A slightly dull report

Yesterday’s blog considered an interesting report by gamekeepers about the state of the countryside and today’s blog is about a slightly dull report by the BTO, RSPB and the JNCC about the state of breeding bird populations in the countryside.  Yesterday’s report was based on a questionnaire survey whereas this one is based on tens of thousands of hours of fieldwork by gifted amateurs (I am a gifted amateur myself, in this context) and hundreds (I guess) hours of analysis and writing by gifted professionals. And it is a bit dull.

I can’t help but point out that yesterday’s blog highlighted the slightly surprising number of shoots which claim to have lesser-spotted woodpeckers (56%), turtle doves (33%), hawfinches (9%)  and bitterns (8%) and these figures are rather high compared with the proportion of BBS squares on which the species are present (1%, 3%, 0.1% and 0.1% respectively).  Let me hasten to point out that these figures are not directly comparable – the BBS figures come from two breeding-season visits in one year to randomly chosen 1km squares whereas the shooting estate figures may cover much larger areas, many more observers, over an unspecified period of time and including waifs and strays.  So the figures aren’t directly comparable – but nonetheless the differences between them are perhaps instructive as to the value of the different approaches.

The reason that this report is a bit dull is that it merely confirms what we know, and have known for years now, that many farmland birds have declined hugely since (since any time you want to choose almost!) the Breeding Bird Survey started in 1994 and things aren’t getting much better.  In England, skylarks, corn buntings, starlings, yellowhammers, turtle doves, yellow wagtails, grey partridges and linnets are all much below their 1994 population levels though, to be fair, reed bunting, whitethroat, tree sparrow and lapwing have either increased or stayed about level during this period.  We knew all this though.

And woodland birds are doing badly – tree pipit, willow tit, marsh tit, nightingale, lesser redpoll and pied and spotted flycatchers have all taken a clobbering although great-spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, blackcap and chiffchaff have done well.  We did, mostly, know this though.

And red kites and buzzards are getting much commoner whilst kestrels are rarer.  We knew that too.

The cuckoo deserves a special mention though – a 64% decline in England since 1994, and that pattern is pretty consistent over all regions of England according to the very helpful Table 8 near the back of the report.  That pattern is well known too though.

Pretty dull stuff, eh?  Nooooooooooo!

We should rage against the fact that these figures have become familiar and yet too little is being done to make things better for those declining species of farmland and woodland.  It’s not as though we don’t know the reasons for the declines in farmland birds – it’s the way we farm!  And it’s not as though we can’t reverse those declines without causing povery and famine across the world – it’s been done at Hope Farm and at Loddington – and maybe on your farm too if you are a farmer reading this blog. And it’s not as though there is no money going into the countryside which is supposed to make things better – hundreds of millions of pounds are spent every year, and I want my money back if government doesn’t get better at spending it please.  Come on Defra – pull your finger out and make the Entry Level Scheme an effective way to save nature in the countryside.  Don’t talk to me about my role in Big Society – I’ve done my bit giving you these figures year after year after year after year.  Let’s see Government doing its bit and making sure my money works for wildlife.


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13 Replies to “A slightly dull report”

    1. Alan – welcome to this blog. An interesting suggestion. Certainly we need to fix the system so that it rewards delivery of the right results. But that may not mean measuring those results specifically on every farm. If we wanted, for example, more harvest mice then we need to reward those actions that really will, when applied generally by lots of farmers, produce more harvest mice. But if we had to do a harvest mouse survey of every farm then that would make the monitoring costs of the scheme enormous.

  1. At the risk of being a “party pooper” yet again, how credible are these statistics collated from your “gifted amateurs”? I have heard on more than one occasion their abilities being questioned and have practical reservations from my own experience as a Farmer Volunteer. When I first joined the scheme, there was no question that the RSPB volunteer knew what he was talking about. The next one was an RSPB official who was even more impressive but has now moved on to the Bumble Bee Trust. However, the last volunteer, although charming, did not impress. Her scant list didn’t compare with what we saw on a regular basis.

    Alan we need to keep it simple as Mark suggests it is a cost benefit balance. I can’t see why it could not be done on a % basis. A certain % of the farm holding be given over to environmental benefits. Productive land is what payments are based on at present. Field margins, woodlands etc are out of production and some, but not all, attract environmental payments. If CAP funds were distributed at Regional Level in accordance with Regional Priorities reflecting, National and EU priorities there could be more local accountability.

    1. Daye – yes you are a party pooper. The Volunteer & Farmer Alliance is a £250k annual gift from the RSPB to the farming community (and is not the source of the annual bird monitoring information which I was discussing.

  2. How rare is rarer for Kestrels – how many acres is a Kestrel’s territory?
    We would have far better results if RPA understood the ‘on farm reality’ as opposed to their single minded interpretation of the rules. Would that they were pragmatic about the rules and their enforcement.

  3. A gift? £250k? Volunteers? The sums don’t add up. What was the £250K spent on? I was under the impression that I was doing RSPB a favour. It was RSPB who sent out a request for farmers to volunteer their land for the bird counts on farmland. What is the source of the annual bird count you were discussing?

    1. Daye – yes, a gift. Yes, volunteers. Which sums don’t add up? Show me your workings please. £250k – adverts to get people into the project (free for you, not for the RSPB), staff to put volunteers and farmers in touch with each other, mapping software, map poduction – doesn’t happen by magic, some training for voluntees, some events for farmers and volunteers at the end of the season, sending out advisory literature to farmers after bird surveys. All costs a charity money which could be spent on 100s of other things. But you carry on moaning if you like….

      Bid counts for annual monitoring – the link is now in the post.

  4. Birdseye – Kestrels defend only a small territory immediately around the nest. The larger home range where the birds find most of their food is often partly shared with neighbouring pairs. The home range is at least 1 km square, but can be as large as 10 km square. Food availability and number of other kestrels in the area determine the size.

  5. Your original statement is the problem, “a gift to farmers”….. Was this “gift” requested?Are you suggesting that farmers should feel grateful for this unrequested gift? As an ordinary citizen responsible only to myself for how I spend my hard earned money. I have always been astonished at the ease with which governments, public bodies and charities sign off vast sums of public money with little accountability as to whether it was the most efficient model to achieve an outcome.
    I would be shocked to hear that FWAG, SAC, DEFRA, or in my case SGRPID the main conduits for contacting farmers, were charging RSPB for advertising the FVA scheme. The real bottom line now though, is the credibility of today’s volunteers. Reports reaching my ears are not good, and if RSPB wants to regain credibility in what began as a sound vision, it needs to ensure that it is getting value for the public’s money from the training process. My farm welcomes all lovers of nature to do whatever surveys or counts they wish, but I don’t expect them then to tell me that their work is a gift to me or my farm business.

    If the credit crunch has done little else it has focussed minds. Partnership is seen as a more efficient way of getting more for less.

    1. Daye – I hope the weekend allowed you to recover your good humour which has been sadly lacking, along with much factual accuracy, in recent comments. By the way, you haven’t replied on the comments about Langholm on a previous post where you crammed an impressive number of factual errors into one short paragraph. If this blog is to foster discussion then I need to post comments, like yours, which aren’t accurate but then it would be good if the conversation continued perhaps with an acknowledgement of error? I hope you have a good Monday!

  6. Daye – The RSPB is a charity, not a government body. It relies purely on donations, in whatever form that may be. You have to pay taxes (though not everyone does) and that money goes to the government. You can choose whether or not you want to give money to the RSPB. If you’re unhappy, stop giving. If you’re unhappy with the way the government spends your money in the countryside, take it up with Defra.

    As with regards volunteers, I think you’re way out of line, especially as I manage over 25 of them in my current job. This army of people willingly give up their time and are the lifeblood of all conservation organisations. Some are invariably stronger in certain areas than others, but they all share the same unquestionable enthusiasm and passion. What are these reports reaching your ears? You can’t make outlandish statements like that, without backing it up. As a previous VFA (not FVA) partaker I can vouch for the efficiency of the training, yet not everyone is going to learn all the farmland birds over the course of a weekend. The farmers I have worked with have always been hugely grateful to have someone, whatever their knowledge, survey the birdlife on their farm. However, if you are unhappy about the service and you feel that you can do a better job, might I suggest that you do so. Then you’ll only have yourself to complain about.

  7. Oh dear your taxes again,Hope farm so brilliant again,looked at profit seems about £48,000 split 1 to 4 in favour of partner must be about £12,000 for Hope Farm even without tax doesnt seem much but wait we have a farm managers wage to take out.Oh forgot to mention us working farmers have mortgages so to compare your RSPB freebie farm that we all bought you have to put in a reasonable mortgage,oh and we all run overdrafts because we are not a charity so put a charge in for that and all of a sudden even with the best grain prices in history Hope Farm or at least RSPBs part looks like it actually loses a massive amount of money.Nothing like the economic miracle described by certain clever people but please note I do think it does a good job like all RSPB reserves for wildlife and indeed shows arable farmers ways of improving farmland birds.Economic cannot see it but would like you to put a blog on about how profitable you see it,now that would be interesting to see how all our monies are being used.Have never seen anyone set out the way Hope Farm is profitable and do not think it right that people keep on about it unless we get their side of the story.You almost certainly think of me as cynical and I probably am but in the case of Hope Farm I would just like someone to explain how the figures are supposed to add up.Unless the graph is wrong it works out about £106 profit per acre for 450 acres and that would not even fund a mortgage.

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