Still plenty of hope

The success of the RSPB’s Hope Farm project gave me a lot of pleasure when I worked for the RSPB and I hope its continued success brightens the life of my successor, the excellent Martin Harper, now and again too.

And it still pleases me that bird numbers continue to be so impressive on this rather ordinary farm in Cambridgeshire.  This year’s results have quite a few highlights and just a couple of  (temporary?) disappointments.

Low points: no breeding lapwing for the first time since lapwings recolonised the farm in 2006; greenfiches slump to their lowest level (disease?).

High points: corn buntings return to breed (2 pairs); skylark numbers remain very high; kestrels, wood pigeons, whitethroats and starlings all reach record numbers.

It’s really quite impressive given that this has been achieved alongside better than respectable crop yields.

If this type of thing were happening on every farm in the country we would not starve, farmers would not be poor and wildlife in our countryside would be very much richer.  It’s a simple message but Defra doesn’t appear to be listening and the NFU are conspicuous in never trumpetting these fantastic results to their membership as an example to follow.

There can be few better examples of an environmental problem that has a proven solution which is not implemented because of government inactivity and industry indifference.  So keep that in mind when we come to CAP proposals in tomorrow’s blog.


11 Replies to “Still plenty of hope”

  1. Mark – I agree with you that Hope Farm’s management by RSPB has been a huge success in transforming a conventional arable farm that was previously relatively wildlife-free into one where farmland bird populations (and some other wildlife too) have recovered.

    But let’s be realistic here – at Hope Farm there’s one maybe two priority habitats – cereal field margins and hedgerows. Changing the management at Hope Farm will have no bearing on any of the other priority and indeed non-priority habitats or species in England or the UK. More than half of the agricultural land in England is grassland – most of it intensively managed grassland even more devoid of wildlife than the average arable farm. The proportion is far higher if you include the other UK countries.

    Grassland habitats support the largest number of priority species of all habitats in England, and by all measures are the most threatened habitats in the UK, and arguably Europe.

    So while I think it is right that RSPB (and others) trumpet the successes of Hope Farm – it simply cannot be the answer for “every farm in the country” because more than half of the farms in the country are not arable farms!

    1. Miles – of course you are right, and a good point from the Grasslands Trust. But the approach demonstrated at Hope Farm does apply, in principle, to every farm in the country and I do mean to get around, some time, to discussing in more detail the way forward on pastoral farms. And, just to be clear, most farms do have field margins of hedges or ditches which are also part of the answer at Hope Farm.

  2. Quick note on lapwings (and thanks for sharing a good news story!), a couple of friends on mine were working on breeding lapwings in the Avon valley in Hampshire/Dorset this year, and they did very poorly there as well. Very few chicks fledged. Different part of the country of course, but it may have something to do with the dry spring?

    Greenfinches too are down everywhere, as I’m sure you know – I encountered startlingly few on a springs worth of woodland and farmland bird surveys in Hampshire.

    As you say, anyway, let’s hope it is just temporary – the low points are lows nationwide, but too few places can boast corn buntings breeding so the highs provide the inspiration for the rest of the country to follow! Please!

  3. Agree with Mark and Miles,however Mark hedges and ditches not really the issue on grassland farms as I think lots of grassland farmers can be persuaded to do the necessary for wildlife in that respect and indeed lots already do.Margins much more difficult on grassland farms with grazing animals and hedges to trim even if only every 2nd year.We need people like yourself and of course other conservationists to acknowledge the difficulties then the solution may come and also seems much less confrontational if you acknowledge the fact.One obvious problem is that for at least a generation the conservationists have rubbished Ryegrass but now we find it could provide part of the answer if farmers persuaded to leave it to seed after silageing,theres a turn up.
    On the issue of hedges one RSPB expert trys to tell me farm hedges benefit from trimming every 2nd year.Now having looked after farm hedges all my life trimming each year is by far the most beneficial management for the best hedge and indeed more frequent cutting would result in even better hedge but obviously not economic or wildlife friendly but lots of gardeners trim regularly and consider that essential.
    I acknowledge birds benefit from trimming every 2nd year but it is important that people acknowledge that farmers do that for wildlife and not their choice of management.Interestingly in my experience the cost ends up the same as if trimmed every 2 years,that trim is much slower and so costs twice as much as doing it every year.Only a minor point maybe but we do not need experts telling us and the whole world things that are wrong.Accept there will be differences of opinions but the hedge trimming is vital to get right as farmers are shunning grants to continue trimming each year and maybe if people appreciated that those that trimmed every 2nd year did so entirely for wildlife more could be persuaded to be wildlife friendly.

  4. To Dennis
    If you cut a hedge every year then no berries are produced, so no good for winter wildlife. Here is a compromise : cut one side of the hedge yearly for hedge density and the other side every 2 or 3 years for berry production. Dennis what do you think? Please remember Dennis that tidiness should not be a consideration!

    I remember when FWAG first started operating. Some farmers were quite keen to develop their farms in a wildlife friendly manner. Once environmental grants were introduced farmers attitudes changed and farmers seemed in my opinion to try and beat the system to get environmental grants without producing any advantages to wildlife and habitats. I do not think that stopping environmental grants will have a detrimental effect on the value of farms for wildlife and this is the way forward as I see it.
    If a farmer has the attitude of farming wildlife and crops/animals 50/50% as in Hope Farm then maybe yes give them some environmental grant, but any grants should be much more targeted at wildlife benefits than they are now

  5. to Mark
    One of your questions from Twitter
    “Why aren’t more farmers like the RSPB”
    Mark please tell me the answer to this. After many years as RSPB conservation officer you must know the answer. Is it greed, pride in a tidy farm, what the neighbours will think, profitability, apathy or what?

  6. “Why aren’t more farmers like the RSPB” Well I think that statement is the problem. In my experience there are farmers all over the UK doing a hell of a good job on their farms and doing as well and even better than RSPB at Hope Farm. The trouble is that they do not have a massive publicity machine at their finger tips and cannot keep crowing about their success.

    These farmers are in a minority but frankly they are much more likely to change the attitudes of the majority than any NGO. The latter need to encourage these pioneering farmers and make them the Champions of returning biodiversity to the farming landscape. It is a little irrelevant what conservation bodies do on their “farms” as they are not in the same situation as a family trying to do their bit for wildlife and making a living.

    I know many including the RSPB do help and praise such farmers but we have to give much more credfit to the band of farmers already making a big difference on their farms.

  7. Davidh think you misunderstand as I acknowledged wildlife benefit from hedges trimmed every two years and the best way we found was to trim half of the farm one year then the other half the following year but without doubt just to keep the best hedge sides and top need trimming each year but apparently RSPB will not acknowledge this fact.
    Farmers are in fact putting to one side the benefit of a really good hedge for the benefit of birds and in my view it would be nice if conservationists acknowledged this fact.After all they always have plenty to say so just a few words would be appreciated.

    1. Dennis – I don’t know what the RSPB acknowledges but trimming hedges 2-yearly or 3-yearly is one of the ways to gain points to enter the Entry Level Scheme in England. As you know, the ELS is a voluntary scheme (it’s up to the farmer whether or not he or she enters) but it is not voluntary for the taxpayer to pay for this. Don’t get me wrong, I am very pleased that some of my taxes go to farmers to encourage them to do this. The NFU always has plenty to say and so just a few words of acknowledgement of public support would be appreciated.

  8. Quite right about the hedges Mark and what we used to do to get points but to be told that hedge benefits from trimming every 2nd year is quite honestly a farce.My simple point is that to have the hedge in top condition ignoring wildlife benefits you trim each year and why the RSPB cannot acknowledge that farmers only trim every 2nd year for birds benefit I cannot understand,of course I realise there are finanancial benefits such as ELS as well.
    Very good point about the NFU and suggest that next time you meet them you make that suggestion and say I back you as well.

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