Bird conservation: the seeds of change

Cirl Bunting by Ximo (commons.wikimedia.org)
Cirl Bunting by Ximo (commons.wikimedia.org)

When I started birding in the mid-1980s, I could walk a few hundred yards from my parents’ house in suburban Essex and see Tree Sparrows. At some point in the next five or six years they disappeared from this patch of wasteland bordered by farms. This pattern was repeated to such an extent that no breeding Tree Sparrows have been recorded in Essex since 1999, and most years there are only a handful of records of the species from the county. And Essex is not alone – the Tree Sparrow population in Britain in 2004 was only about 10 per cent of what it was when I was born in 1973. Nowadays, it sometimes seems that the best way to see a Tree Sparrow in Britain is to visit a nature reserve such as Old Moor RSPB or Rutland Water, where the populations are assisted by the provision of food and nesting sites.

Such steep declines have been repeated across Britain, in county after county. One farmland species after another has hit trouble, beginning with Corncrake, Stone-curlew and Cirl Bunting earlier in the 20th century. The trend has accelerated in the last 30 years to include Northern Lapwing, Grey Partridge, Turtle Dove, Skylark, Yellow Wagtail, Spotted Flycatcher, Linnet, Bullfinch, Reed and Corn Buntings, Yellowhammer, and even Starling and House Sparrow. All of these species declined by 43-89 per cent between 1970-2003. The State of the UK’s Birds 2004 report said that the farmland bird indicator showed a slight increase that year, but was still below 60 per cent of its 1970 value. It went on to explain that “although the prospects look brighter for farmland birds in England with the introduction of the Environmental Stewardship Scheme in 2005, Turtle Doves, Corn Buntings and Grey Partridges are still declining rapidly”.

Why the decline?

Of course, there are many possible reasons for these declines: climate change, disease and poor conditions on wintering grounds for migrant species. However, it is impossible to deny that the way that our countryside has been farmed for the past half-century has made it more and more difficult for certain species to eke out an existence.

The ethos of the UK’s agricultural policy in the post-war years was towards ‘productivism’ – getting as much land as possible into production and getting as high a yield as possible from that land. The problem is that we became too efficient at producing food, thanks to increasing mechanisation and use of chemicals, and this worsened with the introduction of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which helped finance the ‘improvement’ of land through the removal of important wildlife habitat features such as ditches, ponds and hedgerows. Importantly, even though the destruction of habitats like these continues, farmers and other landowners are no longer being paid to carry out such work. Instead, a change in approach has seen money from the EU and the UK government directed towards preserving and even creating wildlife habitats in the countryside.

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Dawn of a new era

This began with DEFRA's revolutionary Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) scheme in the mid-1980s, which was later joined by the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. Within designated ESAs around the UK, farmers signed 10-year agreements that paid them to manage the land for its conservation, landscape or historical value. ESAs encompass upland, wetland, moorland, coastal marsh and river valley habitats, and among their achievements in terms of bird populations are improving the numbers of waders in lowland wet grassland. In 2003 there were 12,445 ESA agreements in England, covering 10 per cent of agricultural land – an area of 640,000 hectares, which is almost 2,500 square miles and not far short of the size of Essex and Suffolk put together. ESAs were complemented by the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which was again based around 10-year agreements, with payments to conserve or create wildlife habitat. Target habitats include chalk grassland, lowland heath, wetland, coastal land, upland, old meadows and pasture, while payments are also available for features such as field boundaries, including stone walls, hedges and  ditches.

During 2005 a new scheme called Environmental Stewardship was launched. It is intended to eventually supersede both ESA and Countryside Stewardship.The difference is that, whereas ESA was only available in certain places and Countryside Stewardship only for certain specific measures, Environmental Stewardship will give all farmers the opportunity to enter a scheme and get paid to farm in a way that is beneficial to wildlife.

Environmental Stewardship comprises ‘entry-level’ and ‘higher-level’ options, with the former being very flexible and including such measures as hedgerow management, the provision of stubble and seed for intering birds, leaving uncultivated field margins and corners, and the creation of ‘beetle banks’ and ‘Skylark plots’. The latter is more specialised, along the lines of ESAs, and despite computer glitches should be up and running in early 2006. As of November 2005, in excess of 1,100,000 hectares of land in England – more than 15 per cent of the agricultural area and equivalent to Lancashire, Norfolk and Surrey combined – have been signed up for the basic level of Environmental Stewardship. Different schemes along similar lines will operate in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The comeback begins?

First signs of light at the end of the tunnel include small increases in the populations of some farmland bird species in 2003 and 2004. However, when the starting point is a population that is a tiny fraction of what it was 30 years ago, a small increase will not go far towards restoring numbers of birds to their former levels. Nonetheless, there is heartening evidence that these measures can work. Take for example Cirl Bunting in Devon, where specialist management by farmers has increased numbers from 118 pairs in 1989 to around 800 pairs today. Significantly, 95 per cent of the population is found within 2 km of a stewardship scheme.

Chris Sutton-Scott-Tucker owns Great Combe Farm in Dartmouth, and his work through the stewardship scheme has helped Cirl Buntings increase from five to 18 pairs (2.5 per cent of the British population) on the site in the last 10 years. Measures include leaving spring barley stubble over the winter, planting hedges and leaving out seed on 500 acres of land. Chris explained: “It was hard work at first, but I would definitely recommend environmental farming schemes. They make farming more interesting and on my farm have definitely increased the diversity of wildlife.”

It is clear that the measures included in the higher level of Environmental Stewardship can make a huge difference to many of the worst-hit species. The success at Great Combe was achieved using these techniques, and groups such as the RSPB are encouraging the government to increase efforts to enable farmers to take on more specialist forms of management for which they will also be paid. Lucy Bjorck, Agriculture Policy Officer at the RSPB, said: “Hitting the 1,000,000 hectare mark is excellent because Environmental Stewardship schemes will help many of our common farmland birds, but reversing the most severe declines will need more complex management measures. Take-up of the second level of Environmental Stewardship, which includes these measures, has been slow and this part of the scheme now needs a really big push.”

In addition to the ESA and stewardship schemes that now cover a substantial and increasing proportion of agricultural land in Britain, other producer-led ‘assurance’ schemes in operation include Organic, LEAF Marque and Conservation Grade – the last of which has been developed by Jordans Cereals. The company uses grain from 80 farms covering 56,000 acres, all of which are Conservation Grade or Organic.

Conservation Grade

Under this scheme, farmers are asked to take 10 per cent of productive land out of use and convert it into wildlife habitat. This includes planting ‘headlands’ of up to 20 metres of clover and other wild flowers, food plants for birds and rough grassland. Studies carried out by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology suggest that there is five times more wildlife on Conservation Grade plots compared to conventional farmland.

Jordans acquired Pensthorpe reserve in Norfolk in 2003 with a view to developing it into a show farm and nature reserve. Chairman Bill Jordan was on hand to show me around during a recent visit. The company has been running for 150 years and Bill is the fifth generation of the family to take the helm. It is now the biggest independent UK cereal company, in a market that is dominated by large American firms such as Kelloggs and Nabisco.

Jordans has been an advocate of environmentally friendly farming for at least the last 30 years. Bill recognises that “in the UK there has been more interest in the countryside in recent years, with people beginning to understand the link between food, farming and wildlife. Farmers have been cast as the ‘bad guys’ due to environmental degradation caused by intensive farming”. He sees the Conservation Grade scheme as a way of giving people a choice of buying from farms that manage their land for wildlife, explaining that “cheap food means either low standards or bringing in ingredients from abroad – neither of which are good for the British countryside – and that should be a worry to us all”.

The Conservation Grade farm at Pensthorpe lies in the Wensum Valley and is also part of an Enviromental Stewardship Scheme. Work so far has been very successful in attracting a range of butterflies, and Bill is very proud of the fact that one survey suggests the site has more dragonflies than the famous nature reserve at Wicken Fen. Pensthorpe is also home to breeding Kingfishers and Barn Owls and more than 30 pairs of Sand Martins.

Bill believes that Conservation Grade is more beneficial for wildlife than organic farming: “With organic, wildlife is a by-product, whereas with Conservation Grade the whole point is farming for wildlife.” Farmers are trained and inspected, in the case of Pensthorpe by Marek Novakowski, an agronomist from the Farmed Environment Company. Bill left me with the thought that once we have overcome the problem of changing the mindset of farmers – that the system is not geared to maximum food production any more – then it should be a much more straightforward task to deliver a farmland that can support wildlife in the concentrations it did 30 years ago.

The long-term vision at Pensthorpe

When Jordans bought Pensthorpe it inherited the large collection of wildfowl and other birds from the previous owner. Bill Jordan explained that the intention is to gradually refine the collection to focus on species of conservation concern – the first being Corncrake and Common Crane – with a view to carrying out reintroductions. English Nature is involved in the scheme and there are plans to swap birds with other organisations such as Whipsnade to keep gene pools diverse. Pensthorpe has kept Corncrakes since 1996. Ten females are needed to start a release programme and hopes are high that that figure will be reached in summer 2006. The seven Common Cranes on site have a four-acre breeding area with a predator-proof fence. It is hoped that the captive population can be increased using these birds. There are plans to breed other threatened wetland species from around the world. For example, Chief Aviculturalist Andrew Reeve is hopeful that some of Pensthorpe’s Laysan Teal will be used in a release scheme.

The future

The evidence presented here of producer-led schemes such as Conservation Grade and of farmers like Chris Sutton-Scott-Tucker actively enjoying farming for wildlife suggest a change in ethos among Britain’s farmers, while the greater availablility of environmental schemes mean that there are more opportunities than ever before for farmers to get paid for producing wildlife-friendly land.

Chris Knights, the well-known farmer and bird photographer from Norfolk, told me that “the prospects for farmland birds in the UK are fantastic, because if farmers put land into these schemes, they are able to make more money than they could by farming it”. He cites the example of a colleague who farmed 1,000 acres and made £35,000 in a year. If he had instead set aside much of the land he could have made more than £90,000. The economics speak for themselves and, if that is the case, then we should see a lot more habitat for birds and other wildlife appearing on farmland.

However, at the time of going to press, one of the proposed EU budgets for the next few years would see a compromise that involves the slashing of funding for such conservation schemes. Let’s hope that is not the case. If these schemes are the beginning of a recovery, the hope is that industrial farming will have caused merely a trough in the populations of these species rather than a terminal decline. Hopefully, the birds in question will recover from the lack of food and shelter in the way that raptors have bounced back from the DDT episode of the 1960s. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that in 15 or 20 years’ time I’ll be able to walk those same fields near my parents’ house to a chorus of chirruping from Tree Sparrows.


RSPB (ed). 2004. State of the Nation’s Birds 2004. RSPB, Sandy


Thanks to all at Pensthorpe in Norfolk for giving up their time and showing me around the site.