Nearly 200 policy makers, farmers, conservationists and scientists joined forces at a thought-provoking research conference that highlighted how wildlife recovery is within our grasp in the UK.
This specially convened research conference, organised by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), was triggered by the ‘State of Nature’ report, which showed that 60% of the species studied have suffered declines over the last 50 years and that attempts to target recovery have failed.
A packed programme delivered by GWCT scientists, with a key-note address by Richard Benyon MP covered a range of topics on wildlife management and outlined how it might be possible to have more lapwings, healthier soil and cleaner rivers, more beneficial insects, and a better outcome for many declining farmland bird species. The conference also presented successful wildlife-friendly case-studies such as the farmer-led Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area and the GWCT’s novel landscape-scale Farmer Cluster initiative.
Richard Benyon MP, made a passionate and very personal address to the audience. He said, “Simply aiming to halt biodiversity loss is a mistake. We should be saying reverse these appalling declines. Government is only part of the solution, what we need to do is to harness more ‘enlightened self-interest’. For example, shooting delivers monumental benefits to biodiversity. I am a wild grey partridge nut, and because of this targeted wildlife management for partridges I have a huge range of other farmland birds on my land. It’s all about incentivising and enthusing people to achieve extraordinary things and I am delighted that this is now happening in spades in many areas of the country.”
Key messages from the conference demonstrated that targeting wildlife recovery more accurately, together with better advice and getting farmers to work together on a landscape scale were all crucial aspects that would help to spark wildlife recovery. Motivation was also an important factor. As Chris Musgrave from the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area explained, “Creating ‘lapwing envy’ in your neighbour is a good way to get that neighbour to do more!’
A study on how climate change could be affecting insect numbers, for example was a fascinating feature of the day. The study, which is the culmination of a 40 year monitoring project of a cereal ecosystem in Sussex by GWCT scientists, has revealed that some insects thrive with rising temperatures. The research, which began by investigating the survival of wild grey partridge chicks, is one of the longest running studies of its kind in the world. Since monitoring started in 1970 temperatures have risen by an average of 1.7 degrees between April and June but rainfall seems unchanged.
Dr Julie Ewald explained to delegates, “Most farmland birds rely on insects to feed their chicks but in many cases they are in limited supply. Increases in some insects such as true bugs, ground beetles and plant hoppers are beneficial to help feed declining farmland birds.” The study and final report, funded by Natural England includes mitigation methods for farmers to maximise the beneficial effects of warmer temperatures for wildlife, whilst reducing the need for pesticides.
In recent months, the GWCT, with government funding has been piloting a group of five Farmer Clusters in different areas of the country. Using a ‘bottom-up’ approach, the Farmer Clusters, under the guidance of a lead-farmer are trying to help wildlife on a landscape-scale rather than single farms working alone. Peter Thompson, the GWCT’s Biodiversity Advisor, believes that Farmer Clusters farms offer a potentially positive future for wildlife. He said, “This could be a very exciting and innovative way to establish real change on the ground at a local-landscape scale and the motivation of the farmers to keep up with their neighbours is very palpable.”
GWCT entomologist Dr John Holland explained how the accurate targeting of wildlife management can really boost species such as yellowhammers. Research by GWCT PhD student Niamh McHugh identified that yellowhammers, like other bird species had very specific requirements. Improving the hedge base for example by growing broadleaf plant species to provide insect food, locating foraging sites near nesting sites and providing song-posts were very practical techniques that will help to build bird numbers.
In addition, Dr Alastair Leake, the GWCT’s Policy Director, discussed potential new ‘greening’ measures under CAP reform and outlined the challenges facing agri-environment measures. Dr Andrew Hoodless, explained how the dramatic decline of lapwing on farms in the Avon Valley because of nest predation by foxes and crows has triggered a new project. All the farmers in the valley have decided to work together, advised by the GWCT to try and save the lapwing and reverse the decline. The EU Life Fund has offered to match fund some of the project costs.
Summing up at the end of the conference, Teresa Dent, GWCT Chief Executive said, “It is clear from today’s presentations that agri-environment funding will diminish – there will be less ability to incentivise farmers. So if we are going to achieve wildlife recovery we need to focus on motive. Embracing what motivates farmers will be vital – whether it is ‘lapwing envy’ or a love of fishing or shooting. It is a tough challenge, but we know what we need to do, and as the Lawson report said, ‘ We need to do it bigger, better, and more joined up’ in order to trigger a wildlife revival.”
Photocaption: (l to r) Professor Nick Sotherton, GWCT Director of Research, who organised the GWCT's Research Conference; with Richard Benyon MP and Charles Phillips from Macaroni Farm in Gloucestershire.
Notes to editors:
- The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust 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 – 01425-652381 (direct 01425-651000) Mobile – 07736-124097 www.gwct.org.uk
- 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.