The decline of farmland birds over recent decades has been well charted and publicised. It has been taken as an indicator of the loss of habitat and wildlife across the country, not least because of the popularity of the RSPB and its publicity machine. A recent meeting of the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports and Management, now reborn as the Countryside Forum, was devoted to the recovery of farmland birds.
There has been a good-natured rivalry between the GWCT (Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust) and the RSPB in recent years as each tries to show that more wildlife has been encouraged on the farms that they run. The GWCT launched the Allerton Project at Loddington in Leicestershire in 1992 whilst the RSPB took over Hope Farm near Cambridge in 2000. Loddington Farm is 333 hectares, Hope Farm 183, both on predominantly clay soils. Both have been managed as commercial farms but with an emphasis on wildlife.
Professor Chris Stoate and Richard Winspear of RSPB spoke at the conference of the outstanding success achieved on both farms. Research at Loddington has been carried out for eight years longer than at Hope Farm and many of the options now forming Countryside Stewardship were originally developed there, including beetle banks, grass and wild flower margins, wild bird seed and pollen and nectar mixes.
The GWCT promotes the three-legged stool comprising habitat, adequate food and water throughout the year and relative freedom from predation. Habitat was created in the early years, then supplementary food provided during the ‘hungry gap’ of January to April with a gamekeeper controlling predators within the law. In 2001, the keeper was removed and, in 2006, supplementary feeding stopped. The spectacular gains in wildlife were reversed until 2010 when a part-time keeper was introduced, providing evidence to support the three-legged stool.
The RSPB promotes the Big Three of nesting habitat, insect food for chicks and seed food for the winter months. Both approaches show what can be achieved given the right management with dramatic increases in wildlife generally, farmland bird numbers in particular, two to three times on both farms. Although land has been taken out of production, the farming enterprises remain profitable. Whilst the RSPB recognises that predation control may be necessary in some circumstances, none is carried out at Hope Farm because the pressure from predators is very low in that part of East Anglia. At Loddington, however, a much more wooded landscape, control of foxes, corvids and other predators is essential.
So, if we know how to reverse the decline in farmland bird populations, why are numbers still falling? Part of the answer is the lack of focussed management at farm level. It is not enough to devote areas of the farm to habitat creation, it has to be in the right place and connected. Putting nesting cover at one end of the farm and brood rearing cover at the other will achieve very little, whilst habitat alone without winter feeding and predator control will not reverse the decline.
Emphasis has recently concentrated on ‘farmer clusters’ where groups of farmers come together to co-ordinate their conservation efforts on a landscape scale, taking on an advisor to help planning, including grant applications, and connectivity. By coincidence the GWCT held its second Farmer Cluster Conference on the same day, which depleted the attendance somewhat at both. There are now over a hundred farmer clusters across the country and the number is growing constantly.
The secret of success is that they are farmer led, often with healthy competition between neighbouring farmers to see who can encourage the more wildlife. As Dr Jemma Batten, who co-ordinates the Marlborough Downs Nature Enhancement Project, put it: ‘there is a difference between an incentivised farmer and a motivated farmer’. All this makes it particularly disappointing that Natural England has stopped providing grants for co-ordinators from its Facilitation Fund. We must hope that this is temporary and that new resources will be found.
The final speaker at the Countryside Forum conference was Amanda Perkins of Curlew Country, a project to increase curlew populations in Shropshire. Apart from the loss of habitat, the main reasons for decline, 81% between 1993 and 2006 nationally, were found to be farming operations and predation, particularly by foxes, crows and badgers. The first two can be legally controlled but not the last. Initial funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund had to be supplemented by fundraising for the project to continue. However, when potential donors became aware that foxes and crows might be killed to ensure curlew survival, many refused to support the project.
There was a similar story reported in the media recently. The RSPB has set up a trial in north Wales to see whether control of foxes and crows can help to reverse the decline in the curlew population. Country folk and many conservationists know that predator control is an integral part of wildlife management as shown by the GWCT’s three-legged stool research at Loddington. And yet, when news of the RSPB project became public, the charity was hit with a rash of resignations of outraged members. The RSPB should continue with their research to prove the need for such action. It would be a tragedy if species like the curlew became extinct because ill-informed public opinion leads to essential management practices being abandoned.