Farming and wildlife are often seen as mutually exclusive. But the RSPB, not above knocking farmers for allegedly destroying habitats, also want to work with them to preserve bird life. Philip Bowern reports
At the Oxford Farming conference last week farmer Nicholas Watts received a coveted conservation award for all the work he has done on his Lincolnshire farm to encourage birds and other species to thrive.
The Nature of Farming Award, presented by RSPB chief executive Mike Clarke, recognised the many years of work Mr Watts has put in on his arable farm, digging ponds, planting wildflowers, managing spinney and copse and caring for hedgerows, to turn it into a wildlife haven.
Mr Watts – who has created a thriving bird seed business alongside his conventional farming activities – is not alone in going the extra mile for wildlife.
Despite the knee-jerk reaction of some conservationists, who like to blame "intensive farming" for destroying wildlife habitat, many farmers, particularly here in the West Country are making huge strides in ensuring their land works both to produce the food we all need as well as provide a home for the birds.
And now the RSPB – with its million members and significant political clout – is widening the advice it gives to farmers on how to achieve that end even more successfully, by targeting those who rear livestock, as well as grow crops. RSPB boss Mr Clarke told a gathering of farming industry leaders at the conference: "We want to be able to help all farmers. Working in partnership we have produced a took kit for arable farmers to improve conservation management. This year we are launching a new tool kit for livestock farmers."
That is certain to have more of an impact here in the West Country where livestock farming is far more prevalent. Our region, which for the most part lacks the large fields, flat land and climate for growing cereals in significant quantities, is classic grass-growing country. As a result, many bird species that have disappeared from parts of eastern England, can still be found in our region.
But much of the advice that will be contained in the "tool kit" for livestock farmers is the same as that which has been drawn up for their arable cousins.
The eight-points emphasised by the RSPB in their booklet Conservation Management on an arable farm are easy to list, harder to implement, especially when farmers are also charged with meeting growing demand for food and continuing to make a profit.
The guidelines start with an obvious call, however, to look after sites that are already established as havens for wildlife. Maintaining field boundaries, and maximising them for their environmental value, rather than ploughing right up to the fence, is also advised. Creating a network of field margins that are all linked is also suggested, providing wildlife with a route they can follow around the farm. Establishing flower rich habitats, providing extra winter food for the birds, perhaps by leaving stubble fields unploughed until spring, using spring cropping or in-field measures to help wildlife and using winter crops to protect water are also on the list. And finally, it is recommended arable farmers establish in-field grass areas to reduce soil erosion and run-off – something that comes naturally to livestock farmers who generally grow grass for a pastime.
It is clear that the boundaries of the fields are the key to good farm management for the benefit of the birds – whether that is headlands planted with a mixture of wild flowers and seed-rich grasses or hedgerows that are managed in such a way to avoid disturbing birds at nesting time and provide maximum amounts of natural food in autumn and winter.
Providing flowers on at least one per cent of arable land is the RSPB's recommendation to help encourage insects. Mr Watts warned an audience at the Oxford Farming Conference last week that a decline in insect numbers was the number one reason for a drop in wild bird numbers.
"We don't like insects in our homes, our offices or on our farms," he said. "Everyone is at war with them. We even swat flies with our cars, although you will have noticed fewer flies on your car windscreen in recent years because there are fewer insects."
But he said birds needed insects, particularly to feed their young and if they couldn't find enough the young they were trying to rear would die in the nest and bird populations would go into decline.
For overwintering birds, the RSPB recommends leaving cereal fields unsprayed and unploughed until mid-February – something few arable farmers would contemplate if they are trying to maximise yields and want to turn around a field as fast as possible after harvest to get the next crop in the ground. But leaving five per cent of the farm in this way can have a positive effect, the charity says.
Farmers who follow the advice might find they can make greater use of another RSPB publication – the Tractor Cab Guide to Farmland Birds. The pocket-sized ring-bound booklet, with waterproof covers to protect it from the worst of the elements, is designed to go inside the tractor cab and help the farmer or farm worker assess precisely which species are thriving on his farm.
The charity says: "Many birds are dependent on farmland and are not found in other habitats. The traditional farming systems that supported these species in the past have changed, to improve the quantity and quality of the food we produce. However, an understanding of the requirements of these species allows us to manage productive farmland in a way that conserves the bird populations without affecting farm profits."
It details 23 relatively common farmland birds, from kestrel to corn bunting as well as a handful of rarer ones, like hen harrier and black grouse.
As a PR exercise it ticks a lot of boxes, even though the RSPB is viewed with suspicion by some farmers who feel they have too often borne the brunt of criticism for allegedly hastening the decline in wildlife. But it might also do more than that and actually encourage more farmers to put measures in place to encourage bird life on the farm.
Whether they will continue to be rewarded for it, as the Common Agriculture Policy reforms come into force and the way environmental and rural development payments are made alters remains to be seen.