, rats, stoats, weasels, badgers and raptors can cause devastation to bird populations, there are still those who argue against lethal control. Indeed, many predators such as badgers and birds of prey are protected by law. There have been calls for the new environmental land management scheme to be introduced after we leave the CAP to include grants for the legal control of predators such as foxes and corvids. That would be a huge step forward and help to reverse the decline in farmland birds.
The evidence that shows that appropriate land management can reverse the trend of declining farmland birds is exciting. But it also shows up that the current Countryside Stewardship Scheme is a disaster, not least because it has reduced dramatically the area of land involved. Environmental Stewardship attracted over 70% of farmland in England but that has halved under the new scheme.
Leaving the EU, specifically the CAP, offers us a wonderful opportunity to design our own policy. It is clear that the new environmental land management scheme will receive more funding as Direct Payment are phased out and that must be used to encourage more farmers to take up the options to reverse the decline in biodiversity on farms. A priority is the ‘arable six’ farmland birds: grey partridge, tree sparrow, corn bunting, lapwing, turtle dove and yellow wagtail. It would be a great achievement if these, and other, iconic species could be as abundant as they were sixty years ago.