High Hope

Skylark flying high Photo: Tim Melling
Skylark flying high
Photo: Tim Melling

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?

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23 Replies to “High Hope”

  1. Mightn't part of the solution be for NGOs starting to point out that farmers making an effort - with or without agri environment payments - are still very much the exception? Seems to be an awful lot of effort going into keeping the conscientious ones onside by referring to their industry in general as being supportive. Obviously not true given my personal experience and the data on bird populations. We shouldn't be letting the NFU paint their clients as dedicated conservationists whilst pushing for changes in the habitat directives and opposing virtually every new conservation initiative, from more trees on the hill to beaver and lynx reintroduction. They often try to justify this on 'food security' issues yet have nothing to say about our staggering levels of food waste, changes on our diet or prime agricultural land being built upon. I believe more honesty is required re the true state of farming and at best apathy of too many farmers.

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    1. In 2012, 68% of English farmland was covered by agri-environment schemes, that is, 6.29 million hectares (mha) of farmland - 90% of this was covered by ELS. These agri-environment schemes are entirely voluntary so it would seem lots of farms are at least trying to make an effort but something is going wrong along the way. Hope Farm demonstrates that a good quality ELS really could work but most farmers (obviously) don't have the expertise that the RSPB has to try and make ELS work for both wildlife and their business. I suppose more advisors helping farmers put together better agreements would help but severe cuts at Natural England means this is unlikely and conservation NGOs also have limited resources to help with agri-environment agreements.

      New applications for ELS & HLS have come to an end but the new agri-environment scheme 'Countryside Stewardship' comes into practice in 2016...sadly uptake has been poor, Peter Thompson's blog about this today is interesting
      http://www.gwct.org.uk/blogs/peter-thompsons-wildlife-blog/2015/november/the-countryside-stewardship-scheme-the-message-from-farmers-is-loud-and-clear/

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      1. Coconut - thank you and welcome. That is, of course, a problem with scheme design. If income tax were designed so badly that i didn't have to pay any then that is a design fault. It's not that difficult really but successive governments have been prety hopeless, and this one is almost completely so.

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      2. Thanks for this - I'm cynical about the general level of commitment, as opposed to genuine ignorance, in delivering conservation within the farming community. I've seen far too many farms where they've put in extra effort so that hedges and waysides have been clipped and mown to resemble a formal suburban garden, not exactly beneficial to wildlife especially birds, wild flowers and pollinators. Where has been the outcry from farmers about their representative body's stance on dodgy pesticides, the habitat directives and conservation in general? The silence is deafening. When you do get an example of really positive initiative by farmers, such as the sheep farmers on the Pontbren scheme, it stands out like a sore thumb, so rare and despite various benefits rarely replicated. If the current agri environment schemes are flawed then what is the NFU doing to push for reform if they are the great conservationists they claim?

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        1. Thanks Les, all of what you say is true and many more farmers could be doing much more for wildlife and the environment...but you could also replace 'farming community' with 'the general public' or 'other UK industry' and the 'NFU' with 'the government' - indifference is the problem. In fact farmers in general are probably on the whole are slightly less indifferent than the general public to the plight of our wildlife. Farmers of course directly influence land management more than the general public but there are many more of the public than farmers so their indirect influence has the potential to be much much greater, as consumers for example. As conservationists we need to tackle the indifference of the public AND farmers. It's well known that the public get turned off when we talk about environmental doom and gloom all the time and wag our fingers at them for driving their cars - it's the same for farmers. I know of volunteers that work with farmers to put up owl boxes and help feed farmland birds etc - I know it's hard and takes a long time to establish trust but we should be doing more of this! Lets also get into schools, agricultural colleges and universities more so we can get to the next generation early - as far as I can see the conservation NGOs don't do this nearly enough.

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          1. Yes your definitely right about public too, but my issue is that we are being asked to swallow what to me is propaganda that 'virtually all farmers are conservationists', (whereas it's acceptable to denigrate 'townies') we get the same from members of the shooting community. I think that's what gets a lot of people's back up. They need to put up or shut up. We seem to just sit back and let them away with it, something I certainly won't be doing from now on.

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          2. Your hatred of farmers shines quite strong Les,ordinary farmers have very little say in anything the NFU says but obviously they want what will be the best financial package for farmers.
            Why do you expect farmers to be conservationists any more than butcher,baker,candle stick maker or any other business.
            I have never heard a farmer claim to be a conservationist except the few who actually produce the goods.
            There are actually quite a lot of examples of farmers doing good things for wildlife,just a few are
            Cranes in Somerset
            WTE on Mull
            Cirl Bunting in Devon
            Red Kites in Wales
            Corncrakes in Fens
            There are several who grow crops just for birds.
            You need to think that farmers respond to what 97% of the general public want and that is food.
            When a significant % of the population want farmers to be conservationists as opposed to farmers and the payments are weighted to that idea then that is what you would get.
            You seem to ignore the fact that unless farmers meet the requirements of any scheme he/she belongs in then they cannot claim any money.
            How many conservationists lobby for any change to the scheme that would help farmland birds,just perhaps a handful of the so called two million the rest are obsessed with flail hedging and that is more by far the reason than the NFU that hedges were put in the schemes making them easily accessible for farmers to claim and doing very very little for farmland birds which most conservationists do not bother about anyway,it is easier to sign a petition to stop the Badger cull than try to help farmland birds.

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      3. I've always thought that the 70% of land covered by ELS statistic was a bit misleading. What it means is that 70% was managed by someone with an agreement, but within that agreement only a tiny proportion of the land was typically being actively managed for conservation. Typically 1-2%? Given also that so many ELS management options were selected by the farmer because they 'rewarded existing good practice', that is the farmer didn't need to change a great deal, then there's little real surprise that ELS seems to have had little real impact on farmland bird numbers. The actual change it bought was very marginal.

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  2. As you point out, the various differences between the two farms and the landscapes in which they are situated make it difficult or impossible (at any rate from the information provided) to pinpoint why performance at Hope Farm differs from that at Loddington. The real take home message is that the application of a number of simple measures that could be implemented on any farm has such a striking positive impact on bird abundance. It really would (will?) be criminal for Defra to ignore this evidence and carry on as before.

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  3. I never believed for a minute that the small measures which were being implemented in the agri-schemes would be enough. The papers i read at the beginning seemed to be tailored to having as little impact on the farmer as possible.
    OK great, it was a scheme that didn't work and as such should be looked at as an experiment, albeit a failed one. Now it is time to try a whole new more radical approach. The info has been out there for years showing which farms do work, we just need, as Mark says, to get on with it. But with this present government it really is wishful thinking.
    We can start by buying organic as much as possible.

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    1. Defra radical, pah .... only when it comes to evidence failed culls.

      So, should we the taxpayer be equally radical by calling for a 'cull' of overweight agency puppet-masters?

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  4. So the science is there, the solution works - it's a no brainier, except that it sounds like a lot of other things that government is blind to or brainwashed into ignoring. If it isn't going to work from the top down, and let's not kid ourselves it isn't, then we need to be focussing on the bottom up approach - NGO organisations lottery bid funded education programme and support to farmers to sign up, there's enough of us out here to support the initiative in every way!

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  5. Mark one small thing first,what you talk about is in general only applicable to arable farms and that massive area of grassland is much more difficult to get results from and in my opinion the only thing that would have a significant effect would be if the payment for wild bird mixtures replaced just about everything else for payments on these farms. Agree with just about everything but I need to point out one big difference.
    Hope farm is owned by a conservation organisation that is quite rightly trying to improve bird numbers.
    Most farms are farmed by people in general not that interested in bird numbers but are running a business just like other business people and in general other business people are not interested in bird numbers.
    Make all the scheme payments weighted to do the right things to improve farmland bird numbers and then there is at least a good chance of farmers doing things that will help.Oh it would help if everyone who talks out of the parsons nose about hedges piped up about the need of wild bird mixtures needed on farms.
    By the way according to how many dislikes my comments get on wild bird mixtures(proven by the way at Arne RSPB)I am far from convinced that conservationists in general really care as much about farmland birds as they would have us believe.Conservationists generally speaking actually seem a bit weird to me,how come something like 300,000 plus seem concerned enough to petition against a Badger cull but only just over 5,000 belong to the Badger Trust,goodness me it costs about £24 to be a member and where are these conservationists to help stop the cull of Hen Harriers,because the cull of Hen Harriers in England is worse than the Badger cull
    Benefits of food are there for all to see as example the Goldfinch increase is simply food admittedly garden feeders but farmers with small areas of wild bird mixtures would have a similar impact even if we could not expect a spectacular increase.

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    1. Dennis - yes, this is mostly arable related. But there are now some quite impressive fixes for pastures too.

      You are right that the scheme has to be cleverly designed and the recent ones haven't been. This has allowed the money to flow for little benefit - not farmers' fault for taking the money, but actually one of the things that the NFU has argued for (and it is only farmers who elect their high-ups). If Defra had a clue they could construct schemes that were compliant with EU riles not onerous to farmers (and they are voluntary after all!) and did some good.

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      1. Mark agree but of course its the same old story.
        What % of farmers are in the NFU.
        What % in the NFU are really hobby farmers,moor owners etc and not true farmers.
        What % join the NFU simply for benefit of insurance.
        I guess at the end of the day 0.1% of farmers getting their heads together could get their preferred man in charge
        And just the same as lots of other organisations and this is sad and bad.Do not have the interest to go to meetings or bother who is voted in or in many cases feel they have no say in it as it is a small clique who have it sown up anyway.
        It is not only NFU it is in all walks of life ref Tory Etonites just one example and you surely agree it is difficult to change the system.
        There is a lot of money gone in these schemes and who could argue according to farmland bird numbers done very little good,human nature almost always takes the easiest option to pick up the cash and farmers were in my opinion led to believe everyone wanted hedges trimmed bi-annually job done.Turns out in my opinion it only really helped the Thrush family.

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        1. Dennis don't be too disparaging of hobby farmers at least from the wildlife perspective. Round here they are good for wildlife with their "wilderness reserves". The ex business men (estate agents, food manufacturers etc) plus the vast number of ordinary folk retiring from the expensive cities to the country who have in their small plots more land as mini reserves than the county Wildlife Trust.

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          1. Andrew,sorry if I gave the impression of disparaging hobby farmers,not my intention at all but I was trying to point out that like lots of other organisations the ordinary farmer including hobby farmers seem to have very little say in who becomes president of the NFU.
            I do believe anyway that conservationists believe the NFU have far more influence than they actually have and seize on odd items like the Badger cull as their proof but of course where there was sufficient opposition to the cull in Wales then the NFU does not seem so powerful in that light.

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  6. Maybe someone should point out to the supermarkets that some options are better than others and get them to influence their farm suppliers.
    Some supermarkets already have farm environmental schemes but I am sure lots of people sail along thinking the Defra scheme options are all good.
    I was amazed to find that link I posted the other day that Tesco was vetting soy sources to make sure that soy going into animal feed for their eggs and meat was from trad farm land and not cleared amazon forests etc. A similar check out for what environmental options are taken by UK farmers would have a far reaching effect.
    With supermarkets to consumer lobby group is somewhat larger than the farmers.

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  7. What has always been missing is enough time from appropriately skilled advisors to help design agreements that will deliver the right things in the right places - and just as importantly to follow-up with the farmer and ensure the right management is happening. This time input could come from NE advisors or from the NGOs or most likely, both. RPA do not have the skills to assess agreement compliance and they always seem to focus on stuff they can measure (like has the field been measured to the exact 1/100th of a hectare) rather than what matters to wildlife. NE also need help to resist the immense pressure they get put under to spend precious agri-environment money on schemes that they know will not work and which essentially just prop up uneconomic farming enterprises.

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  8. There is one thing we can all do for farmland wildlife. That is buy food produced from wildlife friendly farms. go to a farm shop, buy local ask if they are in an agri-environment scheme, ask what they are doing for wildlife. you are their customers we can have an impact! I produce lamb from a wildlife friendly farm if i could sell more then i could expand and bring more land into wildlife friendly farming.

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  9. Can RSPB make these papers available free. Similarly with Jenny Dunn's Turtle dove work discussed the other day. Two of us commented on not being able to find it on the free online website.
    I have therefore not read the paper but did read another review on in the Birdwatch newsletter.
    Re your comment about predators. (I realize you don't like GWCT banging on about predators but this is a correlation exercise not a randomized trial.)
    It appears there are more on the Leicester site, Birdwatch comment "At the Leicestershire site, where predators occurred at a high density, the recovery of species such as thrushes and finches – which make open ‘cup-like’ nests – required predator management as well as habitat improvement in order to boost numbers. In comparison, at the Cambridgeshire site, where the density of predators was low, farmland bird recovery was achieved solely by habitat management. Predator density is probably a function of landscape type, this being wooded with mixed farmland in Leicestershire, but open, flat and mainly arable in Cambridgeshire.

    Previous studies have found no evidence that crows and Magpies limit songbird numbers across the country as whole, but that they may do so locally. Further research is needed to understand how typical the Leicestershire and Cambridgeshire situations are compared to the rest of the country."

    I just raise the predator issue as we live in an area of free range pigs which support a vast number of corvids through the winter. So farming is surely distorting the predator prey balance that RSPB keeps extolling. (I can see their argument applies to Sparrow hawks which are totally dependent on birds)
    In the spring I watch families of jackdaws, magpies, crows and Jays working the garden shrubs looking for nests. It may be a small part of their diet but still have significant effect on productivity. Jenny Dunnn's work on yellowhammers showed that feeding of young was reduced when the adults avoided visiting in the presence of predators. Surely the same might apply to the choice of nest sites. (The crows that nest at the bottom of our field sit around the top of the tree a lot of the year, chasing all and sundry so they are pretty obvious.)
    I raise this because Free range pigs are expanding across the country so this "problem" is going to increase.

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    1. Yep, 20 yrs of great collaborative work, pity neither RSPB or GWCT could push it out into the public domain so farmers could take note and apply elements to their farms.
      Anyway, here it is in full (copyright busted) https://www.scribd.com/doc/289080580/20-years-of-farmland-bird-research-in-Bird-Study-via-GWCT-and-RSPB

      Draw what you can from it to help birds (rather than compete between NGOs....)

      ps Mark, you'll perhaps prefer this from Cranborne Chase re helping birds without mention of any partisan-whipped up NGO http://robyorke.co.uk/2015/11/buntings-hero/

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  10. I'm left wondering what the country might look like if we were spending c £4 billion on making it better - that is a modest estimate of what we spend today subsidising farming and dealing with the collateral damage. Worldwide it is far more scary - an estimated 300 million US dollars spent on subsidies by the first world - with specrtacular negative impacts on the developing world. i'm increasingly fascinated by the neoliberal love of the market - so much so they don't seem to be able to see a manrket without rigging it, no more so than for agriculture - and not even a squeak from a government apparently so keen to cut public spending - just as long as,as Ralph's cartoon shows, it doesn't cost their supporters.

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