I was fortunate that my childhood in the 1960’s and 70’s was spent living on a small “mixed” farm (cattle – dairy and beef, sheep, pigs, poultry and arable), surrounded by many other similar small farms. I developed an interest, appreciation and understanding of wildlife, and in particular birds.  What I didn’t realise at the time, I was also witnessing changes in farming practices that would have a profound impact on wildlife.

In the pursuit of increased “efficiencies” farming became far more intensive, many hedges and trees were removed to accommodate bigger farm machinery.  There was a huge increase in the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides to improve crop yields.  Included in the loss of hedgerows were thousands of trees, many of them centuries-old oaks.  With the increase in the use of herbicides the decrease in wildlife was almost immediate.  When arable “weeds” (such as cornflower, corn marigold and poppy) were eliminated so were the insects as the weeds acted as the “host” plants and the wildlife food chain was broken.

Grey Wagtail
Grey Wagtail

Farming is always going to have an impact on wildlife, in the UK over 75% of the land is farmed.  In my childhood, farms attracted an abundance of wildlife, particularly birds as they provided a seed and insect food source throughout the year, together with a good breeding habitat.  Many birds became “farmland specialists”.  DEFRA has a list of 12 specialist farmland birds; corn bunting, goldfinch, grey partridge, lapwing, linnet, skylark, starling, stock dove, tree sparrow, turtle dove, yellowhammer and whitethroat.  I would add more to this list.  All of these birds were common on the farm in very large numbers.  Due to the intensification of agriculture the population of farmland birds in the southwest of England has fallen by over 50% since 1970 and some species have seen a decline of over 90%. 

A coalition of the UK’s leading bird conservation and monitoring organisations compile a review entitled “Birds of Conservation Concern”.  The bird species that breed or overwinter here have been assessed against a set of objective criteria and placed on the Green, Amber or Red list to indicate an increasing level of conservation concern.  There are now 70 species of bird on the Red List, including nearly all our farmland birds.   

Of the dozen or so farms that I considered my childhood “territory” only three remain as active farms, having amalgamated with the other farms.  The loss of barns and farm buildings is often overlooked as a crucial breeding habitat for many birds not considered true farmland specialists, such as swifts, house martins and house sparrows, but it should come as no surprise these are also on the Red list.  Many of the hedges and trees have been removed including all the orchards.  Over winter stubble with “gleanings” of left-over grain is no longer evident as the fields are immediately cultivated, removing this essential winter food source for species such as the tree sparrow, which has declined by 93% since 1970.

I always associated the first call of the cuckoo with the arrival of spring, if this is so, I have been living in a perpetual winter for the last 20 years as I have not heard a single cuckoo in this time!  Again, the cuckoo is on the Red list.

Although it is important to highlight these concerns many farmers are now looking at how they can improve the biodiversity of their land, with the replanting of hedges and less frequent cutting, bigger field margins, planting trees, creating areas of wetland, reducing grazing intensity and the frequency of mowing.  We can play our part by supporting the farmers and landowners that are taking these initiatives.

Ending with a note of optimism, 7 bird species including one of my favourites, the grey wagtail has moved from the Red to Amber list.

Tag: Decline of bird populations

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