Gone and forgotten?

Photo: Chris Gomersall RSPB Images

Farmland birds in Europe fall to lowest levels‘ is a terribly sad headline.  And we should be raging that things have got so bad.

The grey (or ‘English’) partridge is in free-fall right across Europe with a decline of two thirds in numbers since 1990, and of 82% since 1980 according to the European Bird Census Council which collates and analyses the data from European bird monitoring schemes.

The RSPB used the release to reinforce the need for Europe-wide investment in a Common Agricultural Policy that helps nature much more.  That’s right and that’s what you would expect them to say (but it is right!).

Since it is not really news (!) only a few papers picked up this story even though it represents a fundamental change in the nature of Europe – however you define nature.  The Guardian gave it good coverage  (Guardian wildlife coverage is improving – but has a bit further to go) and there were pieces in the Sun and Telegraph too (but not online).

To get a different view on wildlife’s need for CAP reform we can always turn to the NFU.  Here is what NFU countryside advisor (!), Andrea Graham, says and an annotated version is reproduced below:

“Although these numbers are disappointing, it’s important to remember that the reasons behind the headlines are very complex and not all attributable to farming practices. Other factors at play include extreme weather events, predators and urbanisation.  MIA: no, Andrea, it’s not very important to remember that as there is good scientific evidence to show that the way we farm the countryside is the main cause of most of these declines. Could you please point us towards the science that shows that predators are important, at a European level, in these declines?  There isn’t any is there? And the NFU certainly do not have a clue on this subject. You are just trying to make this issue seem complicated so that you don’t have to address it, aren’t you?

“While the overall European trend is down, there is a lot of variation depending on which regions of Europe you look at. It’s just too simplistic to pin the blame and indeed the solution only on the need for further CAP reform. MIA: good point here – the variation between countries is related to the intensity of the farming in those countries.  That’s why the farmland wildlife declines in the UK, particularly England, are worse than in most other European countries.  We’ve dealt with this before in this blog and many other places.  It’s not a secret and it’s not difficult to understand.  So the point you make reinforces the view that we need to soften the impact of intensive farming on nature by adjusting the CAP funding.  Again, you are just trying to make this seem complex and avoiding addressing it.

“It’s important to recognise the good work that has happened, including changes to the CAP which have put a much greater emphasis on the environment in recent years. For example, since 2007, the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) has accounted for a significant £3.9 billion of the CAP for the period 2007 to 2013. The main focus of the RDPE has been to support agri-environment schemes which enable farmers to participate in positive environmental management of the countryside. MIA: yes that is important to remember and no-one has forgotten it. But it’s also important to look at the impact on wildlife, and these figures, updated but telling the same story as usual, show that the CAP spend must be greater and/or better targetted if it is to make a noticeable impact.  Most of CAP spend is income support for farmers rather than a lifeline for wildlife.  Here you are trying to give the impression that lots o good things are happening so nothing needs to change.

“The uptake and engagement with farmers in these schemes and other voluntary activity has seen an impressive step change since 2005 and the industry is working hard with other industry, wildlife and government partners to understand the reasons for the continued decline in farmland bird populations and to take action to try to turn around the trend. MIA: the investment of public money has increased since 2005 and yet a combination of poor scheme-design (not helped by the NFU) and poor uptake of the best options by farmers has limited the value of that investment.  Again, an attempt to say that enough is happening already.

“Improvements to environment schemes such as the Entry Level Stewardship in recent years have helped increase the uptake of options that are tailored specifically at helping farmland birds thrive. MIA: but not enough because farmland birds are not thriving.  Urgent improvements to ELS are needed from Defra otherwise we might as well just burn £20 notes for all the good it will do.  Another attempt to talk up the action at the moment and talk down the serious loss of wildlife.

“The launch of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment in 2009 also had a real impact in helping farmers and growers decide how they might best retain and increase the environmental benefits provided by their farmland in a targeted and agronomically sensible way. The RSPB are a key partner in the Campaign and we will continue to work positively and constructively with them as a leading conservation organisation.”  MIA: yes, we know.

This is the NFU wildlife advisor quoted here – and what she says plays down the scale of wildlife loss and trys to paint a picture that there is nothing to be worried about as far as wildlife is concerned.  Any farmer seeing the NFU quoted in this way will begin to believe that conservation organisations are making a fuss about nothing.  The NFU is a ‘fundamentally anti-environment‘ organisation.

But many farmers do great things for wildlife and you can show your appreciation by voting for one of them.  Today and tomorrow are your last chances to vote for the UK’s most wildlife-friendly farmer – please do!  My vote has already gone to Rob Law, and I saw him at the Bird Fair hob-nobbing with Jordan’s cereals and a lot of wildlife conservation groups.  But even if you don’t agree with me that this Rob should win, there are other worthwhile farmers in the short list.

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  1. Birdseye says:

    Grange Farm and Loddington have shown that helping farmland birds and wildlife is possible. There is absolutely no doubt that the crux is the failure in the evolution of crop production over the last 40 years lead by farming policies that has had no proper wildlife component. Over time the bureaucracy that is The CAP has shown no understanding of the wildlife requirements. The CAP was a half baked social policy, which has failed on a number of levels.
    The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has produced credible science that is at the cutting edge of producing a solution. The answers started to emerge in the ’80 with Conservation Headlands, Beetle Banks and processes like Integrated Pest/crop/farm management. However all the research and all the good practice cannot replace the need for the farmer to be convinced that wildlife is valuable and use a mindset that evaluates every ‘on farm’ action against ‘is that good for wildlife’ and that in times when over many years crop and livestock production has been very unprofitable. Successive Governments have failed to understand the connection between farm practice and wildlife. At last we have an administration that does understand and is going try and make sure that the money spent on schemes will deliver. They want outcomes that stack up. Loddington and Grange Farm have demonstrated what can be done. The issue is how to convince the UK farming industry complete that there is a label attached to the industry today ‘you have failed to look after the wildlife on your farm’ with a question under the criticism ‘what are you going to do about your failure?’
    It would help if the farming industry’s leaders stood up and gave some leadership and showed their industry what to do.

    • Mark says:

      Birdseye - well said, thank you. I particularly like your last sentence, with which I agree very strongly. And you are right that Loddington and Grange/Hope Farm (so good the RSPB named it twice to confuse everyone!) do show that much can be achieved through proper farming but in a wildlife-friendly way. Has the NFU ever praised Loddington? I don't remember the NFU singing the praises of Hope Farm. Maybe Peter Kendall's own farm is outshining both but I haven't heard that said......

  2. Roderick Leslie says:

    The comments on the NFU news were even better than the release itself. Its all down to Badgers and raptors. Sorted.

    When I was involved in getting RSPB into agriculture policy in the mid 80s I thought that, like forestry, we'd see a turnaround in the 90s. The opposite has happened and however hard you try you can't hide a downward trend like this one - yes, it goes up (occassionally) but it goes down (a lot) and overall just down and down and down. And there's a very simple cause - we've got better at protecting our crops (ie eliminating anything that competes which tends to = bird food) and we've squezzed the area we grow them on harder and harder - and the real tragedy, to me, is that its the last 5% thats gone over the last 20 years - with devastating effect. There are better areas - I watch one of them in France where the soil (rock, actually) means there's a mix of (pretty intensive) vineyards with rocky outcrops, and rough, bushy land. The place literally lifts with Corn Bunting, Turtle Dove, Cirl Bunting, Woodlark etc etc - and, of course, Sparrowhawks, Kestrels, Short toed Eagles....

    One way or another we've got to ease off - food isn't the only product of the countryside like it was in 1947 when, in reality, our present regimes were put in place. Bluntly, I want to see some results for my taxes. Many farmers are already guardians of the countryside, many are struggling badly - the present system isn't working much better for them than it is for birds. We need to take a really big step back, decide what we need from the land and use the money we are already spending to pay land mangers to produce it.

    • Mark says:

      Roderick - France sounds very nice to me. Very few corn buntings round here any more. I'd just like to hear the NFU express any sadness about the loss of wildlife and any enthusiasm to lead a recovery in farmland wildlife. I haven't heard it yet but I'm still listening.

  3. alan parfitt says:

    I have voted Mark, for the RSPB farming award, so looking forward to the result. So many farmers are doing so much to help farmland birds but in contrast, I do so agree with your comments Mark concerning the NFU statment. As you say it would help if the farming leaders stood up and gave a really positive lead on this issue of the continuous decline of farmland birds. I do wonder sometimes how many professionally qualified ecologists the NFU employ in order to come up with their rather bland, unscientific, and slightly self congratulatory comments. Not a lot I suspect, if any. Let's hope the same does not apply to the EU but I think it might.

    • Mark says:

      Alan - thanks. We agree! There are lots of farmers who are doing lots for wildlife and all four of the finalists in the Nature of Farming Award fall into that category in their different ways. It would be interesting, along the lines of what you say, to get an independent evaluation of whether conservation organisations sound as though they know what they are talking about when it comes to farming, and whether farming organisations sound as though they know what they are talking about when it comes to nature conservation. I wonder which group would come off better? The CLA, though in many ways a funny bunch (!) would be streets ahead of the NFU in my ranking.

  4. Dennis Ames says:

    Well I am sad about loss of wildlife but sadder still that although for sure modern farming without doing things for wildlife is definitely partly to blame by conservationists putting almost all the blame on farmers are making things worse by confusing the issue as for sure lots of other causes are to blame and nothing being done in those areas because of the emphasis put on modern farming.Lots of things strike me as odd if not proof,one is on walking on organic farms they seem no better than more intensive farms.Lots of other birds seem at least as bad as farmland birds for sure although obviously completely different is the Cuckoo but all woodland birds suffered at least as bad a decline as farmland birds but suspect that can be proved by conservationists to be farmers fault.Another strange thing I see is that although farmers can get grants for cutting of hedges every two years as part of ELS etc lots of them would rather forego the money and trim every year which leads me to think these grants are not as profitable to the average farmer as conservationists think.
    My overiding concern is that by putting almost if not all the blame on modern farming lots of other reasons being missed and not much progress being made.
    Conservationists must know that there are lots of other reasons farmland birds have declined so why ignore them,well it makes me suspicious that they are unpalatable to general public and not blogworthy or newsworthy.
    No way do I say that farming is guiltless but all of the other population need to look in the mirror and conservationists carp on about the other cause in equal measure.
    A lead from you Mark would be a good start.

    • Mark says:

      Dennis - welcome back! I've missed you.

      But your comment really won't do.

      Woodland birds have declined - but not as much as farmland birds have. Farmland birds stick out like a sore thumb in the UK and across the continent of Europe as being the group of birds in most trouble.

      And I do hope you read what I wrote! There is discussion of the role of the CAP, a criticism of what the NFU said on the subject (they claim to represent farmers, but that's their claim not mine) and there is a recognition that there are lots of good farmers out there and a request for people to vote for their favourite one. You can't be much nicer to farmers than that when farmland birds are in free fall and the National FARMERS Union avoids any serious acceptance of the problem and makes precious few sensible suggestions to improve things. And, by the way, the comments by Birdseye above are from someone who farms or at least used to farm.

      The approach of conservationists has not been to blame farmers it has been to research causes of declines and solutions to those declines. The work done by GCT and RSPB (and others) shows what can be achieved, on the ground, by farming in a slightly different way - you can get the insects and plants and birds back. Quite how far do you want wildlife enthusiasts to bend over in a backwards direction?

      Don't try to switch the conversation to 'those nasty cosnervationists' - those very nice and positive conservationists have demonstrated that they know enough about farming and about wildlife to come up with workable solutions. It is now incumbent on farmers' 'leaders' to take a bit more responsibility for rolling out those solutions.

  5. Dave H says:

    I agree completely with all of your comments about the NFU statement. Several years ago I spent 2 months on a plant hunting trip through China and because of my interest in wildlife I bought a book the Birds of China. Unbelievably at the end of this 2 months period in remote areas of China I had only seen 2 species of birds . The reasons for such a dirth of bird species was explained as being use of pesticides, killing of birds which ate farm crops and also hunting of birds for food. Basically the chinese farmers didn't have the slightest interest in conservation of wildlife, only in maximising food production. Unfortunately it seems to me that we are heading in the same direction in the UK. The NFU should be ashamed of their head in the sand response to falling biodiversity levels on farms

  6. Birdseye says:

    Dennis Ames - I believe you and Dave H misunderstand the point the matter. I would love to defend the industry, I cannot. There ARE lots of other factors and it is easy to try and apportion cause and effect. The major cause has been that the unprofitability forced farmers to produce more; use every inch of land, combined with the misplaced mantra ‘tidiness is next to godliness’ overlaid by the now subliminal effects of agro-chemicals.
    China is where UK was 30 years ago and they are without the cutting edge work done then by GCT on herbicides and insecticides. The chemical companies in China are not without reproach for mimicking out of date/patent products, because they are cheap and broad spectrum.
    The biggest issue in England is the way farmers have chosen to use technology to produce crops. Unless the farmer/manager understands the whole issue he does damage by default. Eg block cropping, timing of hedge row cutting, loss of stubbles the moment the crop is combined, loss of rough areas [refuges], ever larger fields, no beetle banks thus sole reliance agrochemicals, a move back to prophylactic application, to name but a few.
    There are lots of farmers out there many are agri-farmers not countrymen farmers. The farming industry might do well to think the saying one bad apple….

  7. Roderick Leslie says:

    I think Dennis has really put his finger on the problem: that farmers see themselves and the systems they are using as one and the same thing - criticise intensive arable & its impacts and you automatically criticise farmers. Forestry went through exactly the same thing with intensive upland conifers but, painfully, foresters somehow managed to stand back and recognise they were losing public support and change - farming today is faced with much the same challenge.

  8. Dennis Ames says:

    Mark do not disagree with most of what you say and although nowhere in my long comment did I even suggest that farming was innocent it seems one or two suggest that I was.
    My only concern is that with the emphasis put on farming other problems are totally ignored and we will not move forward until we tackle all the problems,just one small aside which probably you know all about is that I saw that the Dutch did a survey of all the insects killed on vehicles and then estimated the total number killed.Think that must be another factor as my guess is we have many more vehicles than the Dutch.
    Personally I want wildlife and food from our farms but what I recognise and I am not sure conservationists do is the simple fact that at a guess 95% of population do not give a hoot about birds and in fact most of that % do not venture outside of town boundaries,if asked food or wildlife you do not need me to even answer.
    Of course we can argue about % but the theory is sound and true whether you,I and others wish differently.As a substantial minority we have to ask rather than demand.

  9. Dennis Ames says:

    By the way Mark although I think conservationists look at things to suit what they want to see do not recall switching to nasty conservationists,perhaps a slip of your hands.


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