Last week I received this letter from a farmer and I’m grateful to him for permission to publish it here along with my reply to him.
Dear Dr Avery
I have read articles and letters from you from time to time particularly in Farmers Weekly.
We have a small farm of about 150 acres of farmed land on the Essex/Suffolk border with 13 hedged fields and a good number of 6m ELS margins. The corners of the farm adjoin broadleaved woods.
As far as I am aware all our neighbours with much larger farms are in ELS or other conservation schemes and one has created a lake which attracts a wide variety of waterfowl.
You would have thought that our farm with its relatively small fields and extensive hedges would be protected from the decline in species but despite our own efforts and those of others I find that the number of species of farmland birds is reducing.
We bought our farm 25 years ago. With such a small farm we do not have large areas to set aside but we had hoped that increasing the periods between hedge cutting and the 6m margins which are now in their sixth year of operation would help to redress the balance.
Unfortunately this has not proved to be the case.
We have lost yellowhammers, lapwings, willow and reed warblers (in our garden) flycatchers, starlings and sparrows.
Although we leave the doors of our timber barns open so the swallows can nest in the beams, for the first time since we acquired the farm the swallows came, saw and decided to go elsewhere which was extremely upsetting. Similarly a barn owl who was sizing up one of the old barns decided not to stay.
We have gained a mating pair of buzzards although they have not appeared yet this year.
Sparrow hawks and kestrels seem to be staying with us as do brown owls of which there are a large number.
We also have a steady number of sky larks and green and spotted woodpeckers which is good.
A few years ago a retired farmhand passed by and he was telling me about the times when the fields were ploughed by horses and the wheat was threshed in the barns. Now the wheat is combined and stored in the silos of the contractor.
Standing in the farmyard where the old barns are located, he said that the thing that struck him most was that there were no sparrows pecking at the corn (there was none to peck)
I thought about this and I came to the conclusion that the biggest single factor contributing to the reduction in certain species has been the move to winter crops and the mechanization which does not allow the stubble to be grazed in the winter months when there is the greatest shortage of food. As far as our garden which covers around 3 acres is concerned, this has not really changed since we bought the farm so the reduction in species here must relate to some extent to climate change which may also affect the farmland birds.
Most of the farmers I know are concerned about the loss of the common farmland birds and those with large acreages are able to take positive steps to deal with the winter feeding requirement of some of these birds. Farmers and ornithologists must stay friends, we are all in this together.
And here is my reply:
Thank you for your interesting email.
I think that you are right to point to the change to winter cropping as being a very important factor in the changes in farmland bird numbers. It’s not the only one but it is a very important one.
The switch to winter crops had a wide variety of implications. Here are a few of them:
- loss of over winter stubble fields used for feeding by many finches, buntings, larks and sparrows
- stronger spring growth of cereals leading to earlier exclusion form the growing crop of skylarks
- over winter rape plants available to fuel increase in wood pigeon numbers
- greater profitability of winter cereals leading to increased specialisation of many farms in the east of the UK away from any form of livestock and to a cereal-dominated rotation which led to a more uniform countryside
And, I guess that one of the technological advances that allowed winter cropping was the more efficient herbicides that also reduced weed burdens in crops (which would be an important source of insect food the following year for birds).
Generally speaking, most resident birds need insects in the summer (to feed their young), seeds in the winter and safe places to nest. The switch to winter cereals affacts all three aspects for some species, eg the skylark, and one or two of them for other species.
In the West Country where I grew up the changes will have been different – loss of arable crops as specialisation there was towards dairy (and beef), earlier silage cutting, increased fertiliser use and wall-to-wall ryegrass.
And the migrant species you mention, for example the spotted flycatchers, probably are affected by climate change or perhaps by changes to conditions in their African wintering quarters.
I’m sorry you have lost some of your birds – it’s happening almost everywhere and it’s very sad. It’s easy for nature conservationists to remain friends with farmers like yourself who clearly care about wildlife and are sorry for its loss. It’s less easy to feel so close to the ‘leaders’ of your industry in the NFU who show very little understanding or concern for these issues (and they are elected by farmers not imposed on you all!).
But thank you for writing and if you’d like to talk more about this issue then do feel free to continue the correspondence.
best wishes (in a friendly way)