A letter from Rupert

The burning of Rome, JMWTurner via Wikimedia commons. Original in Tate Gallery.
The burning of Rome, JMWTurner via Wikimedia commons. Original in Tate Gallery.

s216_LordDeMauley-1aI am grateful to my MP, Andy Sawford, for writing to Defra on my behalf to ask them about the continuing declines in farmland birds.  And I am grateful to Lord de Mauley (or Rupert) the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Natural Environment and Science at Defra for his reply.

Rupert mentions that this government set out its ambition to halt overall biodiversity loss in England by 2020 in ‘Biodiversity 2020: a strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services‘ and that the Farmland Bird Index is one of the indicators that will be used to assess progress.

Rupert states ‘that many of the historical declines in farmland birds have been caused by changes in land management and intensification of farming between 1970 and the early 1990s, including:

  • a move from spring to autumn sowing of arable crops
  • farm/regional specialisation and simplification of crop rotations leading to a general loss of mixed farmland and introduction of new crop varieties
  • loss and degradation of boundary habitats (e.g. hedgerows).

The importance of these changes differs according to species and geographical location. For farmland birds, they have resulted in the loss of suitable nesting and feeding habitat and a reduction in available food resources.  More recent declines are thought to be related to a combination of additional factors including disease, weather and climate change.

I’m not sure that the suggestion that recent declines are not to do with land use is intentional or due to slightly clumsy wording – but if Defra thinks that recent declines of farmland birds are not primarily due to those land use changes then I think they are wrong.

The Minister then goes on to say that agri-environment schemes cover 70% of English farmland and that these schemes, under Environmental Stewardship, have targetted priority areas and that new scheme options have just been introducedwhich include supplementary feeding of farmland birds to help them through the ‘hungry gap’ (which we are entering now) when berries and seeds are scarce.

The Minister states that ‘reversing the decline in farmland bird populations is a targetted outcome for ES‘.

He also writes ‘Evidence from monitoring and evaluation studies carried out for Defra/Natural England by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and RSPB suggest that some of the more widespread declining species are beginning to respond to the management put in place by ES at both the farm and landscape-scale. However, as yet, this has not resulted in a national population increase for most species, and the British (sic) Bird Survey shows that the corn bunting and turtle dove have continued to decline in abundance in England since the mid-1990s.‘… and also…’Defra is committed to reversing the declines in bird populations but this will take time while the measures provided under the agri-environment schemes such as ES gradually begin to deliver the expected benefits. despite the historic declines, there is good evidence of increases in some farmland bird species as a result of investment in these schemes.

I was a bit sceptical of this, as the FBI is just about at its lowest, but checking this useful resource on the BBS part of the BTO website does indeed reveal that Defra can just about get away with it.  Some species do show signs of a recovery, though it’s not much to write home about and, so far, too fragile to believe that farmland birds are on any road, however rocky, to recovery. On the other hand, some other species appear to be heading rapidly to oblivion!

The point here though, is that the deployment of known solutions to farmland bird declines has been incredibly ineffective through ES.  Why doesn’t every arable field in the country have skylark patches (tiny areas that can be paid for under ES)? Well, actually we need rather few fields to have skylark patches for their to be a massive recovery in skylark numbers but the scheme has not persuaded enough farmers to go this way (and nor did the failed Campaign for the Farmed Environment, of course).

The Minister also states ‘In view of their continuing declines and Section 41 status, both species [corn bunting and turtle dove] are the subject of ongoing recovery projects within Natural England’s Species Recovery Programme, in partnership with the RSPB. The projects are trialling novel land management techniques to boost breeding productivity, which is thought to be a major cause of the ongoing declines in both species.  In the case of the corn bunting, this involves testing ways to provide safe nesting habitats within arable fields; in the case of turtle dove, it involves testing the best way to provide bespoke seed-rich foraging plots during the breeding season.  It should also be noted that, for the turtle dove, there are other concerns relating to the degradation of wintering habitats in Africa, hunting while on migration and the increased incidence of the disease trichomoniasis (the latter is the subject of PhD study at Leeds University, co-funded by RSPB and Natural england, also through the Species Recovery Programme).’.  That sounds pretty good although if the implementation of knowledge eventually gained from these studies is as ineffective as that already known for other species the turtle dove and corn bunting are doomed!

The Minister, or Rupert, ends his letter with a touch of class as follows ‘I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the BTO’s launch of the British Bird Atlas 2007-2011. Dr Avery was also present, as he was closely involved with this landmark publication [not true, but well-meant – I was just one of 40,000 volunteers]. During my short speech, I emphasised the importance that the data collected by the tireless efforts of the BTO’s 40,000 volunteers would have for targeting efforts to reverse the decline in farmland birds, among many other uses.  I would like to thank Dr Avery for his contribution to this work.’.

This is one of the better letters I have seen coming out of Defra – and it is well worth having.  And I am quite sure that Defra civil servants will be glancing at this blog to see what we all think about it.

It’s a typical civil service letter in that it stresses the positive (some species may be increasing (even though not all are, and we aren’t terribly sure about those that are) and there is lots of research going on) whilst tiptoeing around the main issue – that we are paying huge amounts of money out each year in Agri-environment schemes that don’t deliver the goods.  The current schemes could be delivering increases in many farmland birds if only the list of options were changed so that effective options (eg skylark patches and nectar-rich margins) were made more difficult to avoid!

We know enough, we pay enough – we don’t get enough in return!  Does Rupert play the fiddle and is that Rome burning?

Corn Bunting.  Photo: Steve Riall  via Wikimedia Commons.
Corn Bunting. Photo: Steve Riall via Wikimedia Commons.
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28 Replies to “A letter from Rupert”

  1. I agree this is a pretty good letter - even though the subtext is that we're doing all we are going to do. In the wake of Owen Paterson's Ancient Woodland and offsetting bloomer last week, I only wish forestry had done as good a job in educating Defra - we keep trying but every time we get anywhere they move the people to another job - I've heard its because they have 'gone native' and become too favourable to forestry - I fear it will be a long time before the penny drops and the realisation dawns that this may be because there are some serious positives, not just for forestry but for Defra Ministers too.

    In the meantime, maybe its time we got back to payment by results: wouldn't it be wonderful if a large chunk of ELS money was put aside and paid per pair of threatened farmland birds found on your farm ? Wouldn't it be fantastic if all those marvellous farmers appearing each year in the environmental farming competitions who have gone the extra mile largely out of personal conviction were directly rewarded by us, the taxpayer ? I'd fill in my tax return with a lighter heart if I could imagine I was 'buying' a pair of Turtle Doves.

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  2. You make a very good set of points here Mark. But farm need to deliver more than wildlife to get their public money via their subsidies.
    George Monbiot is on the case too.
    Land management and flood risks, and how farm payments increase the risks.
    http://www.monbiot.com/2014/01/13/drowning-in-money/
    Worth a read too.

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    1. Redwood - Thank you. I agree that more than wildlife needs to be delivered - see yesterday morning's blog..

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      1. Redwood - good article from Moonbat. I never thought I would ever say that.
        But he's still got his tunnel goggles on and everything is caused by sheeps. He only mentions soil compaction in a reference to sheep hooves compacting lowland soils. This is true. Sheep are grazed on a lot of lowland grassland in winter and there is not much visual damage - but the compaction caused at very shallow depth prevents water drainage down the soil profile and it has to run off or flood. This is particularly true on Devonian soils which have a naturally low organic matter content. On a greater scale, increasingly heavy and powerful farm machinery cause compaction on arable and grassland - decreasing soil water-holding capacity and forcing surplus water to run off or flood. Raising and maintaining high water tables deliberately has the same effect - any further water-holding capacity the soil may have had is eliminated. Fixing all this is not rocket science, but it does not involve grand projects and lots of visible edifices so them what should be attending to the problem tend to look elsehere.

        Floods will happen - whatever. The highest flood record at Worcester is still from 1770, closely followed by 1607.

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        1. Hi Filbert,
          Don't think he missed the lowlands & the impacts of agricultural machinery, but more could have been made of it:
          "The problem is not confined to livestock in the mountains. In the foothills and lowlands, the misuse of heavy machinery, overstocking with animals and other forms of bad management can – by compacting the soil – increase the rates of instant run-off from 2% of all the rain that falls on the land to 60%."
          Just above the third and final sub-heading in the article.

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          1. edit: I was reading from the online Guardian article there, so apologies if it's not in the monbiot.com version! J

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  3. Do not think farmland is cause of much flooding,more likely all these extra houses,paving over gardens,large factory buildings and Industrial estates.
    To help farmland birds like Mark says the schemes need more emphasis on paying for what will make a difference.

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    1. "Do not think farmland is cause of much flooding"

      This will depend on the catchment Dennis, in many catchments there is little doubt that urbanisation and flood plain development has contributed greatly to flooding, however in many catchments compacted soils are a major cause of flooding - this cannot be in doubt. In some catchments it could be a combination of both factors.

      As Filbert has pointed out, many items of agricultural machinery are increasingly heavy in design, particularly those used by contractors. This combined with an increased incidence of wet summers and wet early autumn periods and tight harvesting/field work timescales often means that farmers or their contractors are forced to work in fields in sub-optimal soil conditions which often results in soil compaction. Also many breeds of cattle are heavier these days which can also contribute to increased surface compaction on some farms.

      I spend enough time digging holes in fields to know just how bad the problem of soil compaction can be on certain farms.

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      1. Earnest - all points are spot on. In addition, an increasing proportion of farmers rely heavily on contractors for field ops, having got rid of their tackle for plausibly sound business reasons - inevitably this means that some cultivations and cuts are done when they can be, not when they should be. Contractors - many of whom are also farmers - need to be in the loop with the soil protection movement, and them Powers That Be need to make sure they are.

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  4. Mark, I wonder if the answer with regard to farmland birds, is to throw money at the problem. Perhaps a more effective solution and a more efficient one, would be for defra to listen to what people have to say before going ahead with expensive "solutions?" If hedge removal was not paid for by grants in the first place they would still be there. Out of a total of more than 500 hedges in our parish there are less than twenty now. There will soon be about 10. All destruction paid for by grants in one way or another. "Developers" destroy our environment and then we pay them to replant it. If this is progress, which way are we progressing?

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    1. As Julian says quite correctly hedgerow removal is not grant aided and AFAIK has not been for well over 20 years.
      The only example of grant aided hedgerow removal I can recall was for the removal of a young hedgerow which had been inappropriately planted (by a pheasant shoot) through the middle of a wet grassland site which was valuable for breeding waders.

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      1. I think Diapensia may have been giving examples of past events that have led up to our current dreadful mess. After all, in ecological terms, 1997 is only very recent and we are and will continue to suffer from the cumulative results of policies and actions like hedgerow removal for example, over decades and even centuries, when you look at the big picture.

        Certainly raised an interesting hedgerow debate here as well.

        I also agree with Diapensia's comment that; '"Developers" destroy our environment and then we pay them to replant it.' We see this sort of thing all the time and there's even at least one example in the Minister's statement:

        "new scheme options have just been introduced which include supplementary feeding of farmland birds"

        Assuming this supplementary feeding is paid for by the taxpayer, then this is businesses, having denuded the countryside of wild winter food foraging areas over the last decades and replaced it with options more profitable to themselves, now being taxpayer subsidised to replace previously naturally available feeding grounds with ersatz provision. This sort of 'quick fix' can also have adverse effects of which we may as yet be little aware, such as making populations dependent on artificial substitutes; in effect domesticating them, and also altering their behaviour and deleteriously affecting which traits are passed on to offspring etc.

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        1. It is early days for supplementary feeding but it is working well so far, providing additional food as wild bird cover crops run out steam at the end of winter.The alternative is to allow weeds to prosper in crops providing seed for birds over winter in overwintered stubbles. You only need to spend an hour one afternoon during harvest unblocking the sieves on the combine harvester to decide which is preferable. It is a fine line growing a crop with an uncompetitive understorey of weeds, and finding your crop choked out by weeds. It makes good sense to allow specialist growers to produce millet, canary seed etc..for others to spread on farm tracks and fields in the winter.

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          1. Andy: "The alternative is to allow weeds to prosper in crops ..."

            I realise that here I'm probably banging my head against a brick wall, but why is there only one alternative to artificial feeding in your view?

            Why can land managers not provide more headlands for example, wider margins round fields? Why not also make more spaces where suitable plants are allowed to grow elsewhere than in intensively cropped areas?

            Do you not address the point about changes to populations resulting from artificial feeding because you a) believe that it won't occur? or b) because you think it doesn't matter?

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          2. I agree we need more areas put by for wildlife Serena so that food crops can continue to be grown efficiently. To qualify for the supplementary feeding scheme you have to already be in a scheme providing areas for wildlife such as field marins and wild bird cover crops. The supplementary feeding is designed to provide some extra food as these run out. So far this year our wild bird crop areas are holding out well due to the milder weather, and we have several hundred linnet in one patch. But as you say this is artificial too, just as the crops in the 50's that supported so many birds were artificial also.

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  5. Hedge removal is not grant aided, in fact since 1997 all hedges have statutory protection. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/regulation/hedgeregs/
    You might also be interested in Hedgelink UK whose website can be found here. http://www.hedgelink.org.uk/

    Farmers' attitudes to all boundary features and especially hedges has massively changed for the better since the 1970-1980 period and I hope that now the vast majority of them share our concern that they are managed as effectively as possible for all wildlife and especially farmland birds.

    I personally find a couple of issues quite frustrating. General awareness of long term hedge management issues such as coppicing and trimming is poor with the farmer/manager criticised for what looks to be at the time damage but is in fact vital hedge management. Secondly the ES criteria for rotational hedge trimming is very poor and badly thought out. It can be difficult to deliver on the ground and is I'm afraid a classic case of "office management" and takes no account of any stakeholders' practical abilities.

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  6. A survey done by Defra in 2011 makes interesting reading and can be found here:-

    http://www.hedgelink.org.uk/documents/Defra%20BD2117%20Hedge%20Survey%20final%20report%20FEB%202012.pdf

    70% of farmers surveyed regarded hedges as a valuable asset

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  7. Mark Hi,

    If you look at the 2011 survey you can see six issues listed as potential problems and the survey responses as to what percentage of respondents considered them to be an issue.

    As far as we are concerned bi-annual trimming is a win-win both for us in terms of cost and time saving and for wildlife.

    There are issues in terms of block cropping in that access to all hedges is restricted both by the timing of harvest in these blocks and by soil conditions. This tends to result in large areas cut annually in a block rather than say one side of a hedge cut and the other left untrimmed which is preferable. ES timing restrictions are impossible to adherer to given that most trimming needs to be carried out with contractors machines capable of dealing with two or more year's growth and this has been a major disincentive for ES take-up as farmers are rightly concerned about all inspections these days.

    As always its the detail that needs to be right to deliver benefits on the ground and unfortunately NE and other stakeholders need to engage better with the people who are ultimately responsible on the ground.

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    1. Julian - I take your point. And thank you for drawing that survey to my and others' attention.

      The survey also suggests that quite a few farmers and their contractors are woefully ignorant about the law and what management is best for wildlife. So, as always, it takes two to tango.

      No doubt the NFU were pressing hard for the best ecological solutions when the schemes were being designed - hang on! maybe they didn't?

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    2. In my experience most farmers find the ES hedgerow management prescriptions fairly simple to manage, the revised EB3 option rules are reasonably straightforward to follow.

      I would also add that in my experience cutting every two years rarely delivers the results required for most farmland bird species, better to have a smaller proportion of the farms hedges entered into EB3 (3-year rotation) with the rest cut annually than all of the hedges in the EB1 (2-year rotation). This particuarly applies to heavy land farms where the two years worth is likely to be cut in the autumn of the second year before the birds can benefit from the additional berry growth.

      Also I would add that the view put forward by many conservation organisations that rotational hedge cutting can save on hedge cutting costs is rather disingenenous, all things considered there is very little difference to a farms hedge cutting bill if they cut all of their hedges annually or 50% of the farms hedges every year (two years growth) or 33% each year (three years growth). Cutting three years growth or even two years growth on hedges with a lot of fast growing woody species (hazel, sallow etc) is time consuming and requires circular saw type cutters which are not cheap.

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  8. Mark Hi, Farmers are a mixed bunch as you know, one of the few professions were you inherit your business rather than create it and as such we are far from perfect. I do think though that the message is getting out there and that things are improving, take heart all is far from lost !

    I do think that part of the problem is that agriculture is moving at a frightening pace in terms of technical knowledge and that the disconnect between the regulatory bodies and the deliverers gets greater each year. I think we have discussed this before in terms of say Conservation Agriculture as an example ( http://base-uk.co.uk/about/ ) Conservation bodies need to catch up and ensure that the environmental benefits are maximised.

    p.s there are a few of us out there who don't believe that the NFU is the fountain of all knowledge !

    good to chat, back to the grindstone for me as the farm office desk is covered with enough paper to support several ground nesting birds !

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  9. In my experience when we cut hedges bi-annually the cost was as close as it was possible to tell double the cost of annual cutting so no cost saving,I also think from my observations that annual cutting of hedges with some large Hawthorn bushes left in corners of fields where it is probably difficult to get machinery in would provide many more berries than a hedge cut bi-annually as I do not think 2 year wood produces many berries.Just personal opinion of course and probably only relevant to Hawthorn hedges.

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    1. Dennis - this, from Hedgelink http://www.hedgelink.org.uk/hedgerow-management.htm#10_Top_Hedgerow_Management_Tips_9, seems to disagree with you on the value of 2-year-old wood:

      Don’t cut too often or too tight
      Although cutting is necessary to keep a hedge thick, if it is cut back to the same point every year it will produce few flowers or berries. So try and cut just once every two or three year,s or each time let the hedge grow out and up a little. Another alternative is to cut just one side or the top each year. If you have to cut your hedge frequently, then try and leave occasional berry or fruit bearing trees to grow to maturity – one mature hawthorn can produce as many berries as 200 metres of hedge cut every year.

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      1. The top of the hedge tends to produce the thickest stems when left uncut, so a good compromise is to cut the top every year and rotationally cut the sides. Hedges cut every year aren't necessarily devoid of wildlife either. Some of our annually cut roadside hedges are full of ivy which prospers with regular cutting, providing late pollen and nectar for bees, and late berries for birds.

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