5 January 2001

BES- organic grassland is no better for birds

By Donald MacPhail

ORGANIC grassland is no better than conventional pasture in providing food for farmland birds, claims an environmental group.

The British Ecological Society says preliminary data from an RSPB survey has found no difference in bird numbers, despite organic farmings environmentally friendly image.

But the RSPB has distanced itself from this interpretation and the findings have been dismissed by organic regulator the Soil Association.

The BES says the survey of 400 grass fields on 23 lowland farms in Shropshire, Staffs and Cheshire shows how intensive farming affects grassland bird numbers more than pesticide use.

Frequent grass cutting to make silage instead of letting it grow into hay means there are no stray seeds for winter food.

But Soil Association producer services manager Phil Stocker said the BES claims were not valid, as the data only considered over-wintering birds. He said organic farmers were just as likely to make silage as conventional farmers, which would give similar results for over-wintering populations.

But Mr Stocker said organic operations were more bird-friendly, as they were often mixed, with greater areas of grassland and increased arable cropping.

"This has considered one management technique rather than looking at the holistic nature of organic farming which provides the perfect foundation for integrated agriculture," he said.

He added that the BES failed to mention that the three well-established organic farms in the survey reported an increased number of thrushes, attracted by invertebrates found in organic matter.

RSPB head of terrestrial research Andy Evans said he was "disappointed" that the BES had focused on the organic farms without stressing that they were a small part of the ongoing research.

"There is a much bigger solution that we need to find to make grasslands more sustainable, and these solutions apply equally to organic and conventional farmers."

Mr Evans said if each farm planted a single acre of arable crops – ideally barley – it would have a huge boost to grassland bird numbers.

Dave Buckingham of the RSPB was due present the preliminary findings of the survey at the BES winter meeting at the University of Birmingham on Thursday.

The final results of the RSPB study are due to be published early next year. &#42