Hope continues to rise


Every picture tells a story – and this one tells a big story.

This graph shows the farmland bird index at the RSPB’s Hope Farm and in England as a whole.

It shows a slow, steady decline in England altogether (blue line)  but a massive overall rise (red line) at Hope Farm. Read more about the Hope Farm experience here. I’m glad the ‘reds’ are on the up and up.

After a couple of years of falling bird numbers (partly weather-related – probably), the breeding population jumped up again this spring – that must have been a bit of a relief to all at Hope Farm.  When I called in at Hope Farm in July 2013 (there is a short account in the last chapter of A Message from Martha – because it relates to Turtle Doves) the folk there were a bit gloomy so I’m very glad that 2014 was a much better year.

Farmland birds, just like farmland crops, and farmland farmers, have good years and bad years – you mustn’t get too cocky in the good years nor too morose in the bad ones.  You can be judged as a farmer or as a conservationist by your record in the long run.

I was pleased to read that Skylarks were back up to 38 pairs as it is etched on my mind that when we (for at the time it was ‘we’) bought Hope Farm there were 10 pairs. I was hoping that we could get the numbers up to at least 20 but at the time I couldn’t have been sure that they wouldn’t fall to five!  Consistently getting over 30 pairs of Skylarks is a great achievement – but one that is open to many farmers across England through the funding available, from you and me, in agri-environment schemes.

We should soon see the UK figures for the index for last year – I wouldn’t be surprised if they went down a bit further (that’s what my eye-balling of the figures tells me) but we’ll have to wait about a whole year before the 2014 figures are available for the UK as a whole, or its constituent countries.


So, just remember, the blue line is the average farm and the red line is the RSPB. Who would you want to be guiding agri-environment spending  – the NFU or the RSPB? Who would you want Defra to listen to if they are to get anywhere near the 2020 target for biodiversity – the NFU or the RSPB? Who would you want to ensure that the billions of pounds of your taxpayers’ money that is paid to farmers is spent well – the NFU or the RSPB?

There is a pretty clear message here for Defra – mind the gap! It’s a chasm not a crack.


An NFU display at the Melton Mowbray Food Festival a couple of weeks ago. Rather unfortunately it portrays a countryside that is green but has hardly any wildlife in it. And what wildlife there is, is pushed to the margins. For once – this seems like a pretty honest appraisal of the situation.





38 Replies to “Hope continues to rise”

  1. Call me crazy, a heretic and so on, but much as I recognise the amazing work that RSPB does, I would actually prefer it if the the vast bulk of the dwindling agri-environment pot was not spent on farmland birds Mark.

    1. Miles – the vast bulk is not spent on farmland birds, it’s spent on farmers! That’s why the blue graph is not the same as the red one.

  2. The dip in 2012 and 2013 in the red line shows that not even the great work at Hope Farm can overcome dreadful weather. I expect the blue line to drop in 2013 and rise in 2014. It does show what an impact climate change has.

  3. Rather unfortunate that the poster appears to suggest ‘planting trees and woodlands’ equates to ‘looking after the environment’, whereas it’s surely now well enough known that planting as currently practiced is the greatest threat to existing trees and woodlands, and all the other wildlife they support.* At least this plantation can’t do that much harm – as it’s in the middle of the North Sea. Or is that designed to symbolize all the saplings that have been exported for growing on and then imported back and claimed to be of ‘local provenance’?** If so what a splendidly witty sense of irony the poster designer has! Similarly the reference to planting and trimming hedges, which is borderline satire given the number of hedges grubbed out in the last 50 years and the barbaric treatment many of the remaining ones receive. No wonder the thin blue line is heading downwards.
    * http://littletoller.co.uk/2014/07/the-ash-tree-by-oliver-rackham/
    ** https://markavery.info/2012/11/07/guest-blog-ashes-ashes-peter-marren/

  4. Just trying to get in before Dennis does.

    As much as I applaud the RSPB Graph as you do, isn’t there a bit of a mismatch here. If you start with a smaller pot (Hope Farm) than any increase or decrease is bound to be a big one. If your pot is bigger (UK Farmland) then any increases or decreases will be averaged out and therefore smaller.

    That isn’t a criticism of anything the RSPB does just a mistrust of statistics generally.

    1. Bob – no.

      If every farmer did something a bit like the RSPB has done then the graphs would overlap. Both graphs start at a nominal 100 in the year 2000.

      It’s just like plotting your income against the country’s income – it shows very clearly whether you are doing well or badly compared with everyone else.

      1. If I was a breeding bird I would move to Hope Farm thus reducing the population where I was before

      2. On this one I struggle. The RSPB had 10 pairs of skylarks and now they have 38, that is excellent. But with 1.5 million pairs in the UK the number would have to go up to 4.5 million+ to get the same graph but not all farmers could produce skylarks.

        I am more than happy that the RSPB are doing the right thing and I am sure a lot of farmers are as well and other farmers aren’t.

        It is the comparison of stats that bothers me. What is an average farmer. It is a bit like comparing your income to the ‘average wage’ of 25,000 when we know that the majority are on a lot less than that. It take a lot of minimum wage earners to average out a Premier League footballer. The worker on minimum wage does statistically better every time the Chancellor raises the tax threshold (and doesn’t the Chancellor like to tell us that). That still doesn’t leave that person any better off than the footballer.

        The RSPB Stats are excellent. The national stats aren’t. I just don’t think that this comparison is the be all and end all that is appears to be.

        1. Bob – well I don’t see what your problem is.

          If the red graph were footballers and the blue graph were the rest of us then it would be showing not that footballers earn more than the rest of us (although they do – but the graphs both start at a notional 100 in the year 2000) but that footballers’ earnings had increased a lot more (in proportionate terms) than those of the rest of us over the same period of time. The RSPB is earning nearly three times the number of skylarks than it uised to whereas other farmers are earning fewer skylarks.

          There is no reason at all why most arable farmers couldn’t do what the RSPB has done – the RSPB has used the available ELS agri-environment schemes which are open to all other (almost all – c96% I think) English farmers. If big farmers and little farmers, and ones who have lots of skylarks and ones who had few, all did what the RSPB have done then the blue graph would look like the red graph!

  5. Again, this may be anticipating a comment from Dennis but the other critical piece of information would be the income earned per hectare. One would expect the RSPB to be able to produce more birds per hectare than the average farmer but, as I understand it, Hope Farm is intended to demonstrate that economically viable farming can be carried out at the same time as maintaining farm biodiversity so we also need to see that it achieves a reasonable financial return. I am sure that this is the case but it would be good to see the data that demonstrates it.

  6. Mrs T (not that one) is on a campaign to promote British Food – judging by her recent appearances and PR about using land for food instead of solar panels and a DEFRA press release that just appeared in my browser.


    That’s all v positive-sounding stuff and whenever possible Mrs C and I support home produced and the dubiously named artisanal foods although I notice that our current stock of hazelnuts was imported form Turkey. But what makes me slightly queasy is scale of the food export market and the huge number of UK companies and employees involved in sending our food elsewhere. While it is true that taxpayers pay significant amounts to farmers and in many cases this is what keeps them in the black they don’t just sit around the kitchen table drooling and counting and arranging it in piles but redistribute much of it to their national and local suppliers who operate at First World prices whereas farmed commodities are traded nearer World prices. The subsidy allows UK food manufacturers to purchase UK-produced raw materials at competitive prices so that the aforementioned food market can exist. Doesn’t it?

    But – not being a Economist and having laboured for some time under the impression that economic theory was about the pricing of Elastic – what I would like explained to me in words of few syllables and not including the airy dismissal that we are a Trading Nation is why it is a Good Thing to continue to use subsidy to drive our land hard so that food can be exported to Them when it is Us what is paying for it?

  7. Before everyone goes to bed I want to tell you a fairy story.
    There once was a organisation with so much money that came from members and from people who left huge amounts for them when leaving this world that they did not know what to do with all this money so decided to buy a farm and cleverly call it Hope Farm to show all those nasty farmers that they could get more birds on their farm than those nasty farmers could then every so often they could kick those nasty farmers.
    It did not matter that the farmers had to buy their own farms and this organisation used not one penny of their own money or that the farmers had to pay mortgage and/or rent also had to make a decent return on their own capital and do all the work as this clever organisation got someone else to do ALL the work for a share of the profit.Really cleverly PERHAPS as they were a charity any profit was probably not taxed whereas those nasty farmers if they were guilty of making a profit had to pay tax.This organisation conveniently never mentioned that those nasty farmers kept almost everyone in the country well fed while their own reserves as they called them produced really hardly any food at all.
    The moral of the story is simple farmers use farms to produce food for people.
    Hope farm is not financially viable as a economic proposition putting it on a equal footing with commercial farms even though it is on some of the best land in the country.
    Comparing it with other farms is very unfair.

    Yes I wish farmland birds were improving in numbers but two issues need addressing before many farmers will do anything to improve the problem.(I have said many times what these two issues are)
    My guess is that all farmers past and present wish that they were given a farm and someone else did the work for a share of the profit and the farmer could crack on about how good and clever they were.

    1. Dennis – Farmers use farms to make money, land is a resource. They make money from it from through agri-welfare payments or from the subsidies from diversification (turbines, solar panels &c.) maybe even by growing food to feed cattle or even people. I know some wonderful farmers who care about wildlife, conversely I know some agri-industrialists (monocultures devoid of wildlife) who just expect welfare payments to keep up maintain their lifestyles. People, a diverse bunch?

      I can elect to give to charity or not, I have no choice about funding farm support – is that democracy or what?

  8. Excellent stuff, it just goes to show we could turn around the devastation of UK farmland birds with a bit of effort, just wish more farms could do the same.

  9. Can someone explain to me how a few more farmland birds contribute to biodiversity? And how much have those 30 pairs of skylarks cost? Am I getting value for money for my RSPB contributions and the taxes I pay?
    Far too much money is spent on focusing on particular species instead of considering how we can encourage real biodiversity, and certain bird species do seem attract a large proportion of this cash. Most of the large conservation bodies dream of an agricultural idyll, a time when farmers loved and cared for nature. Of course that idyll probably never existed, it was just a time when farmers could not fight nature as effectively as they can now, and if it ever did exist it is long gone and cannot come back. It is about time they all stopped pretending that farmland is the lands “natural” state and stopped spending so much money on futile schemes to have a few more skylarks or to preserve half an acre of antique hay meadow- things that would not be there if the land was actually in its “natural” state.
    Of course in reality this dream is fuelled by these agri-payments, as are other abominable schemes such the widespread enclosure of common land (yes now, not the 17th century) and the use of the mechanical flail and the introduction grazing animals at every opportunity. even on nature reserves, to destroy “unwanted scrub and vegetation “. Unwanted by who? Nature? Don’t even get me started on the destruction of woodland and the artificial acidification of the soil to recreate another archaic landscape, the man-made heath! All funded by ELS, HLS, or whatever acronym they use now. All attempts by conservationists to fight, as do farmers, against and not for nature. Indeed I see these conservationists as nothing more than farmers or gardeners, and are more interested in where the next grant is coming from rather than doing anything useful with the one they have.

    1. Don’t knock the agri-payments too much. The NGOs with land holdings would be far worse off without them.

      Agri-welfare payments need review and revision (yes I know they’ve just been) and redirected to public benefit not increased profitability for marginal agri-industralised monocultures.

  10. A huge proportion of the farmland of the UK is devoted to livestock production and dominated by grass, for these farming systems the example set by Hope Farm is of little relevance. I’ve often wondered why the RSPB haven’t set-up a dairy/livestock equivalent of Hope Farm.

    1. Ernest – that’s true. Why not? Because it would be much more difficult! that was the reason when I was part of the decision-making process. And also, what is the point of showing how it can be done when government and the farming community do not take up the easy-to-implement results of the work?

  11. And of course livestock farmers not interested in working hard on behalf of that organisation doing the work on something like a shared profit.In fact 90% at least would not consider working on their behalf and then that organisation taking some of the hard won profit and credit.All the best livestock farmers or prospective livestock farmers would find a way to do it for themselves and get the satisfaction for themselves.
    Farms in general should never be compared with Hope Farm which does really well for birds but would be hopelessly financially economic without all the benefits explained
    I also bet that 90% of those farmers criticised would love to get the profit in a year that lots of those at top of organisation who criticise them get in salary.
    However can they keep on saying Hope Farm is a commercial proposition,absolute nonsense.
    I strongly wish that arable farms took up the option of Skylark patches and there just has to be reasons that they do not take up the option if it is a paying proposition.
    Is it because they do not know about that option.
    Is it because even though they dispute it there is undoubtedly a lot of employees at that organisation who while saying politically correct things about farmers really have a dislike of them which transfers to why should I do what they want from the farmers.
    Surely it cannot be that the tractor driver cannot be bothered to press a button and lift a drill for a second or two.
    Somewhere there just has to be a reason and it would not surely be rocket science to ask 50 arable farmers the reason.(has this been done and if not why not)Surely if Skylarks would gain so much then it must be worth that little bit of effort.

  12. ” ask 50 arable farmers the reason.” good idea for a student project. I fear it would be like asking shoppers about why they buy stuff, the answers are not always what they do.
    I have a strong suspicion that “it cannot be that the tractor driver cannot be bothered to press a button and lift a drill for a second or two.” is a major part of the problem. “where?” “when?” aw heck lets just batter on. I have tried that an when it is throwing something random into a routine job it is a fag and breaks the rhythm untill you get used to it. Now if a bird watcher did it it would be more in the forefront of his mind. You have to get the driver/ farmer to “own” skylarks”.
    Now we hear more of computers/gps controlling machines we need to talk to the programmers done once and set as a default it would help. Any agronomist programmers out here who could advise?

  13. On the skylark subject my pet worry: A neighbor, without skylark patches, grows maize skylark nests and then land cultivated late April for maize. (I hoped it had nested in a poorly developed bit of the crop.)
    Should not any farm which grows game cover maize have to have skylark plots to reduce the risk of this “bycatch” of skylark nests . There is a another project for a student with a drone and infrared camera to quickly see where skylarks are nesting on pheasant shoots with maize game cover to see how big a problem this is. Then again the skylarks have probably disappeared already due to this attrition.

  14. I’d suggest that most of the comments miss the point almost completely – for me the big issue is how big is the difference between the two lines in terms of lost production – probably ( and Mark no doubt can confirm it) very, very small indeed 2 or 3 percent, not 10s of %-and we are wrecking farmland birds and so much more for such a miniscule difference. The produce more and more/ food security arguments just don’t wash but seem to have a life of their own. The bottom line is that Hope Farm demonstrates that you xan have it both ways – but across the board ( and I’d include conservation/ biodiversity in that) there is little interest in making the links, only in promoting single , narrow agendas.

  15. Roderick,Hope farm demonstrates we could all drive ferrari’s if someone else bought them for us.
    Farmland birds will improve most and faster only when conservationists get on good terms with majority of farmers and that seems unlikely to happen,goodness knows why such barriers exist but rest assured if majority of farmers wanted more Skylarks and other farmland birds it would happen.
    I see both sides of the coin and although I guess people think I am on one side that is not the case.
    In my opinion each side have quite a dislike of the other,how crazy when only good relations will help farmland birds.
    Conservationists,why not call a truce with NFU and ask for their help to promote Skylark patches.I know all the objections but if someone like Nelson Mandela after all his treatment can talk to the other side surely something simple like this should be no problem,after all it would not look good for them to turn a simple request down.
    Here is the leading question —-Does it suit conservationists to have discord with farmers??.Sadly I rather think it does.
    I do wish people would stop quoting Hope Farm,it all means absolutely nothing.
    Please quote something that has a meaning from a farm that is a practical farmer with good results for farmland birds.
    Of course we should praise the research from Hope Farm that proves Skylark patches work.

    1. Dennis, I do think that you have something of a blind spot on this topic. You are all for going all guns blazing into the hen harrier issue but any comment on the undeniable fact that modern farming methods have caused a massive slide in biodiversity (which is actually a rather bigger problem, I’d suggest) seems to bring out an anti RSPB streak in you. I don’t think there is really any evidence that the RSPB or its staff ‘hate’ farmers and clearly they work productively with many farmers in many areas. They would surely be guilty of dereliction of duty, however, if they failed to address the impoverishment of farmland biodiversity we have witnessed over the last forty or fifty years.
      You keep asserting that Hope Farm is not a useful example and that it does not reflect the true economics of farming and I would be grateful if you could provide some evidence to support this (not airy assertions but figures from a credible source). I believe that one of your arguments is about the costs of land ownership/tenure that are not reflected in Hope Farm but as I see it that is a red herring. The Smiths Gore analysis quoted by the RSPB in its report on Hope Farm (see Mark’s link above) shows that, on the same piece of land, a significantly higher gross margin can be achieved from skylark plots than from producing winter wheat. If that is the case, if your land ownership or tenure costs are high then there is all the more reason for you to implement the land management practice with the higher rate of return i.e. skylark plots… I am aware that this example may not cover all aspects of the economics of wildlife friendly versus orthodox farming but it certainly makes a strong case for skylarks.
      I am sure that you are right about one thing, namely that it is important for the RSPB and other conservation bodies to remain in dialogue with the farming industry. I am not sure what you mean by a ‘truce’, however, and do not see any need for the RSPB or others to pull their punches when taking part in this dialogue. It is important that the conservation bodies should continue to strenuously argue against public funding mechanisms that encourage the destruction of wildlife in the farmed landscape and that they should actively promote examples such as Hope Farm that show how alternative practices can benefit wildlife.

  16. Jonathon,you in many cases either miss what I say or deliberately put words in my mouth.
    I have never disputed that the results on Hope farm are good in bird sense.
    I have never disputed Skylark patches are good.
    I have never disputed modern farming has meant a decline in bird numbers
    Surely you do not think my opinion on Hen Harriers is wrong
    I have never said that farmland bird problem is not larger than he Hen Harrier problem but there is a difference that nothing connected with the farmland bird problem
    is illegal
    Ask a bunch of farmers if they feel the RSPB dislike them,remember I live amongst them but dispute I am anti RSPB,
    I have been a member for many years(in fact more years than I was a member of the NFU)and have said many times which you must have seen that they have done lots of things that I have had lots of enjoyment from and those on the ground have been particularly good to my OH and myself,in fact I have repeated that many many times.
    I have no problem with RSPB highlighting that there is a problem with farmland birds but whatever you may think there are many at that organisation who say one thing but really have a different opinion.
    Of course the evidence is plain to see about Hope Farm not as a economic practical farm the figures are put out by RSPB about Hope Farm profits so you can analyse them quite easily just like I had to our own when we were farming but how can anyone compare a farm that the owners got for absolutely nothing anyway.
    Cannot understand your criticism of me about the Smiths Gore bit,I have never repeat never disputed that particular fact that Skylark patches can pay better than the crop grown in them would have.Mark told me years ago that was a fact and of course I believed him with the proof.IN fact if you look into all my comments over many years you would find I have tried to promote them even though ridiculed for it by saying things like why does the RSPB not simply ask 50 arable farmers why they do not have Skylark patches.It is simply such a obvious easy thing to do that there just has to be a simple reason why it is not done on all arable farms.
    At the risk of being anti RSPB.why do they not find out.With their brains and all those volunteers it must be a very simple exercise.
    You would find that most farmers dislike the RSPBs attitude of pretence that they are on the farmers side when clearly they have a different side if they can have a go at farmers to encourage more subs.Your comment including a bit about the RSPB working with many farmers,well you need to be more specific because in fact the number compared to the total of farmers is minuscule but and here is the rub really wherever they ask for help from farmers it is probably always given in fact I would think it has always been given and there are many instances of this which is why I cannot understand their general approach to farmers.For instance do you think the Great Crane Project would stand any chance of success without massive help from the Somerset Level Farmers.
    Even your last bit is wrong.What the RSPB need to do and again you will find I have said this many times is they need to campaign to get the farm schemes to pay for things that will improve farm birds because at the moment they do not pay for the most important things to be done and who can blame farmers for doing the easy things and picking up the money,that is human nature across all walks of life.
    You start off wrong and finish wrong.How can a member be anti RSPB and if you think that you ought to produce something where what I have said about RSPB was wrong.My guess is you would really struggle but and this is really their problem they only want yes members and so have removed me from their forum for my stance on Hen Harriers while my subs go towards the cost of that forum that has many yes people on it from other countries.Weird but true.

  17. Hi Dennis
    I don’t think I have put words in your mouth at all – and certainly not deliberately. I did not say that you have questioned that the results on Hope farm are good in a bird sense or that you have disputed that Skylark patches are good – read what I wrote again and you will see that is true. I did suggest that you seem convinced that the RSPB hates farmers and the evidence for that is in your ‘fairy tale’ in which you characterise the RSPB as wanting “to kick those nasty farmers” (your words). I suggested that I don’t think there is really any evidence for this and if you think there is we will probably just have to disagree. What there is evidence for is that if we care about wildlife in the countryside we have to change something about the way it is managed which – since farming occupies such a large chunk of the land means changing something about farming. If the RSPB and other conservation bodies want to bring about a change in this area then they surely have to communicate very strongly that something is wrong and needs to be addressed – don’t you agree? If they don’t argue their case forcefully what chance is there of achieving anything?
    Now, what is being asked is not that farmers should abandon the land or anything terrible like that but that within an otherwise orthodox approach to cropping they incorporate some relatively small measures (for which they receive cash) that allow birds, insects and other wildlife to thrive on the farm. Hope Farm purports to demonstrate that this can be done whilst still operating in a productive, profitable way and that other farmers can follow its example without risking financial rack and ruin. If you think this is not the case then you need to show that farmers who don’t bother with skylark plots and beetle banks etc get significantly more income per hectare.
    I accept that as a long term member you are not anti RSPB but feel that sometimes your criticism of it can be unbalanced especially with respect to its stance on agriculture.
    PS I don’t think your opinion on Hen Harriers is wrong at all – I was merely pointing up a contrast in your apparent approach to the Hen Harrier problem compared with your approach to the loss of farmland wildlife. I do understand that the persecution of Hen Harriers is both illegal and unnecessary which makes it inexcusable whereas the damage to farm biodiversity has occured as a result of people legitimately going about their business (and producing food for the rest of society). That makes it more complicated and difficult (in some ways) to deal with but that does not mean we should shy away from the problem. I think we both agree on that ???
    PPS In case you were wondering it was not me who clicked ‘dislike’ after your post (or any of your posts in fact).

  18. Jonathon,no I never even thought you may have clicked the dislike button.
    Probably people mistake my passion for something to be done as anti RSPB,nothing really could be further from the truth but sometimes I find their attitude extremely frustrating.I will explain by my thinking on Skylark patches.
    Yes they obviously work(although I have some doubts whether that is absolutely true in areas unlike Cambs as where more Badgers and Foxes are in several areas they would probably soon work out that they travel down the tramlines in the crops to the patches for a meal,so probably work needs doing in those areas).
    I do however wish for something like two and a half times more Skylarks so assuming that it will work out my frustration with RSPB is this.
    Having in reality used masses of members money on Hope Farm it appears to me that the best thing from it is Skylark patches work.
    The fact is that option on ordinary farms has not for some reason been taken up so all that effort,research is absolutely wasted.
    The obvious thing must be to find out why farmers are not putting Skylark patches in the arable fields,surely that is the easy cheap bit compared to the proving they work.
    Maybe lots of farmers do not know about them as I would guess they are not looking for that research they will be looking for crop research.
    My guess is that if I asked some farmers what RSPB meant some would not know and some would say do not swear here.
    We desperately need to know the answer to the question why they are not putting them into their fields before yes before criticising them.
    If the RSPB see it as a serious problem then they would at the very least find out from a survey of some arable farmers,as I have pointed out this is a very very cheap part of the equation and all that research is absolutely wasted unless these patches get put into practice.
    Those who do use the dislike button when someone is trying to help need to comment and give me the answers to this particular problem and at least I would have the satisfaction of knowing they were not just employees being yes people.
    I have repeatedly stated that I think probably something like 95% of what the RSPB is very good and if those RSPB members think everything the RSPB does is fantastic then they live in cloud cuckoo land.

  19. Is there any reason why the RSPB couldn’t operate some kind of farm assurance scheme so that farmers could potentially get a conservation premium on sales of their produce?

    Does anyone know whether the “conservation grade” cereal farms accredited by Jordans Cereals are demonstrably better for farmland birds? There does seem to be a market that’s not simply a niche one like organic.


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