FARMER-BIRD CONFLICT CAN
Profitable arable farming and the needs of birds need not conflict claims FWAG. Edward Long reports
ACCORDING to the British Trust for Ornithology many farmland bird populations have halved over the past 25 years. Some birds have suffered more than others – the grey partridge population crashed by 82%, corn bunting 80%, song thrush 73%, and skylark 58%.
"It was 15 years ago that the Game Conservancy highlighted the steep decline in grey partridges, yet it is only recently that anything has been done to reverse the situation," says Cambridgeshire FWAG adviser John Terry.
"If this sort of delay occurs before we react to save other bird species, it may be too late. The linnet, for example, is highly vulnerable and could vanish altogether.
"The lower grain price is focusing cereal growers attention on the economics of crop production and how to make a profit in the tough times ahead. But there are other important aspects to consider," says Mr Terry.
"No-one should forget the needs of wildlife. Consumers are now demanding that food, particularly vegetables and bread, be produced in an environmentally-friendly way. Soon these demands will spread to cover all foods.
"But with some careful planning and good advice, there need be no conflict between profitable farming and the needs of wildlife," he says.
Set-aside presents a prime opportunity to benefit birds. It has already slowed the fall in bird numbers and more can be done, Mr Terry argues.
Land under permanent set-aside can be left to regenerate naturally, or be sown with tussocky grasses and wildflowers to provide areas of short and tall vegetation. Varied cutting regimes then add interest and diversity, he says.
"The scruffier it looks the better for wildlife. But it should be planned scruffiness. Under current rules up to 25% of each set-aside field, plus a 2m wide strip along the boundary, may now be left uncut for up to three years."
Meanwhile, rotational set-aside provides untouched cereal stubbles, containing spilt grain, weeds with seeds attached, and succulent, new green growth as winter feed for birds. "In the spring these areas are heaving with insects so are an ideal brood rearing area for partridge chicks," Mr Terry adds.
Even in non set-aside fields much can be done to improve habitats. Fields corners could be handed back to nature, field margins widened and beetle banks created.
Rounding off square corners makes fields easier to cultivate, drill, spray and combine. The corners can be planted with trees and shrubs to provide nesting sites and feeding areas.
A field margin just 1m wide can boost insect numbers, but 2m is the minimum for grant aid. FWAG calculates the cost of preparing the seed-bed for a 2m wide grass margin is about £98/ha or £1.96 per 100m strip.
Ryegrass-free stewardship grass mix costs £36/ha and 1kg of wildflower seed adds £64/ha, giving a total cost of £100/ha or £2/100m.
The cost of maintaining the strip – mowing three times in the first year – is £60/ha or £1.20/100m.
If hedge replanting is impractical, 2m wide beetle banks to give insects access to crops and link otherwise isolated islands of woodland and wild areas are invaluable, says Mr Terry.
They are particularly good for birds like skylarks which dislike headlands and field margins. The banks can either be part of the farms set-aside requirement, or qualify for grant aid under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
A beetle bank can be up and running in just two years, he explains. It can be built by ploughing two furrows in from either side to form a ridge. Leaving it to regenerate is an option, but sowing tussocky grasses like cocksfoot or timothy is better, he says.
Apart from the land used, a bank costs almost nothing to create. FWAG says the total cost, including land preparation, seed and loss of crop is £60-80 for a 400m bank across a 20ha (50-acre) field. A 2m wide strip attracts an annual grant of £15/100m.
To minimise inconvenience the bank or strip can be aligned within a tramline. But the sprayer operator must remember to switch off or close a boom section for each pass.
One area where modern farming and conservation is still at loggerheads is block cropping. Birds may have to fly much further than in a more varied landscape to find food. Returning to patchwork cropping would provide more localised feeding opportunities, he says.
"That may cut farming efficiency. But there will be a massive gain for birds, and in the public perception of farming activities in the area."
Indeed good farming practice will do much to benefit birds, says the Game Conservancys Peter Thompson. "The use of more target specific insecticides instead of broad-spectrum materials is one obvious measure."
Avoiding the destruction of hedge bottoms is also important. Once opened up they are soon colonised by annual species like barren brome and cleavers. Weeds are too often fed with nitrogen and the combine then cuts up close and spreads their seeds across the headland.
"The whole headland then has to be sprayed to control these weeds, yet it is an area where the potential yield is usually 18-20% lower. It would make far more sense to leave a 2m wide margin." Yellowhammers in particular would benefit from the resulting high insect populations in the grassy hedge bottom. *
FWAGs John Terry says beetle banks (far left) and uncropped field corners (left) can help improve the bird appeal of arable fields.
• Bird numbers plunged overpast 25 years.
• Consumers want wildlife protecting now.
• Manage set-aside better.
• Return corners to nature.
• Build beetle banks.
• Low cost margin strips.
• Choose inputs with care.
• Costs need not rise.
Adding a wildflower mix to field margin strips costs as little as £1.28/100m and brings real benefits.