I 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?