9 May 1997

A haven for the stone curlew

ARABLE farmer John Browning has created a haven for stone curlews using his set-aside acreage on one of his farms near Mildenhall, Suffolk.

Mr Browning, who farms 101ha (250 acres) on the Breckland Sands at Icklingham, said his concern at the loss of farmland birds and the unfeasibility of growing industrial crops on the light sandy soil led him to sign a four-year management plan with the RSPB.

The family has farmed in the area for the past 40 years, and when he was a child he remembers lots of stone curlews on the Breckland Sands. But the drive towards intensive farming and rise in pesticide use led to their decline.

Mr Browning believes set-aside, ridiculed by many rural sectors when it was introduced, has been a boost for farmland birds.

The set-aside land is mainly left to its own devices, as the sterility of the soil means vegetation does not get above 2in. Rather than cultivating, which he believes leads to a significant weed problem, he oversprays with a glyphosate.

"The short, closely-cropped ground is ideal stone curlew land and has led to the birds coming back, and while we have had to put some of the set-aside land into sugar beet, they do nest in the crop."

Mr Browning said he felt agriculture had become over-commercial and that as a result wildlife had suffered. "There are too many farmers who want to squeeze every brass farthing out of their land, and that their sole aim in life is to be as commercial as possible.

Countryman

"I see myself as a countryman rather than a farmer, who takes pleasure in farming and wildlife," said Mr Browning, who has put 20ha (50 acres) of water meadows into the Breckland environmentally sensitive area scheme.

Other conservation elements include the decision to plant 3000 broadleaf trees, replacing a storm damaged poplar plantation.

Andrew Clark, NFU countryside adviser, said: "Many farmers are actively involved in ensuring that various bird species are encouraged on to their land. Pesticide use has declined by around 25% over the past 10 years."n