NO LOSS of yield, but a 49% breeding boost for skylarks can come from leaving small undrilled patches in cereal fields, according to the results of a two-year, industry-funded project.

Just two 4mx4m patches per ha in crops across the UK could halt and even reverse the 52% decline of the rare farmland bird, said the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Results of the first phase of the £3.6 million Sustainable Arable Farming For an Improved Environment (SAFFIE) project were announced at ADAS Boxworth on Tuesday (June 8).

The initiative, started on 15 sites in Oct 2001, has shown other birds in decline, such as the yellowhammer and grey partridge, may also benefit.

RSPB head of conservation science David Gibbons said he hoped the undrilled patches might capture the imagine of the public and arable farmers in a similar way to crop circles.

“If these undrilled patches were created on just 20% of Britain‘s arable farmland and stubble left over winter, we could halt, then reverse, the decline of skylarks,” he said.

Environment minister Elliot Morley pointed out the undrilled patches could also help fulfil the requirements of the new Entry Level Stewardship Scheme.

“Everyone wins if farmers use these patches,” he said.

“I hope farmers across the country will make the most of these patches so skylarks will once again become a common sight on British farmland.”

SAFFIE chairman and Kent farmer Jonathan Tipples said the patches, a key project within the Voluntary Initiative, are a win-win solution for farming and wildlife.

“They are easy to establish and do not have any effect on farming profitability.

“I am delighted that SAFFIE is demonstrating that farmers can improve the environment on their farms at no cost to themselves.”

A move to winter cropping, better weed control and better varieties creating more dense ground cover has led to a 30-year decline of farmland birds, especially skylarks, said the RSPB.

The undrilled patches provide habitats and feeding grounds for the birds.

The project, co-funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Home-Grown Cereals Authority, the Crop Protection Association, RSPB and others, will continue on 28 farmland sites until 2006.