14 April 2014

Bird survey shows half-million acres of farmland is dedicated to wildlife

Starlings were seen on over 40% of the farms taking part and were the most abundant bird recorded in the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Big Farmland Bird Count. Photocredit: Peter Thompson, GWCTDespite it being the wettest winter since records began more than 500 farmers, covering nearly half-million acres of UK farmland, rose to the challenge of taking part in the first year of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Big Farmland Bird Count in February.

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Farmers participating in the count represented every county in England, as well as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, in what the GWCT reports is a fantastic first year for a very ambitious farmer-led survey.

In total, farmers recorded seeing 116 different types of birds, and encouragingly, six red-listed data species appeared in the top 25 of birds counted. These included linnet, yellowhammer, house sparrow, tree sparrow, starling and lapwing. Starlings were seen on over 40% of the farms taking part and were the most abundant bird recorded in the survey.

Jim Egan from the GWCT’s Allerton Project, said, “This was a remarkable result both in terms of the range of species counted as well as the number of red-listed species appearing within the top 25. These are some of our most rapidly declining species but they are still out there and are being supported by our farmers through the many conservation measures that are now being implemented on farmland across the country.”

Over-winter feeding, either by providing supplementary food in feeders or through planting wild bird seed mixes proved to be fruitful counting sites for many farmers and enabled them to record impressive numbers of yellowhammer and corn bunting as well as many other seed eating birds. Jim Egan says, “Within the survey 60% of farmers were providing food specifically for their birds and this is one of the conservation measures which is helping the birds thrive and stay alive on these farms over winter.”

It was really encouraging that farmers reported seeing 12 different species of raptor, as well as rarer species such as great grey shrike, twite and firecrest. Woodpigeon, blackbird, carrion crow, pheasant and chaffinch were seen by over 70 % of the farmers taking part.

Although there is a perceived view that farmers are not doing enough for wildlife, the Big Farmland Bird Count revealed that nearly 80% of farmers taking part in the survey were in an Environmental Stewardship Schemes. Their survey areas included important environmental features such as hedges, woodland ponds, grass margins, ditches and trees.

Many of the ‘green’ measures that are now being implemented by the farming community, such as providing supplementary over-winter food, originates directly from research carried out by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust on its Allerton Project Farm in Leicestershire. Over the last 21 years, the GWCT has developed a suite of ground-breaking methods for improving the farmland environment for game and wildlife. Through this long-standing research, the GWCT is able to advise farmers and policy makers on the most efficient and practical methods of targeting wildlife recovery.

Jim Egan says, “There has been an enormous sea-change in the way many farmers now manage their land to benefit wildlife and we wanted to give them an opportunity of show-casing what their conservation efforts deliver on the ground. The results of the Big Farmland Bird Count help to demonstrate that farmers, who manage the largest songbird habitat in this country, really can make a difference and this was reflected in the impressive variety and number of species that emerged in the count.”

One shining example, the Pitts brothers from Northamptonshire, counted 1,320 birds in their half hour survey. On their land they grow wild bird seed mixes, game cover crops and provide supplementary grain min through scatter feeding. Jim Egan says, “With farmers like the Pitts doing their bit to help nature, we have every reason to believe that the future could look much brighter for our precious wildlife and this has to be good news for not only our wildlife but for us too.”

The GWCT’s Big Farmland Bird Count is generously sponsored by BASF and in partnership with FWAG (Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group) and LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming)

John Peck Technical Manager at BASF plc UK, Ire, Nordics and Baltics, said, “BASF are particularly pleased to sponsor the Big Farmland Bird Count and are delighted that many leading farmers have shown their support. Best practice farming recognises the value of biodiversity as a key factor of sustainability and it is encouraging to see the amount of farmland which is dedicated to the management of wildlife and the results that can be achieved by the adoption of simple management techniques to improve habitat and bird numbers"

 As well as farmers, the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count also received massive support from a range of farming, industry and conservation organisations. We are grateful to BASF for sponsoring the survey and to Kings, LEAF, FWAG, Soil Association, NFU, CFE, CLA, Heather Trust, Countryside Alliance and Conservation Grade.

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The second Big Farmland Bird Count will take place during the week of 7th – 15th February 2015 and it is hoped that even more farmers will get involved in counting their birds. This will help the GWCT to start building an even more comprehensive picture of how over-wintering birds are faring on UK farmland. To register interest, please visit: www.gwct.org.uk/BFBC


Photocaption: Starlings were seen on over 40% of the farms taking part and were the most abundant bird recorded in the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Big Farmland Bird Count. (Photo credit: Peter Thompson, GWCT.)

Starling numbers have declined markedly across much of northern Europe and the UK. The decline in the UK started during the early 1980s and has continued ever since. Recent data from the Breeding Bird Survey suggest continuing population declines affecting starlings in England and Wales since 1995. The cause of the starling decline in the UK is unknown.

Additional Notes to editors:

  1. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Big Farmland Bird Count was carried out from 1 – 7th February and farmers were invited to spend half an hour recording the species and number of birds seen on one area of the farm. This important initiative offered a simple means of recording the effect of any conservation schemes currently being initiated on their land. It is also a useful way of gaining personal insight on how well their birds are faring because of these measures. The GWCT believes that farmers play a crucial role in the survival of farmland birds, but it is vital to understand how these ‘green’ measures are helping some of our most rapidly declining birds and importantly, which species are benefiting most. The GWCT also hopes that having a better understanding of the range of species on their farm will spur farmers on to do even more work for their farmland birds in the future and will act as a catalyst for them to start building their own long-standing wildlife records.
  2. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) – providing research-led conservation for a thriving countryside. The GWCT is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats and we lobby for agricultural and conservation policies based on science. We employ 14 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse. For Information, contact: Morag Walker – Head of Media, Telephone – direct-dial: 01425-651000. Mobile – 07736-124097 www.gwct.org.uk
  3. The GWCT’s Allerton Project : The GWCT’s Allerton Project is an 800 acre commercial farm business attached to a Research and Educational charitable trust. The Project was established in 1992 with the objective of demonstrating how modern efficient farming and environmental conservation can co-exist. The development of the education objectives of the Trust have expanded substantially to several thousand visitors a year including school groups, politicians, policy makers, farmers and conservationists. More than 200 peer-reviewed papers have been published since the start of the project.