Farm schemes help save birds

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FARMERS taking part in environmental schemes have been proven to be helping reduce the decline in farmland bird populations.

Scientists from the Thetford-based British Trust for Ornithology have used its Breeding Birds Survey data to show that since the Environmental Stewardship (ES) scheme began in 2005 the worrying decline in once common farmland species, like yellowhammer, linnet and partridge, have slowed.

The report, by David Baker, Stephen Freeman, Phil Grice and Gavin Siriwardena, is this month’s ‘editor’s choice’ in the respected Journal of Applied Ecology.

It provides the first evidence that by planting areas of winter bird seed as part of the ES scheme farmers are impacting bird numbers.

It says: “This study shows that ES winter seed provision is producing some desired changes in landscape-scale population trends but that increased uptake, probably with improved management, will be required to produce national increases.”

It argues farmers can make big local impacts and says: “Management enhancing bird breeding habitats could be valuable in providing resources to support species’ future recoveries and could also benefit local breeding populations, even if national effects are small.”

The National Farmers’ Union backs ES with its own Campaign for the Farming Environment (CMFE)and East Anglian farmers have been at its forefront.

David Barker, chairman of Suffolk CMFE, said 70 per cent of the county’s farmland is under ES, ranging from entry level scheme that any farmer can do to higher level schemes for those with special habitats, like Elveden Estates with its Breckland areas.

Mr Barker, who farms at Westhopre and Great Ashfield, said: “It doesn’t surprise me they’ve said this. These wild bird seed mixes do not just supply seeds. In summer they provide a habitat for invertibrates, but they come into their own in winter, providing seeds from November to February — the hungry gap.

“On my farm we’ve had amazing flocks of birds. We’ve seen flocks back to the numbers we had 40 to 50 years ago.”

Under the schemes the farmers sow these mixes in late spring or early summer in field margins and odd corners, which Mr Barker says can have a financial benefit.

“You are taking out the less productive parts of the farm and gaining £30 a hectare for doing that,” he said. “But you’re also concentrating effort on the most productive parts. Our average yield per hectare has gone up because we’ve taken out the least productive parts.”

The report is at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2012.02161.x/full