The Farmer and the Birder - a happy tale of two enthusiasts working in tandem

Pt1This blog post originally appeared on Peter's 'Fresh from the Field' blog on 11th November 2015.

I have spent my last two blogs here and here having a “bit of a go” at some of the irritations surrounding the Countryside Stewardship scheme – but not the scheme itself. I have also been told that there is quite a lot of work going on in the background to sort these hassles out, so please persevere, because at the end of the day, it will be the wildlife that suffers if options disappear from farms.

OK, but do these Stewardship options really deliver? In other words are they worth the effort?

Well, I want to show you some bird ringing results from just one hectare (2 ½ acres) of “wild bird seed mix” option, from a farm in Buckinghamshire. This is an option available within Countryside Stewardship for farmers to grow a seed bearing crop mix, which birds can then feed from over-winter.

If the mix also contains a crop within it that seeds in the second year (a biennial), then it can be left for two years, which enables birds to tap into the myriad of insects that will also inhabit the crop during the spring and summer months. Beak full after beak full of insects will be collected with ease from this fast-food diner, and taken back to hungry chicks waiting patiently in neat little nests situated in adjacent hedgerows.

DunnockWhere on earth are all the Dunnock coming from!!

The farm in question is George Eaton’s Rectory farm, which I talked about in my blog of the 28th October, when I wrote about the course I helped to run there. George has taken this hectare of ground out of production and now grows a range of seed bearing crops for the birds to feed on. He has also planted a hedge alongside the plot and at the far end, created a small block of new woodland, making a wonderful little conservation area.

This is all brilliant – but wait – who should arrive on the scene but one qualified and highly experienced bird ringer, Garry Marsh. Although Garry has been coming to the farm for a number of years, he only started concentrating on this one particular seed mix plot in earnest from September 2014, so we now have just 14 months of data, but already some interesting results are beginning to show.

George and Garry are great mates, which is totally obvious when you see the two of them together. Both spark off of each other. The farmer is eager to find out how much his crop is being used by birds and the birder cannot ply his trade without the seed crop grown by the farmer. They have many things in common, but perhaps first and foremost they both have acutely enquiring minds!

Garry uses mist nets to catch the birds. These are fine meshed nets strung out along the target area, which in this case is George’s seed mix. The nets are put up and taken back down again on each visit that Garry makes. They are only ever set either parallel or within the cover and conservation crop, which means that almost 100% of the birds ringed will have been using the crop for a purpose and are caught either entering or leaving.

The results are fascinating and I have picked out just some for you to see. Incidentally, all of Garry's records are sent into the British Trust for Ornithology.

YellowhammerOver 3% of the Yellowhammers ringed in the country this year will be from
George's wild bird seed mix plot!

Yellowhammers ringed at Rectory Farm in 2015 will be over 3% of the total Yellowhammers ringed in the UK in 2015

Rectory Farm will represent about 20% of the total birds ringed in Buckinghamshire.

In 2014 all but one Yellowhammer ringing in Buckinghamshire was at Rectory Farm and similarly 85% of all Reed Buntings.

The first Chiffchaff caught in April 2015 was a bird ringed by Garry as a juvenile at the same site in September 2014. So, a little like our familiar Swallows, this warbler had migrated abroad, only to return to the very same place.

An adult Song Thrush caught in November 2014 was originally ringed near York in March 2012, some 210km to the north

An adult female Reed Bunting caught in October 2015 was originally ringed at Corsham Lake in Wiltshire as a juvenile bird in December 2011, a movement of 100km to the NE. Certainly this is the oldest Reed Bunting recorded at the site.

Of the 108 Reed Buntings ringed last autumn/winter, Garry has already recaptured 8 birds this year which he says indicates a very good survival rate. He has caught 29 adult birds so far this winter, so it means over 25% of them were here last winter. Obviously all the others caught so far this year were born this year.

The total number of birds caught so far (including re-traps) using the Stewardship plot is 1511, which included 31 different species. Remember, these are only the ones that have been caught!!

Garry has in the 14 months so far, caught 190 Yellowhammer, 172 Reed Bunting and 181 Dunnock. We know that Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting will flock together and seek out areas rich in food to feed on over-winter, but in my opinion, to catch this many Dunnock is extraordinary! The Dunnock is a sedentary species, which does not gather together into flocks, so to catch this number using just one wild bird seed mix plot, is remarkable!

So, I have given you a little insight into one hectare of Stewardship wild bird seed mix, thanks to a committed farmer and a dedicated birder.

But let me now leave you with this thought. The clever guys at Kings Seeds, who supply George with his seed, have worked out that a good, well grown hectare of wild bird seed mix such as George’s, would fill in the region of 20,000 bird table seed hoppers! WOW!

But wait. Do you know that farmers grow around 8,750 hectares of wild bird seed mix under the Stewardship Scheme in England? The equivalent therefore of one hundred and seventy five million bird hoppers full of seed.

Now, that really is one mighty big bird table my friends!!!

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Establishment of Wild Bird Seed Mixes

at 16:35 on 21/11/2015 by Gabriele Magnay

Natural England discourage use of herbicide or insecticides on their wild bird plots, which makes it virtually impossible to establish properly. How could the Ministry be persuaded?

Farmer George & Birder Garry

at 19:50 on 17/11/2015 by Mervyn Walsh

Peter, these are fabulous figures for both wildlife, birders and government - a clear indication of return on investment on eco-system services in the natural world. It was only recently I was convincing myself that agri-environment schemes throughout the EU were not working in light of the recent announcements from the RSPB, IUCN Bird Watch Ireland that bird species were falling. These figures support the continued re-investment in similar schemes and perhaps should be amended to reflect the success achieved on George Eaton's farm.

The Farmer and the birder blog

at 19:07 on 12/11/2015 by steve barker

That's absolutely amazing news on bird ringer. Hope you tell every farmer in the country the good news . And more importantly the ministers concerned in government. WHAT AN INCENTIVE !!!

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