A farmer writes

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)

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  1. Mike Price says:

    I am not sure that this area has ever been used for cereal crop I certainly haven't seen it in my lifetime, silage cutting and draining areas to increase grazing are almost certainly what have had the biggest effect on the birds here. Birds like Yellow Wagtail were abundant but are an uncommon now, A Yellowhammer in this area would be considered a rarity and might well be twitchable (is that a word?).
    It is easy to blame others for the declines but we demand low cost food and the population continues to increase at an unsustainable rate, I am uncertain where the answer lies but I would be interested to learn how many farms are being run with wildlife being given serious consideration as per Hope Farm and how much the industry is investing in this type of research.

  2. Filbert Cobb says:

    Add the changes to regulation, which have affected the waste food supply available for rats, mice and birds by excluding them from stores, and the greatly increased use and efficacy of insecticides on cereals. Where is the flysquash of yesteryear?

  3. Jamie Horner says:

    Do you do any predator control on your farm? People dont like to mention predator control anymore but along with careful management of your land you should start noticing a increase in certain species. (and its perfectly legal)

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      It would not be legal to control any of the predators mentioned in the farmer's original letter and it is also very unlikley that they are implicated in the general impoverishment of the bird fauna described. I appreciate that what you had in mind was probably foxes and/or corvids which can be controlled legally but thought it might be prudent to clarify! Whether shooting corvids or foxes would reverse the changes the farmer describes is another question.

    • paul Irving says:

      Yet again in the face of enormous agricultural changes which have doubtless caused the declines mentioned we hear the argument in favour of predator control, as if these declines happen in a habitat change vacuum where the real culprits are supposed to be predators. Time and time again this has been shown to be utter, for want of a better phrase with the same impact, BULLSHIT.
      Yet despite all the science predation is blamed its the very tired argument and false argument trotted out by such as Songbird Survival. It may be true that with control some species may improve in numbers but and it is a very big but this does not imply they were responsible for the decline. Some habitat changes make some species more vulnerable to predation pressure in some part of their annual cycle ( may be for example because it depresses breeding success) but it is that habitat change that is responsible not the predators.

  4. Filbert Cobb says:

    "And, I guess that one of the technological advances that allowed winter cropping was the more efficient herbicides ..."

    ... and plant growth regulators combined with plant breeding introductions of short strawed varieties of winter what and barley resistant to lodging under high nitrogen regimes, which kicked spring cropping into the long grass as far as yield was concerned.

    The current (2010) stats show the croppable area (crop, bare fallow or temp. grass) of UK at 35%, of which 50% is cereals and 11% oilseeds, to put things in context.

  5. Joe W says:

    I can strongly recommend the book 'Birds, Scythes and Combines' written by Michael Shrubb (retired farmer and ornithologist), to anybody (particularly a farmer) wishing to gain a better understanding into the impacts of farming change on bird populations. Since its publication in 2003, I've both lent and recommended this book to a number of farmers, who have not only enjoyed reading it but a few have said it has changed their perspective on birds and farming.
    Interestingly Michael Shrubb cites the revolution in grassland management as the most important change in modern farmland. T

  6. Ralph Hobbs says:

    As an ex agronomist and FWAG adviser I think the widespread use of the cheaper broad spectrum insecticide sprays to control pollen beetle & pod weevil in OS Rape in April, and aphids in cereals in May/June in 'aphid years', has a lot to answer for, and gets overlooked compared with major drivers like intensive winter cereals, large fields, herbicides, intensive grassland, etc etc. These sprays inevitably drift into adjacent margins and hedges and must surely have an effect on insectivorous species in general in arable areas. Or does the fact that Whitethroats have recovered so well in recent years indicate otherwise?? Maybe there have there been fewer 'aphid years' in recent years? At least the neonicotinoid insecticides are on the Govt's agenda now, but you can't easily legislate against spray drift!

  7. Stella says:

    One point not yet made is that however wildlife friendly any particular small or medium sized landholding is, it will at most only attain slightly better results than the surrounding land. Hence when surveys were carried out on organic farms no major difference between these and non organic farms was found. One 1500 acre unit of organic production does make a difference but still not what it ought to be. Wildlife operates on a landscape/habitat scale and this needs to be factored into the way farmers think about what they do and all other farmland/woodland conservation schemes . Sadly much of any improved survival or breeding success on a wildlife friendly farm will be lost into the big empty sink of the industrial neighbours. There is a serious lack of food for birds in the general countryside.

    Three things everyone could do to help is to eat less, waste less and have fewer babies. This would do something to reduce the need for deadly pesticides and herbicides [which are killing us as well as wildlife], reduce the need for all year round cropping and open the way for a return to more mixed farming.

  8. Jamie Horner says:

    Paul, have a look at this and see what you think?
    I might not have letters after my name but where I control predators (fox, corvids, stoats and weasels) we have a greater number of ground nesting birds than our neighbours. Lapwings were down to 4 pairs on over 3,500 acres of sssi, 24 fledged last year. The point is that there is no point spending millions on habitita improvement with out predator controlol (science fact)

    • paul Irving says:

      I have read it Jamie, indeed was sent a copy of a friend who worked for GCWT and has recently retired ( and no I don't agree with it all). Yes it worked because what you did was suppress natural levels of predation to the point where the species you thought more valuable reared more young. I would not argue against that but that is not a natural situation nor without predator control is it sustainable. The point I was making is that the predators are not responsible for the declines in the first place the habitat changes that favoured the predators against the lapwings were.

      One of the things I am much in favour of is a thorough investigation of why the balance has shifted in favour of these generalist predators ( and no its not just simply a decline in keeper density). If we could elucidate that and hopefully rectify it to a large extent, without the need for the predator control the whole system might again become self perpetuating as it has for most of time.
      One immediate question is what feeds and sustains the high (or at least relatively high compared to predator densities) in the face of apparently declining farmland wildlife? After all we have relatively low wildlife densities on farmland compared to our nieghbours yet higher densities of corvids, foxes and rats.
      For a broad and enjoyable read on predation I recommend " Why big fierce animals are rare" by Paul Colinvaux, its quite cheap second hand.

  9. Jamie Horner says:

    And just for the record im trying to reinstate winter cereals but Natural England have put a block on it because it doesnt fit the required criteria even though the RSPB have recommended and wrote to NE explaining the benefits of winter cereals.

  10. Dennis Ames says:

    Well a few conservationists would like to put all the blame on the farmer and the same few would like to rule the world.That is not going to happen and you need to wake up and you share the blame because you are as guilty as anyone.
    Fact in the Telegragh today states that 19,000 human deaths a year are caused in the U.K by pollution yes by me and you innocent conservationists are equally to blame.Fact must be if it can do that to a relevantly large human how many millions of insects and birds is it killing.
    How strange you stick your heads in the sand and come up spluttering about farming.You almost without fail use vehicles and just being alive in today's world causes considerable pollution but oh know us completely innocent conservationists know we can join together and heap all the blame on farming.What a load of c**p.

  11. paul Irving says:

    Dennis I don't think that the farmer should be alone in taking the blame, far from it. He has been encouraged and in many ways forced down the production at all costs route since the end of World war 2 by politicians, economics and his own industry ( including the NFU) yes that means we are ALL culpable, but there is no getting away from the fact that farmland bird declines are down to the way we as a nation farm.

  12. Jamie Horner says:

    Thanks Paul I will have a look on AMAZON.
    We now have 70 million people in the UK, certain animals have evolved around us and benefited from the mess we create while on the other hand vulnerable species have been put under pressure because of loss of habitat and increased pressure from certain predators (corvids and fox) which have benefited because of us. Perhaps if there were only 1 million in the UK nature would find its own balance but unfortunately we are now well passed this stage.
    If you fancy a look round the land I manage (Mark too) just let me know?


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