An army of farmers, gamekeepers and land managers looking after nearly one million acres of farmland turned out in their droves this winter to count their birds in the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s second Big Farmland Bird Count, which ran between 7 – 15th February.
Spending just half-an-hour during the week-long count nearly one thousand people, representing every county in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, swapped their tractors for binoculars to see how their conservation efforts are boosting the recovery of farmland birds.
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Top counties for counting their birds were: Norfolk, Suffolk, Somerset, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Devon, Hampshire, Dorset, Lincolnshire, Herefordshire, Wiltshire, North and East Yorkshire, and Lancashire.
Jim Egan, from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project, who originated the idea, said, “We are delighted to have received so much industry support, which is reflected in the results of this second count. Double the number of farmers turned out this winter and between them they recorded more than 127 different species on their farms. This was a remarkable achievement, particularly as they monitored an additional 11 species compared to 2014.”
The five most common birds seen on farms this winter were blackbird, seen by nearly 90 per cent of farmers, followed by robin (80 per cent), blue tit (79 per cent), chaffinch (75 per cent) and carrion crow seen by over 70 per cent of the farmers taking part.
A total of 19 red list species of conservation concern were also recorded with six appearing in the list of 25 most commonly seen species list. Starlings and fieldfare were seen on over 40 per cent of the farms taking part and were the most abundant red-listed species recorded followed by linnet, yellowhammer, house sparrow, lapwing and redwing.
Compared with last year, 10 additional species of birds were added to the list of birds recorded including cirl bunting and Cettie’s warbler. In addition 13 species of raptor were counted with goshawk included in the results for the first time this year.
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Jim Egan explains the results, “Even though this is only its second year, we are seeing an increase in the number of birds and the range of species seen – especially red-listed species. These are some of our most rapidly declining birds but they are still out there and are being supported by our farmers through the many conservation measures that are now being implemented on UK farmland.”
Guy Smith, Vice President of the NFU is an enthusiastic supporter of the GWCT’s survey and said, "Having taken part in the bird survey in February it's always interesting to get the national results to see how you compare with your fellow farmers. I clocked up 24 species, starting with some lapwings taking the low lying sun on some winter wheat and ending with a barn owl quartering one of our grassy margins as dusk fell. The great thing about the Big Farm Bird Count is it gives us a chance to be proud of the birdlife on our farms as well as an opportunity to be loud about it as well."
Before the count started in February, the GWCT ran a series of farmland bird identification days, which were held across the country in January. Sponsored by BASF and supported by partners including the FWAG Association and the RSPB, these days helped to give people insight and the confidence to recognise those sometimes difficult to identify ‘little brown jobs’.
Graham Hartwell, Environmental Stewardship Manager with BASF and the main sponsor of the Big Farmland Bird Count and the ID days said, “For a highly respected research charity like the GWCT, the success of the farmland bird count is very impressive. Not only is it helping to raise awareness about the level of conservation being carried out by farmers in this country, it also gives farmers an opportunity of seeing what their efforts are delivering on the ground as part of a whole farm approach to sustainability. Once farmers see that their actions are achieving results it spurs them on to do even more for their farmland birds. This in itself is a wonderful achievement.”
The Big Farmland Bird Count revealed that nearly 70 per cent of farmers taking part in the survey were in an Environmental Stewardship Scheme. Jim Egan said, “We all recognise that some farmland birds are suffering serious declines but by understanding what is going wrong and working with farmers we can use our science to help support them to turn it around.”
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The RSPB’s manager of Hope Farm, Ian Dillon who also participated in the count, said, “The State of Nature shows clearly that 60 per cent of species we can monitor are in decline. Farming practice will make the biggest difference to these trends and we are keen to help through our advisory work those farmers who want to make a difference. Species like skylarks, yellowhammers and tree sparrows depend on farmland habitats and thus farmers. We welcome the interest in conservation the Big Farmland Bird Count will generate and we are keen to encourage and support more conservation work on the UK’s farms.”
The count certainly highlights the wide range of steps that farmers take to support their birds, Jim Egan says, “Many farmers continue providing supplementary food at least until the end of April, so that birds go into the breeding season in a healthy and fit condition. Within the survey more than 70 per cent of farmers said that they were growing wild bird seed mixes and this popular activity helps to sustain farmland birds through the winter period. Growing good insect-rich habitats such as areas of wild flowers or pollen and nectar mixes near good nesting sites provides a vital food source for birds during the breeding season. Many young birds are completely reliant on insects for food in the first few weeks of their life. All these activities are increasingly important, especially after the bad winters of 2012 and 2013.”
The third GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count will take place during the week of 6th – 14th February 2016. Jim Egan comments, “Interest in the results of our count is definitely growing and we very much hope that even more farmers will get involved in counting their farmland birds next year. This knowledge is important as it will help those farmers taking part to start building a more comprehensive picture of how their over-wintering birds are faring from conservation measures being implemented.”
More bird identification days will be arranged for January 2016 and people can already start to register their interest in these on the GWCT website at : http://www.gwct.org.uk/bfbcregister
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, RSPB, CFE, CLA, Heather Trust, Countryside Alliance and Conservation Grade.
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Photocaption: Pictured: redwing, a red-list species spotting by farmers during the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Big Farmland Bird Count. (Photo credit – Peter Thompson). A total of 19 red list species of conservation concern were also recorded with six appearing in the list of 25 most commonly seen species list.
To find out how local farmers fared in your county, please contact Morag Walker on 01425 651000 or mobile: 07736 124097. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For example, Norfolk, Suffolk, Somerset, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Devon, Hampshire, Dorset, Lincolnshire, Herefordshire, Wiltshire, were in the top 11 of counties. However, other counties were equally well represented and we would be delighted to provide localised information.
Additional Notes to editors:
1.The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Big Farmland Bird Count was carried out from 7-15th February 2015 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.