Last week I received this letter from a farmer and I’m grateful to him for permission to publish it here along with my reply to him.
Dear Dr Avery
I have read articles and letters from you from time to time particularly in Farmers Weekly.
We have a small farm of about 150 acres of farmed land on the Essex/Suffolk border with 13 hedged fields and a good number of 6m ELS margins. The corners of the farm adjoin broadleaved woods.
As far as I am aware all our neighbours with much larger farms are in ELS or other conservation schemes and one has created a lake which attracts a wide variety of waterfowl.
You would have thought that our farm with its relatively small fields and extensive hedges would be protected from the decline in species but despite our own efforts and those of others I find that the number of species of farmland birds is reducing.
We bought our farm 25 years ago. With such a small farm we do not have large areas to set aside but we had hoped that increasing the periods between hedge cutting and the 6m margins which are now in their sixth year of operation would help to redress the balance.
Unfortunately this has not proved to be the case.
We have lost yellowhammers, lapwings, willow and reed warblers (in our garden) flycatchers, starlings and sparrows.
Although we leave the doors of our timber barns open so the swallows can nest in the beams, for the first time since we acquired the farm the swallows came, saw and decided to go elsewhere which was extremely upsetting. Similarly a barn owl who was sizing up one of the old barns decided not to stay.
We have gained a mating pair of buzzards although they have not appeared yet this year.
Sparrow hawks and kestrels seem to be staying with us as do brown owls of which there are a large number.
We also have a steady number of sky larks and green and spotted woodpeckers which is good.
A few years ago a retired farmhand passed by and he was telling me about the times when the fields were ploughed by horses and the wheat was threshed in the barns. Now the wheat is combined and stored in the silos of the contractor.
Standing in the farmyard where the old barns are located, he said that the thing that struck him most was that there were no sparrows pecking at the corn (there was none to peck)
I thought about this and I came to the conclusion that the biggest single factor contributing to the reduction in certain species has been the move to winter crops and the mechanization which does not allow the stubble to be grazed in the winter months when there is the greatest shortage of food. As far as our garden which covers around 3 acres is concerned, this has not really changed since we bought the farm so the reduction in species here must relate to some extent to climate change which may also affect the farmland birds.
Most of the farmers I know are concerned about the loss of the common farmland birds and those with large acreages are able to take positive steps to deal with the winter feeding requirement of some of these birds. Farmers and ornithologists must stay friends, we are all in this together.
And here is my reply:
Thank you for your interesting email.
I think that you are right to point to the change to winter cropping as being a very important factor in the changes in farmland bird numbers. It’s not the only one but it is a very important one.
The switch to winter crops had a wide variety of implications. Here are a few of them:
- loss of over winter stubble fields used for feeding by many finches, buntings, larks and sparrows
- stronger spring growth of cereals leading to earlier exclusion form the growing crop of skylarks
- over winter rape plants available to fuel increase in wood pigeon numbers
- greater profitability of winter cereals leading to increased specialisation of many farms in the east of the UK away from any form of livestock and to a cereal-dominated rotation which led to a more uniform countryside
And, I guess that one of the technological advances that allowed winter cropping was the more efficient herbicides that also reduced weed burdens in crops (which would be an important source of insect food the following year for birds).
Generally speaking, most resident birds need insects in the summer (to feed their young), seeds in the winter and safe places to nest. The switch to winter cereals affacts all three aspects for some species, eg the skylark, and one or two of them for other species.
In the West Country where I grew up the changes will have been different – loss of arable crops as specialisation there was towards dairy (and beef), earlier silage cutting, increased fertiliser use and wall-to-wall ryegrass.
And the migrant species you mention, for example the spotted flycatchers, probably are affected by climate change or perhaps by changes to conditions in their African wintering quarters.
I’m sorry you have lost some of your birds – it’s happening almost everywhere and it’s very sad. It’s easy for nature conservationists to remain friends with farmers like yourself who clearly care about wildlife and are sorry for its loss. It’s less easy to feel so close to the ‘leaders’ of your industry in the NFU who show very little understanding or concern for these issues (and they are elected by farmers not imposed on you all!).
But thank you for writing and if you’d like to talk more about this issue then do feel free to continue the correspondence.
best wishes (in a friendly way)
, via Wikimedia Commons”]Fight – amazing footage (look at the 15 April clip)
Eat – you’ll be surprised at what it is eating
A couple of weeks ago Stephen Moss wrote a guest blog here about the National Trust report, Natural Childhood, (which he wrote) which discusses the lack of connection between children and nature. Did you read the full report – it’s well worth it if you didn’t and it is quite short.
Now the National Trust has published its follow-up – 50 things to do before you are 11 3/4. I had a look at the list and reckon I had done 45 of them before I was 11 3/4 but have to admit that I was 11 3/4 before geocaching was invented! They aren’t a bad list at all although the list is so hedged with health and safety warnings that it makes it seem a little un-wild. I did particularly like the advice on rolling down hills. You should, apparently, choose hills with gentle slopes – how cissy is that? And avoid those where livestock have recently been – although it doesn’t tell you that it’s the cow shit that you should avoid rather than the cows.
This is well meaning stuff and I hope it has an impact (and I hope it wasn’t simply designed to capture my email address (yet again)).
Personally I would like to see Cameron, Clegg and Miliband collecting frog spawn, catching butterflies, rolling down hills (however steep and however recently grazed) and catching crabs (!). I wonder how they would get on? I suspect that Cameron and Clegg might feel a little more comfortable in the countryside than Miliband – what do you think?
I looked at the list and thought that I’d still like to do all of them – the idea that they are childish things is wrong. If Francis Maude, Eric Pickles and George Osborne spent more of their time, now, on night hikes or canoeing down rivers they might do less damage to our natural environment.
What I think is slightly underplayed in the NT report – just to show that I have read it and thought a little about it – is the role of adults in encouraging children’s interest in nature. Yes, we may be too worried that children will meet dangerous strangers if they are left to roam the countryside as I was able in my youth – either across the fields near our house or later on my bicycle through the country lanes to watch birds at Chew Valley Lake – but I benefitted from the encouragement of adults when I was getting interested in nature between the ages of 9 and 11 (after that I was completely hooked). My parents encouraged me in my interest in natural history – by which I don’t mean that they pushed me in that direction but seeing that I was heading in that direction they did things to make the journey easier like buy me binoculars and books and take me to places where I could see birds and other wildlife.
And two school masters were also incredibly important in giving opportunities to a bunch of teenage Grammar School boys to go birdwatching.
What were the influences in your early years?
You can read a little more about what influenced me when my book, Fighting for birds – 25 years in nature conservation, comes out in August.
And isn’t it interesting how you are voting in the polls of ‘loves’ and ‘hates’ of nature NGOs – look at how the National Trust is doing in each poll.
Sunnyhillboy was a whisker away from winning.
I enjoyed reading this.
I am writing occasional blogs for this site – but it has many good bloggers contributing too.
And here is something slightly different from me on another site.
I saw my first common tern of the year yesterday.
Do vote in the ‘marmite’ poll – the voting is fascinating so far.