7 February 2000
British birds threatened by farming
by Donald MacPhail
FARMERS have helped save rare species of farmland birds from extinction but modern farming methods are now threatening more common bird types.
Producers have helped save the rare cirl bunting, corncrake and stone curlew from the threat of intensive farming practices, claim two conservation groups.
But many once-familiar birds have fallen to their lowest ever recorded levels, say the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and British Trust for Ornithology.
Song thrushes, skylarks, corn buntings, lapwings and grey partridges have declined since 1970 as farmers have increased pesticide use and removed hedges.
The switch to winter-sown cereals to improve yields has further removed food and shelter in the past 30 years. Farmland bird numbers have fallen by over 35%.
But farmers adopting conservation measures, such as leaving winter stubble and grass strips and changing mowing patterns, are preserving some habitats.
Linnets are badly affected by herbicides that destroy the weeds on which they feed but have recently benefited from the increase in oilseed rape cultivation.
Nevertheless, the survey, entitled The State of the UKs Birds 1999 reports that few farmland birds are likely to meet government conservation targets.
Dr Mark Avery, RSPB director of conservation, said: “To date the bulk of the governments biodiversity plans have largely been unsuccessful.
“This is simply because the action plans recommendations, such as greater funding for wildlife-friendly farming have not yet been implemented on a large enough scale at national or European level.”
Conservationists and farmers believe, however, that the planned expansion of schemes promoting environmentally-friendly agriculture will improve the situation.
Under the Common Agriculture Policy, far aid is increasingly being linked to environmental protection measures instead of food production.
Farmland bird numbers could level off and eventually recover with a significant expansion in the governments flagship Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
Andrew Clark, countryside and forestry policy advisor at the National Farmers Union, said new initiatives would be good news for farmers and for bird habitats.
“Schemes such as the Countryside Stewardship Scheme are oversubscribed. Farmers are keen to do something positive to protect birds and the wider environment.”
Although the RSPB/BTO figures show far fewer birds since 1970, no environmentally-friendly farming schemes were in operation at that time, he added.
If there had been, Mr Clark believes, “we would expect to see a very different situation”. The contribution of farmers could not be underestimated, he said.
“Farmers grow the crops, and are the custodians of the countryside. Their enthusiasm and support is absolutely fundamental to restoring farmland bird populations.”
There are 620 singing male corncrakes, a rise of 27% in six years; and 233 pairs of stone curlews, up from 160 pairs in 1985. There are 453 pairs of cirl buntings.
But corn bunting and grey partridge numbers have fallen by around 85% since 1970. Song thrush, skylark and lapwing numbers have halved. Linnets have declined by almost 40%.