Wildlife scheme beats organic at boosting birds

Threatened farmland birds are likely to survive the winter better on conventional farms with specially designed wildlife habitats than on organic farms without, according to a new university study.

Winter farmland bird populations compared across three different wildlife schemes showed the Conservation Grade approach, that aims to grow crops efficiently while requiring farmers to establish and manage specific habitats for wildlife, produced higher survival rates than the organic sites.

Researcher Dominic Harrison, from the University of Southampton’s Engineering and the Environment department, said the greatest numbers of chaffinches, skylarks, yellowhammers and lapwings were recorded on Conservation Grade farms.

“A strong link was found between the number of specially-designed habitats created and the richness of bird species found,” he explained.

“This indicates that the deciding factor is not the method of farming, as organic farms don’t provide significant benefits to overwintering birds. Instead, farm-scale management specifically designed to be beneficial to wildlife can have positive farm-scale effects.”

Darren Moorcroft, head of conservation delivery at the RSPB, agreed that the best results in sustaining farmland bird populations were to be gained from a targeted approach. “There’s no doubt the more specific the approach, the better the results,” he said.

But Brin Hughes, technical manager at Conservation Grade, said it was important for farmers to have clear biodiversity aims before they start.

“Organic production doesn’t specifically focus on achieving results in terms of biodiversity improvement,” he explained. “We’ve designed Conservation Grade to deliver biodiversity ‘yields’ in the same way that farmers aim to optimise the yields of any crop.”

The paper can be found on the University of Southampton’s website – www.southampton.ac.uk – under “Conservation Farming”.

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