People say that the world is speeding up, but some things take quite a while. I remember work starting on this paper, whilst I was still working at the RSPB in 2010: Twenty years of local farmland bird conservation: the effects of management on avian abundance at two UK demonstration sites, by Nicholas Aebischer, Chris Bailey, David Gibbons, Antony Morris, Will Peach and Chris Stoate.
It brings together the changes in farmland birds on two farms: Loddington, 292ha of Leicestershire, managed by the GWCT since 1991 and Hope Farm, 181ha of Cambridgeshire managed by the RSPB since 1999.
Both farms have done spectacularly well in their bird numbers, compared with other farms covered by bird monitoring surveys in their regions. If all farms in the East Midlands performed like Loddington, and all farms in East Anglia like Hope Farm, then the farmland bird issues would, basically, be solved. At both farms the main tools have been use of existing agri-environment schemes. It’s really that simple.
At Loddington, over 20 years, the farmland bird numbers increased by about 50% in the absence of legal predator control of crows, foxes etc. Bird numbers increased more in early years when the unrealistic expense of a full-time gamekeeper was employed on this small farm, but a 50% increase in bird numbers, when all around are losing theirs, is a great achievement.
At Hope Farm, farmland bird numbers trebled in just 10 years. A fantastic achievement. All achieved without predator control.
And if we were to delve deeper into the figures, then Hope Farm does better on the increase in Farmland Bird Index, Farmland Specialist index, Biodiversity Action Plan index and the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List index. In other words, the RSPB farm is consistently better at increasing the numbers of endangered and decreasing farmland birds whereas the GWCT farm does best on non-threatened and non-declining species. Both are admirable, but one is more admirable than the other.
I only put it quite as baldly as that because we have had the GWCT extolling the results at Loddington for so many years that they do have to be put in context. The end densities of farmland birds (see Table 2 if you won’t take my word for it) are higher at Hope Farm than at Loddington – so it isn’t, as might otherwise be surmised, that Loddington was so good in the first place that it was difficult to improve – the Hope Farm results overtook those of Loddington by some way.
Although the paper contains quite a lot of discussion about the role of predators in these stories, a decent referee would have cut a lot of that out since there were no studies of predation involved in this new paper.
It does appear to have been more difficult to increase bird numbers at Loddington than at Hope Farm, or at least so the GWCT found it, and that may be because of more woodland (perhaps making some areas of the farm, near to woodland, less attractive for some open-country species), or it might be that the woodlands harboured predators, or it might be that the woodlands harboured lots of hungry pheasants who were competing with proper farmland birds. Or it might be lots of other things. It might even be that more woodland means more pheasants which artificially increases predator numbers. Who knows?
Maybe GWCT and RSPB should swap farms to see what happens – that would be really interesting over another 10 years.
But the take-home message from this study is that the decline in farmland birds, which continues, is not inevitable – it is a choice. It is a choice made by the farming industry and government. Either could, at any time over the last couple of decades, or starting today, fix the decline in farmland birds very easily. We are pouring hundreds of millions of pounds into farmers’ pockets in environmental payments every year, and what we get for our money is continued decline in farmland wildlife. These two examples show that a bit of good habitat scattered around the food-producing areas of a productive farm, can bring the wildlife back. Why not?
Liz Truss – why not get on and do it?