Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fox hunting as agriculture?

Boxing Day has been marked by hunt gatherings up and down the country for generations. It’s a tradition that gave the great and the good a chance to socialise and exercise their horses- all in pursuit of a species that posed a significant threat to the economic interests of a rural nation where those that didn’t own shooting estates tended to eek a living from small farm.

It’s a notion that didn’t really sit particularly well with the majority of people in the UK in the naughties. Most people didn’t feel that a few should have the right to hunt down and kill the wildlife that we are all now entitled to call our own. As a nation we haven’t exactly fallen in love with the fox.  They may be a nuisance to suburban dwellers when they rip open the bin bags or crap in the alpine border but they’re no longer a threat to the livelihoods of anyone- wherever you live.

Fox hunting isn’t a particularly efficient way of killing an animal that bothers few- in short those that weren’t upset by the perceived cruelty were indifferent due to the unnecessary nature of something that was very hard to defend. So hunting with dogs was banned in a confusing piece of legislation that left no-one fully satisfied but appeased enough to get a Labour election pledge ticked off the list.

A return for fox hunting?

Despite this fox hunting wasn’t just going to disappear- hunting with dogs may have been banned but there was nothing to stop the same people congregating and chasing across the countryside for the hell of it- and should a fox happen to cross their path, and should it happen to be mauled by the hounds then so be it.  It’s an open-ended law that is wide-open to abuse but for how many foxes actually die in this way, cruel as it may be- and whilst I agree it should probably be reviewed, I can’t help feeling that as a nation, when it comes to our environment- we probably have bigger fish to fry.

The other thing to remember is that fox hunting has it’s own supporters- still keen to see it return. Public interest in the issue of fox hunting has waned somewhat since the ban, a change that could mistakenly be perceived as public indifference by those keen to see the ban reversed.  Hunt support is often based in the rural land-owning classes- a hot bed of Conservative party support. So for some the present seems like an apt time to re-open the debate.

Fox hunting as agriculture?

As fox hunting is increasingly seen as impractical and unnecessary way to control an  animal that bothers few it became increasingly hard to justify its existence and even more difficult to justify it’s return. It seems in response the ban was repackaged and became less about the rights of the privileged and more about the rural economy and the rights of the ordinary rural man on the street (or country lane).

Of course to tag fox hunting onto the raft of wider rural or agricultural ‘issues’ is a bit silly. Fox hunting is fine if you’re into that kind of thing but it’s not a pressing rural issue, the loss of vital rural bus services, the closure of our post offices or the struggles of the UK farming industry are the things we should focus on.

In light of this I believe it’s important that the UK farmers do not allow the lines to become blurred. Farming is about farming- fox hunting is about fox hunting. It’s a not a view shared by Agriculture Minister Jim Paice.

Mr Paice is a supporter of hunting with dogs- that is his opinon. I also understand it is within his ministerial portfolio to address the issue, and I’d rather things were discussed openly rather than hushed-up or hidden away- I just don’t understand why debating fox hunting should be the job of our Agriculture Minister and I wonder why it so high on his list of priorities when it is completely irrelevant to agriculture in the UK.

Agriculture may not employ the number of people it once did, but the amount of the UK’s land area that is farmed remains close to 80%. Agriculture is concerned with the rather vital role of feeding people, it is also has a vital role in conserving our nations biodiversity and protecting the countryside as we know it. Agriculture faces many big challenges and some even larger issues in the future- issues that will involve and affect all of us. So why is it, on Boxing Day, as millions of people lounge in front of their computers and TVs Mr Paice used this as an opportunity to have a moan about the ban on fox hunting.

Being such a controversial topic, on a quiet news day- the subject appeared on the ‘most-read’ lists of various websites, a success for Mr Paice as it drew lots of attention to his cause. But it isn’t my cause.

So perhaps, as Mr Paice draws up his list of New Years Resolutions he could have a think about how his role as Agriculture Minister can be used to benefit UK Agriculture- there are plenty of issues there to keep him busy in 2012.

I might also suggest that perhaps Mr Paice could afford to spend a little less time worrying about why he can’t use dogs to go fox hunting because non of those real issues facing us in 2012 have anything at all to do with the fox.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Badger culls: action for actions sake?

Depending on how you see it Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman either condemned 'innocent' badgers to a death sentence or she took decisive action against an escalating and very real rural problem. Whatever you make of today's announcement, the chances are you're probably wondering what (if any) difference it can make.

As it's milk that puts bread on my table I have something of a vested interest and although I am not supportive of a cull, I am desperate for something to be done to bring this disease under control. Bovine TB causes a real sense of exasperation, urgency and fear within the farming community and farmers need a real solution- measures to combat bTB need to be based on solid scientific foundations.

I have already discussed my concerns about the use of a badger cull as a way of controlling the spread of bTB but that's not to say I am some sort of new-age tree-hugging farmer... I am not. I want a productive and profitable farm. I just can't help feeling that trial culls in distant pockets of the UK will do little to prevent our herd from contracting TB  and certainly not in the foreseeable future. Oral vaccines may be "years away" but so is the control of bTB through widespread badger culling.

The other factor we cannot overlook is how all this affects the already fragile relationship between the farmer and the person on the street. I have discussed before how farmers are perceived and it must be considered. Whilst I don't believe farming should bow to pressure groups and I am infuriated by the tone sometimes used towards 'farmers'. I do think we must consider how we engage and interact with the public. Any wildlife cull will alienate many people and when, as Spelman suggests, it's the farmers being asked to do the shooting how will the media portray farmers then?

The feeling within the farming community (or at least those not actively opposed to a cull) is that at least something is being done to tackle bTB. When it's taken so long for the problem to even be addressed at higher levels anything seems like progress- and perhaps that's the point of today's announcement. Politicians have largely buried their heads in the sand while the issue escalated and now they've opened their eyes and lurched towards a possible solution that appears most proactive.

Whilst many people are sceptical about what a cull can really achieve for those whose very livelihoods are on the line it seems that someone, somewhere is listening to them. Spelman may want to appear to be taking the bull by the horns, but I can't help feeling she's got the wrong bull.. and they aren't it's horns.

You see, doing something for the sake of doing something is rarely a productive exercise. It's a knee-jerk reaction and in the short term there is little to gain (a 16% reduction in bTB at best) but a lot to loose. If (and it's a big if) the cull is successful in a 'disease reservoir'  area- can it really be a workable and long lasting solution to a countrywide problem. Are we just going to spend 10 years playing with guns until either a workable solution is found or the Conservatives leave office.

My concern is that we're going to be so distracted by years of secret shooting, opposition lobbying, public protest and farmer-hating that we'll all be distracted from the fact that no-one in government is even seriously considering a Plan B (or V), and when you're not sure if Plan A will even work, you really need a Plan B.

When you're dealing with what may turn into a £1 billion problem within a decade- is £250,000 annually on vaccination research enough? When even the Badger Trust and the NFU can bury the hatchet and begin working together on vaccination trials shouldn't the government be giving it a bit more thought?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Putting an end to raptor persecution...

When I was younger the countryside here was a different place. There were birds that aren’t here anymore and other species have returned since then- the pace of change never ceases to amaze me.

When I grew up there were plenty of Kestrels- they were a common sight along roadside verges or over mowed fields. We had Little Owls too, and sometimes saw the occasional Sparrowhawk or Tawny Owl- and that was it- four raptor species. All other species were so rare and confined to the more remote and isolated corners of the UK that we resigned ourselves to the fact that really there were just the four species.

Slowly, as time went by, as a nation we got a little better at tackling some of the threats to our other raptors. We clamped down on the use of certain chemicals and pesticides, and rabbit populations recovered from the myxomatosis outbreak. We became more aware of the problems caused by pollution and the loss of habitat, and we began to better understand the importance of protecting birds and their nests from persecution. With improved conditions in some areas we even began to reintroduce some species.

Some threats didn’t go away- our roads kill too many birds, particularly those whose prey favour the overgrown verges. Many habitats remain degraded and raptor persecution and egg collection are an ongoing and ever present threat to all species. The sad truth is that the species with the smallest, most fragmented and most habitat-specific populations are the hardest hit.

So there were still threats, things were not perfect but we’re moving in the right direction, and the rewards were evident all around us. Within a few short years we are now able to regularly spot Peregrine’s and Hobbys on our farm. They’re by no means common but we also get the odd Barn Owl and Red Kite over the farm, I’ve even seen an Osprey locally, and Merlins have been sighted, but no raptor better symbolises the ability for a population to recover than the Buzzard.

There are few creatures I see in my day to day life that are more impressive than a Buzzard, as they drift on-high or launch into flight and soar skywards. At certain times of the year they gather on warm thermals and where there had been none there were now half a dozen.

The impact these predators have can be seen on the land. Rabbits are particularly problematic for arable farmers but their impact is not normally felt on pastoral farms like ours. Yet without the Buzzards, and few predators capable of controlling them their population had swelled far in excess of natural levels. I remember well walking into one of our small 2 acre pastures and counting sixty rabbits. When the Buzzards returned the rabbit population declined and the balance was restored.

With all this progress it’s even more shocking, frustrating and infuriating when you discover, as I did a couple of years ago, evidence of the persecution of these impressive birds. 

The scene I discovered in one of our fields was a sorry sight. Two adult Buzzards lying dead, either side of the carcass of a pheasant, the evidence of what had caused the death of these birds couldn’t be any clearer. Whatever the poison it was so strong it'd killed them then and there. At the time this was reported and followed up but finding the culprit is notoriously difficult.

It's crazy that when we've come so far that this can still happen. Of course policing such things is incredibly difficult but when this is the case the only true deterrent is a harsh punishment. I understand that the punishment has to remain proportionate to the crime so we need to look at who the punishment is aimed at.

We all know why raptors are persecuted, even if the debate is sometimes clouded by those that argue otherwise. In truth, in 2011 there are so few individuals with the incentive or motive to commit these crimes that it's pretty obvious who is doing it too. If we're honest there aren't a great deal of people in the countryside who feel raptors have a negative impact on their income.

It's for these reasons, because some of our raptors are still being persecuted, and because of the photo above that I am asking anyone reading this blog to sign the petition found on the link below. 

The offence of vicarious liability could address a current shortfall in England's wildlife protection laws. Those who persecute our raptors are not acting alone, they are operating upon the instruction (directly or otherwise) of employers or others with a vested interest. The offence of vicarious liability brings the case to the doors of those in a position to prevent these crimes.

There is no good reason not to make vicarious liability law. Anything that protects our magnificent birds of prey can only be a good thing. So please take a moment. Sign the petition. And help ensure a future for our raptors. 

Sign the petition here

Thank you.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Farmland birds: a global perpective

I don't know about you, but whenever I think of farmland birds it's our native species that spring to mind, species such as Goldfinches, Grey Partridges and Rooks.

We often think of our birds as 'our' birds, we assume they're somehow inherently British. It's because of this it's always a surprise when you first step off the ferry at Calais and realise that the fauna there looks pretty similar to the fauna in Dover. Similarly it's also a surprise when you first discover that many of the birds on your bird table each winter are actually continental arrivals.

It's not that any of this is a bad thing- it's important we maintain the unique blend of species we have. Thinking of them as 'our' birds also ensures we do as much as we can to help those that reside here or visit us, rather than leaving the conservation of a given species up to our neighbouring nations. Protecting the species we have also prevents any hypocrisy when we lecture other nations about conservation, particularly those with whom we share 'our birds'. 

The plight of our farmland birds...

As a nation we may have been a bit slow to notice them disappearing but in the last few years the plight of our farmland species has been highlighted and become the subject of much debate. We can all agree that the drive for productivity on our farms has brought about the severe declines we've seen in some species- but how we go about balancing the need for more and more food and ensuring the restoration and protection of the environment has been less clear.

Increasingly some farmers have felt that their role as producers has been compromised by the perceived restraints of the environmental schemes and conservation measures they must adhere to. In contrast conservation groups have aired frustration at the lack of impact and the perceived inefficiency of the same schemes and measures. Farmland species continue to decline, albeit at a slower pace, when we'd all hoped to see more results for our money.

The debate on the very role of our farmers has become somewhat polarised. I feel not enough people from either side genuinely believe that a productive farming system and farmland wildlife can coexist. The truth is they have to.

There's no question about whether or not our wildlife is allowed to disappear. We simply cannot allow this to happen. The moment we resign ourselves to the fact we don't have room or the will to exist alongside our wildlife is the day the asteroid should strike.

That said, it's equally important our farming operations are allowed to remain productive and where possible prosperous. Increasingly we have come to see the role of our farmers as the guardians of our 'countryside' and maintainers of our scenery- it helps us justify the grants and subsidies but we value them far less as producers.

Their farmland birds...

We live in an age where our milk comes from eastern Europe, our beef from South America and our butter from New Zealand- yes it's travelled a bit further, but it's cheap and it's made convenient to us, so we buy it. Couldn't we just allow other nations to produce most of our food on the cheap, then we'll pay our farmers to farm in harmony with nature and have lots of Linnets and Greenfinches? Surely everyone's a winner? Not quite.

As well as the rather enormous issues of food miles, animal welfare and the exploitation of foreign producers there is also the question of the environmental implications of the intensification of agriculture elsewhere. You see there are farmland birds the world over- not just in good old blighty.

Our traditional farming practices are very old, and our birds have adapted to this environment. No doubt some species were lost from our shores in the mists of time as the land first became 'farmed' but the survivors were able to adapt to the change and today it's their principal habitat. Birds like the Grey Partridge made the transition from from birds of scrubland and steppe to birds of farmland over thousands of years.

Across the globe as farming spread; from cattle ranching and sheep herding to ploughing and paddy fields we changed the world and the wildlife that lives with us adapted. It's something scientists and conservationists have increasingly acknowledged in recent decades, often as a switch from traditional farming practices has proceeded a decline in native species.

All of our farmland birds...

As consumers and tax payers this leaves us in something of a quandary- whichever way we shop something, somewhere suffers- and it's an issue we'll be faced with over and over again as the planets human population swells and our demand for food grows. So what is the solution?

It would be very naive to think that our island home can ever be fully self-sufficient- even if global warming brings vineyards and buffalo dairies to our shores in increasing numbers there will always be something we'll need- and this is not a bad thing. We just need to be aware of what impact our weekly shop is having if we have transferred the production of 'our' food to another part of the world.

Just as we can't write off our farmland birds we can't write off our need to be productive. This isn't simply because we'll have all those new (and increasingly old) mouths to feed- but we also need to avoid exploiting the resources of other nations and instead be able to demonstrate to them that farming and wildlife can co-exist. When we think about how to save our species we mustn't forget that there's a whole world of farmland birds out there facing problems of their own.

Friday, December 2, 2011

List making & loss masking: how small successes mask widespread failures

Every so often I like to count how many bird species I can spot on, around, and over our farm on a given day. I don't do anything special, I just tally up as I go about my business. It's not so much a census, just a chance to see what's around and how things are doing. It also appeals to my inner twitcher.

Yesterday was a bright, clear and mild December day, great for bird spotting, and between dawn and dusk I counted 54 different species. I admit I felt rather pleased with that, especially as one of the birds, the Crossbill, was a ‘farm first’.

It’s fair to say there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of birds, so it’s well done Government, well done Single Farm Payments, well done all and well done me. When there seem to be so many birds flying around it’s very easy to see why some farmers question whether there is a biodiversity crisis at all. It seems that around here at least something doesn’t add up. It’s only when you actually look again at the list that you realise the picture is not as rosy as it might be.

The Flyovers

I have to be honest, a few of the birds I spotted were flyovers, many of these were wildfowl that were headed elsewhere- in bird watching terms these count as ‘sightings’ but they tell me more about birds’ flight routes than they do about the success or failures of stewardship schemes- no matter how wide my field margins are they’re unlikely to attract a Cormorant or a Coot.

The Green List

32 out of the 54 species I recorded are (in conservation terms at least) ‘green listed’. This means that their populations are at the very least stable and may be increasing. This is of course a very good thing- it means 59% of the birds I saw are doing just fine.

There’s no denying this is great news, the majority of the species here are doing ok, this may be because Single Farm Payments are reaping rewards; all those measures might be working- the security of these birds’ populations is very important.

It’s equally important to remember that many of these birds, species such as Jackdaws, Great Tits, Wood Pigeons and Canada Geese- are the generalists that are doing well everywhere. These are the birds capable of exploiting various habitats including the farmed environment. We shouldn’t disregard their success but we can’t hide behind it. Perhaps we should think of these as the species that are doing well in spite of modern farming- not because of it.

The Amber List

Not all of the bird species are doing so well, 11 of them are on the Amber conservation list. This means 20% of the birds I saw are in decline. The populations of birds such as Dunnocks, Kestrels, Bullfinches and Black-Headed Gulls are declining- some inexplicably so.

To see these species is a good thing, it means at least they’re here- but whether our farm is a strong hold I do not know. Am I helping them, or are they simply here because they are widespread? It’s very hard to say. The fact remains their populations are in decline, modern farming practices may not be the root cause but they don’t seem to be the answer either.

The Red List

The bird species on the red list are those with the most drastic and alarming population declines. Some declines have been historical with little recovery but other declines have been more recent. 10 Red listed species were seen on our farm yesterday, namely Linnet, Lapwing, Lesser Redpoll, Starling, Fieldfare, Redwing, Song Thrush, House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow and Willow Tit

Given their current predicament perhaps I should count myself lucky to see these birds at all. Does there presence alone mean that Single Farm Payments are addressing and reversing species decline? - on the surface it might appear so, but break the list down yet further and it becomes clear that there is still much to be done.

I must confess that yesterday at least the Linnet and the Lapwing were seen flying overhead. It means good things might be taking place in the vicinity but these birds were not tempted down by anything here.

Similarly the Lesser Redpoll, Starling, Fieldfare and Redwing were in transient winter flocks, none are resident. I was both lucky and grateful they stopped here tempted as they were by alder cones or haws. The truth is neither of these food stuffs were put in place specifically for wildlife. They would exist whether or not we received a Single Farm Payment. We do manage our hedges responsibly but the vast majority of fruit is produced by hawthorn trees that we couldn’t afford to have laid into a hedge- not because we’re paid to keep them as such- wildlife has benefitted but subsidies haven’t necessarily made this so.

The House Sparrows are a resident bird- but this wasn’t always the case. A few years ago I noticed all of the farm’s House Sparrows had disappeared, their numbers had dwindled but it was a sad day when I noticed they had all gone. At risk of sounding sentimental I missed their familiar chirruping from the hedgerows and the cow shed.

I had always put food out for the birds but it hadn’t saved them, I began to buy better quality bird food and feed it ad lib and sure enough, they returned and their population slowly recovered. The seed attracted lots of species including Tree Sparrows which had disappeared from the area many decades ago.

This is great news, it shows that these species can return and recover, it also demonstrates that in this instance it was most likely a lack of food that caused these birds to disappear in the first place. On the down side it also demonstrates that despite the field margins and buffer strips that I am required to provide the farm still cannot provide enough natural food to maintain these species- they survive on hand outs. They are here because I want them here.

Supporting these species with bought seed isn’t cheap; it costs me around £50 per month. It may be more effective and sustainable to try to grow food for the birds but when you only have 200 acres upon which to make a living, and cattle and sheep to feed it’s simply not viable.

Whether or not is cost effective to grow or buy seed is irrelevant to you the taxpayer as the money for either would come from my own pocket. The £600 a year it costs to support many of the farm’s smaller birds is paid for by me, I am not obliged to do this and I don’t have that amount of money to spare, I do it because personally I find the alternative less desirable.

It’s a similar story with our Willow Tits too. I had seen them on the farm and when I read of their drastic population decline I responded with my own environmental measures; I fenced our strip of wet woodland to allow the scrub layer to dominate and I left all dead wood standing, the Willow Tits also readily take supplementary food. As a side effect of my efforts the Song Thrushes have also benefitted. These are not things for which I am paid a hefty subsidy.


I know all this sounds a bit like I am seeking praise or payment. I am not. My reward is that I get to see the birds I see. The frustrating thing is knowing that there’s so much more we could do.

I’m also aware that dissecting good news to find the bad isn’t a very optimistic way to spend my time but I believe it’s very important we should not allow successes to make us distracted or complacent.  At the very least we need to understand what constitutes a viable population and how we can achieve that.

We also need to look again at how publically-funded hand outs are being decided and distributed. Are they being put to best use? We have to keep realistic targets, the amount of money used for subsidising environmental measures may seem enormous, but it has to go a very long way- almost 80% of the UK’s land surface area is farmed.

It seems some of the measures are not a bad thing for our more generalist species but a more targeted regional, local or even farm-specific approach would truly maximise the wildlife potential of our farmland.

I’m not implying Single Farm Payments don’t make a difference, Defra figures show the decline in some farmland species has slowed if not stopped. The presence of many bird species on our farm would suggest that some good things are happening but the absence of others suggests there is a long way to go.

My little tick list of birds neatly grouped into Red, Amber and Green by conservation status can only tell you what’s around now, it makes no mention of the fact that I didn’t see Grey Partridges, Yellowhammers or Corn Buntings.

I’m happy with how things are going here, and I’m satisfied with my list. But I’m not going to make the mistake of letting increases in some species mask the declines in others.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

George Osborne's true colours...

It's been quite a week for our farmland birds; today Defra published an overview of wild bird populations in England from 1970 to 2010 confirming continued population declines for many of our once common species.

It doesn't make for cheerful reading- and if you don't fancy reading it the descending red line on the graph tells you all you need to know. Despite reports like this I try to remain positive and take heart (perhaps naively) in the small shreds of evidence I see around me that it's not ALL bad news.

I also take comfort in the fact that after a period of transition and soul-searching by many farmers- that we are resigned (reluctantly or otherwise) to the fact that environmental considerations are going to play a big part in our farming future. Yes some farmers drag their feet and understanably aren't keen on what they perceive as excessive red tape. But many farmers are aligning their ideas and practices with those of the conservation groups, members of the public and policy makers who are keen to help build a sustainable countryside.

Whether or not you feel farmers are helping drive these changes or are simply towing a line in return for subsidies is irrelevant. One by one, whether by carrot or stick, increasingly we're pulling in the same direction.

Given all this, given the tireless work by so many to steer the farming industry to a more environmentally-aware approach to food production and given the changes made by countless farmers it seems particularly frustrating that our Chancellor, George Osborne, is more than happy to have a rethink about the protection of 'things like habitats' to push for the perceived 'growth' this would bring.

I am at a loss for words. What sort of message does undermining the Habitats Directive send out to our farmers? What good can come from rubbishing the 'endless social and environmental goals' they have been duped into pursuing? How can they be expected to sacrifice their production potential in favour of farming for wildlife when Osborne is removing obstacles to large-scale 'developments' on environmentally important areas.

I know the Chancellor is referring specifically to Major Infrastructure Projects when he spouts this contradictory crud but his rhetoric reveals his attitude to the wider countryside. In short it's all well and good unless you can think of a better use for it. It seems measures put in place to protect the countryside for us all make a great scape-goat for our faultering economy.

I  understand that continued growth is required, but short-sighted, misguided, desperate and destructive attempts to breath life into our economy are not the answer. I honestly assumed such attitudes had long been consigned to the history books- this is after all 2011 and in my view the silver-lining of this economic 'situation' was the chance to rebuild our economy on more sustainable foundations. 

So where does that leave our farmland birds? They've had 20 years of sharp population declines followed by 20 years of slowing population declines, and they already face an uncertain future. Continued declines might see that decending red line disappear off the bottom of that graph in the not too distant future- a terribly sad thought.

One thing is for sure; the 'Greenest Government ever' is sending out just the right amount of mixed-messages to ensure our farmland birds and any hopes of an environmentally sustainable farming system face an equally uncertain future.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Felling for the future

Earlier today I discovered a fallen Alder. Last night's strong winds and brought it crashing down onto the damp wet woodland floor. The little patch of woodland on our farm is full of trees like this one: lank, overgrown and unmanaged.

Years of grazing had meant the delicate woodland floor was trampled, the important middle layer of shrubs and young trees had been eaten off and the mature trees grew tall, lean and weak as they competed for light. Effectively the wood was slowly dying.

A recent report by Plantlife has highlighted the problems caused by our lack of woodland management. It's a problem that's seen up and down the country. We have trees- lots of trees- more than we had 20 years ago, yet our woodland bird species are struggling. As Plantlife pointed out- when it comes to trees woodlands need quality not quantity.

The slow death of the Alders in my little strip of woodland hasn't been all bad news; Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Willow Tits have excavated nest holes in the rotting wood and Treecreepers love the peeling bark, but it was unmanaged and unsustainable.

5 years ago we took the step of fencing livestock out of the wood, a large Ash, a Rowan, and an Oak were brought down and sunlight poured through the canopy. A shrub layer of young Ash, Rowan, Hawthorn, Holly and Elder is springing up thanks to presence of light and the absence of grazing. Our Wood Anemones and Bluebells seem to be enjoying the changes.

There is lots of coppicing and felling to be done before this woodland will become what I want it to be. This got me thinking, even though there is method in my madness, woodland management can seem a bit destructive and at odds with what we think of as conservation.

Are we a too precious about our woodlands?

It's perhaps not surprising that as a nation we're cautious of woodland management practices. Media coverage of the deforestation of the Amazon Basin and the disappearance of our once extensive woodlands have had us planting trees left, right and centre to compensate- which is great. It's also made us extremely wary of taking a saw to our trees.

We too often assume the best landscape for wildlife is one untouched by human hands- a wilderness. In many habitats around the world this is absolutely true, but for much of the UK this isn't the case. We're a small island and our countryside has been shaped by human activities- the wildlife we have now consists of the species that were able to thrive in this environment.

Trees are very special to us- their lifespan stretches across many human generations. They are given names, become landscape features and are associated with human legacy. We use them to commemorate events, people and places.

We have come to see 'a tree' as the quintessential lofty chestnut or the ancient oak and not the coppiced Beech or Hazel. It's been so long since our woodlands were 'managed' that we've forgotten what they should look like.

Not too far from me is an area of woodland managed for wildlife, about 25 years ago tens of thousands of native saplings were planted and are now under a 50 year management plan. Each winter a different swathe of the woodland will be coppiced- it's a cycle that is just beginning and should see the area in phases of constant growth which will be great for wildlife. It's already reaped impressive results attracting a range of species and acting as a wildlife reservoir from which many species have gone on to recolonise the surrounding area.

It's incredible conservation in action, yet each winter when the chainsaws are fired-up many  members of the local community take great objection. The irony is that those who object the most are doing so with the best intentions and with concern for the environment as their motivation- but it doesn't make the strongly worded letters and angry reactions any less misguided.

In recent winters posters have been put up to appease and inform the opposition- but still the objections continue. I've heard this conservation work referred to as 'deforestation' and the results compared to the cleared rain forests- but the Amazon this ain't.

I think Plantlife are absolutely right- we do need to think again about our woodlands. There is a place for giant trees with dense canopies and dark dank woodland floors deep in leaf litter- it's a habitat required by many species. But we also need to learn to occasionally cut back the younger trees,  let the light flood in and allow verdant rejuvenation and regrowth.

I'm not suggesting you take a ladder and bow saw to your Gran's memorial tree or the village centre piece. But next time you see a new plantation think about the legacy we'd create if we manage it properly and ensure our grandchildren see plenty of the woodland birds we know and love.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bringing about change...

It seems to me that the key to a farming system that benefits wildlife is to create a mosaic. A farmed landscape pieced together from smaller constituent parts that creates a diverse and living environment.  These small scale activities are what ensure that somewhere within a relatively small area there is always a suitable habitat for bird species to make a nest, find a supply of food for growing chicks and find a source of food during the lean months.  These are often referred to as the ‘big 3’ when it comes to the conservation of farmland birds.

I know I have a habit of banging on about the farming of days gone by but when small and medium farms dominated the industry this mosaic was maintained. Looking back may not provide all the answers, but it provides us with an example of a farming system less harmful to the natural world.

Go back several decades and Farmers A, B and C all earn most of their living from milking cattle, farmers A and C have a flock of sheep, and Farmer C even has pigs. Farmers A and B might well grow silage, but Farmer C would maintain a hay meadow and besides, Farmer B always mowed late in the year anyway because her fields were less fertile. Farmer A’s farm may have been a model of tidiness but Farmer B was a bit more messy and Farmer C was near retirement and didn’t lose any sleep about the weeds or the small size of his fields. It may sound like a complicated mosaic but that was good thing for the individuals and a great thing for wildlife.

Today Farmer D  (a perfectly nice person by the way) farms the area that was once farmed by Farmers’ A, B & C, and in order to make a profit Farmer D has to grow silage on most of the land and get at least two crops per summer, the rest of the land is grazed intensively. They have only cows and they must milk far more cows than Farmers A, B and C combined.

Of course I understand as well as anyone that there was plenty wrong with farming in days gone by, it wasn’t ideal for all wildlife but it suited most. I also understand that the way the industry works now means that farming on that size and scale won’t be seen again but this means we have to try to recreate elements of that landscape within a modern farming system.


Thinking of the changes that have taken place made me realise that all the conservation measures we put in place these days are effectively attempts to re-mosaic the countryside. Whether it’s set-aside, buffer strips, beetle banks, Skylark plots, orchard restoration or relaxed hedge flailing cycles- it’s all about trying desperately to shoehorn some habitat variation into a near-monoculture. 

This in turn got me thinking about just how reactive farming and indeed conservation are being- they are effectively picking up the pieces left behind from a system operated by the powers that be. Trying to solve a problem using only what’s left behind is a bit like putting a bucket under a leaking tap and declaring it fixed- you’re not solving the problem you’re tackling the mess. The conservation of farmland birds is about root causes and the answers lie in the bigger picture.

The bigger picture...

We the public demand our cheap food, we care where our food comes from- but only if it is at a price we can afford. We all want the standard of living we feel we deserve- and there's nothing wrong with that.

In order to appeal to us the supermarkets and their suppliers want to sell us our daily bread as cheaply as they can- they want us through their sliding glass doors in droves- there's nothing wrong with that either.

Supermarkets and suppliers are keen that they shouldn't have to bear the burden of this bargain food, after all they have bumper profits and world domination to fund. So how do they sell cheap food and yet make bumper profits? It's simple, they pay the farmer less- there's nothing wrong with that... well actually...

By transferring the cost cutting to the producer the farmer has two choices. Either grow more food for less or quit farming, and let another farm absorb your land in order to make more food, for less. Our demand, and the need for supermarkets and suppliers to make profit from our food is what drives the intensification of British agriculture.

There are lots of issues arising from a more intensive farming but the three key issues are:
  • Issues of animal welfare
  • Biodiversity decline
  • The loss of small/medium farms

The public are right to be concerned about these issues, they're things that people feel strongly about and there are lots of ways these problems are addressed.

Tax payers money (in the form of subsidies) is used to reward farmers for farming in a more environmentally sensitive way to help offset biodiversity losses. We join charities and make donations to support those working to help our farmland species and we support organisations that lobby governments and policy makers to bring about changes in animal welfare standards or address biodiversity loss. In short, a lot of people pay a lot of money to put these things right.

We argue about these issues, with heated debates throwing the blame back and forth. We pit farming against the environment and production against biodiversity in an increasingly polarised debate that doesn't really benefit anyone. Sometimes it feels like we're arguing for argument's sake.

All the time we're doing this we pass the blame up the chain. For many of us we see the intensive farming systems that increasingly dominate our countryside and the buck stops there. Farming causes biodiversity decline- it's true, it's a simple answer and it means we have our culprit, but farming is the product of our demand. The argument gets a bit more messy when we look at the bigger picture but until we do we're just trapped in a vicious cycle of eating cheap food, species decline and blaming farmers.

I know what I say is sometimes idealist and I don't have the answers.  I understand that economic systems and market forces make the world go around. I realise that if milk companies paid us a few more pence per litre for our milk that we wouldn't somehow be thrust back into some golden age where hedgerows groaned under the weight of Yellowhammers and Bullfinches. But having said this if farmers weren't forced to produce food for such little reward they wouldn't be forced to transfer their loses onto the natural world in order to make a living. We need to acknowledge that the causes of biodiversity loss are many, varied, and a result of the way our society works.

It's absolutely right that we the public should question where our taxes are spent. Some may feel the UK farming industry is something of a black hole when it comes to the millions and millions of pounds in publicly funded subsidies- particularly as farmland bird species continue to decline.

So where is this money going? I can't speak for the big landowners or the 'grain barons' but it's certainly not into the pockets of the farmers around here. Maybe when we're scratching our heads and pondering where this money goes, we should have a think about the bumper profits those supermarkets are enjoying. Money handed over by the public and squeezed from the producers. It sometimes feels like they are the only ones doing well out of the farming industry.

I'm not suggesting we should march on our nearest Sainsburys, but you have to ask yourself if when you're reaping the benefits of that cheap food at the checkout- maybe you're helping pay for it with your taxes. And who benefits? It's not the farmer and it sure isn't the wildlife. A cheap pint of milk means short term gains for long term losses.

What to do next...

When we look for accountability in the decline of biodiversity in our countryside we need to think more about where our food comes from, the journey it takes beyond the farm gate and who makes the most money from this process. There are issues here that cannot be solved simply by switching to the Tesco Finest range.

I know supermarkets make commitments to help British farmers, they are working on the traceability of their food and the welfare standards under which it is produced. They are working on these welfare issues because their consumers demanded it. This is a good thing- it shows they will respond to public pressure. Therefore we also need to ask our supermarkets and their suppliers what they're doing to help address the other issues arising from intensive farming: biodiversity decline, disappearing habitats and the loss of our small/medium farms.

Showing off publicity shots of the happy cattle that are minced into their premium range products is all well and good, but we mustn't become complacent, we must not forget that there are other problems the supermarkets need to help us address.

So when it comes to halting the decline of farmland species the millions in subsidies, cooperation between the farming and conservation communities, and the tireless work of wildlife charities and organisations are all vital- but, they're all about tackling issues on the ground, from the bottom-up. Equally important, but massivly overlooked is  the opportunity to tackle things from the top-down. We can do this by looking to those companies that pass food from the farmer to the consumer and make billions of pounds in the process.

We all have a responsibility to help us restore that lost habitat mosaic and try to save our farmland birds, we just need to ask those who are in a position to implement real changes on our behalf.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Welcome back (sort of)...

The decline of farmland biodiversity is a bit of a sorry subject- a stream of headlines regarding species' declines may be accurate but they do not make for cheerful reading. It matters not whether you’re a farmer, a conservationist or just someone that likes a quick stroll through the countryside at the weekend- the decline of some of our best loved species is obvious, and depressing.

There are successes and reasons to be hopeful- the Cirl Bunting Project is going well, the work of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust continues, the RSPB’s  aptly named Hope Farm reaps rewards on many fronts and the positive and cooperative attitudes of many farmers  are just some of the little rays of sunshine in an otherwise cloudy sky. But they can all seem a long way away when you reach the end of the summer and realise you hardly heard the Skylark.

In terms of the bird species on our small farm there are lots that have dwindled and some that have disappeared but there are positives too. We must not become in any way complacent but equally we must celebrate our successes. So far  in 2011: the hard winter brought Snipe to the boggy patches and open ditches in good numbers, a Cuckoo was heard this spring, Reed Buntings bred here for the first time, Tree Sparrows returned, Goldfinch and Willow Tit numbers continued to climb, and a Wood Warbler visited us as it headed Southwards this Autumn.

All of these are small triumphs- but for me the best wildlife news so far in 2011 came last weekend- less than a mile from the farm someone reported seeing a Grey Partridge. I have to admit at first I was sceptical we have Red-Legged Partridges, and Pheasants by the dozen but sadly I haven’t seen a Grey Partridge on the farm for over a decade.

Here today, gone tomorrow...

The decline of our Grey Partridges was shockingly rapid. Fifteen years ago we had a regular covey of between 8 and 12 birds that wintered with us on the farm then dispersed each summer, but five years later they were gone. They didn’t really dwindle they just disappeared never to be seen again. The problem didn’t just affect our farm; unknowingly we must have had some of the last- they disappeared from our countryside as a whole.

The call of a Grey Partridge is for me an evocative sound- admittedly we’re not talking song of the Nightingale, more a raspy cry, but it takes me back. The birds themselves may not be the showiest or the most colourful but there is great beauty in their subtle hues, and they are delightful in their modest and unassuming habits.

Thankfully the individual who spotted this bird was a birder and a photographer who managed to spot and snap the bird. The partridge was a youngster somewhere in the middle of the messy moult to adulthood. A couple of other people managed to see it when it occasionally emerged from the fog and long grass. Who just fifteen years ago would have thought a partridge would have caused such a fuss.

Here today, back tomorrow?

I admit I am getting a bit carried away. One adolescent partridge seen a half a mile from the farm might not herald the triumphant return of a lost species.  Sitting where they do in the food chain and with winter approaching, for this particular little bird Spring 2012 is a long time and a lot of luck away.

That said, I’m sure you can understand my excitement, after a complete absence a single bird IS a return of sorts. It’s also true to say that compared to this time last year Grey Partridge numbers in this neck of the woods have increased by...well, it doesn’t even work as a percentage. Mathematically speaking they have arrived.

There’s also comfort in the fact that Grey Partridges don’t typically travel far from their natal grounds- so this young bird means that someone, is doing something right, somewhere not too far away.

We may well not see another Grey Partridge around here for another 10 years. In many cases the return of farmland bird species can never be as fast as their decline, but when the day comes that there are partridges scratching in our fields and hedgerows again (and that day will come) it’ll be like they never went away.

  • For more information about the Grey Partridge, it's decline and how to manage land to aid it's recovery see here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Less of the 'us' and 'them'...

There have been a lot of strong opinions flying around lately, largely in condemnation of the comments on biodiversity made by NFU President Peter Kendall. I too have had my say on the matter and we must be wary not to take his words out of context. Kendall's  comments and the reaction to them has caused polarisation on an issue that requires measured and rational debate.

As President of the NFU Peter Kendall is an elected representative of the farming community-but whilst I'm sure there are many issues upon which you, I and Peter Kendall might agree it doesn't mean we will agree on everything, that is to be expected.

The nature of these comments has led to a flurry of blogging, commenting, writing and tweeting on the matter- many people were outraged and in the exchanges that ensued some accusations have been unfairly aimed at the wider farming community. I am writing this to ask people to consider whether some of the more loaded responses to the initial comments are any less shortsighted than Kendall's.

Some of the reactions have included expressions such as  "we as tax payers" and "we as consumers", farmers who have spoken out against Kendall have been called "dissenting". Dissenting from what exactly? The National Farmer's Union isn't the National Farmer's Army- let's acknowledge that farmers are a little more diverse and independent than they're being given credit for. Farmers don't tow a line based on their profession anymore than a nurse, a conservationist, a builder, a stripper or a florist.

We should also acknowledge that farmers too are consumers. They shop in the supermarkets you do, buy the brands you buy and like you they buy the best food they can afford with the budget they have. We must try to avoid the notions of 'us' and 'them'.

It's also important we take our hands from the reigns of power. Subsidies are publicly funded money and many members of the public (which includes farmers) gladly acknowledge the role this money has in maintaining the countryside we love, and we all crave sustainability.

Let's openly talk about biodiversity loss and animal welfare but the tone of insistence and demand that a few have taken following Kendall's comments have carried  hints of an anti-farming sentiment.

Such comments are just inflammatory. Public money should of course be spent how the public dictate but if you want a cheap loaf and an affordable pint of milk (and many of us do) then what we need to do is sit down and work out how we can achieve a wonderful ecologically rich countryside as well. Make sure your opinions and your shopping habits are aligned.

I find that implying that farmers should down tools and farm to the whim of a vocal view is what drives farmers away from negotiations and towards the perceived independence that farming for production alone could bring.

Farming on a small scale might not be economically viable for food production alone but it is we as consumers who have helped make this so with our demand for those cheap loaves, imported beef and suspicious sausages. Just as we don't blame the fishermen for the scarcity of cod in the oceans- let's not blame the farmer for the decline of the Corn Bunting. We need to share the blame for ecological decline  and let us share the responsibility of finding a workable solution.

So whatever your views on farmers and farming- feel free to air them, but think about what you say. And if you really want to be heard let your purses and wallets do the talking. If you want organically-reared rare breed beefburgers then buy them. Buy fair trade, buy red tractor, buy meat/don't buy meat, buy what you can afford, buy what you believe in and where possible buy British.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Biodiversity vs Productivity?

Who can save the Turtle Dove?

We all know there is a biodiversity crisis in the countryside; twenty years ago our farm had Grey Partridge, Lapwings and Yellowhammers- now it doesn’t, it’s very clear that the environment has suffered. To deny what is so obviously true seems a bit odd. To acknowledge species decline isn’t to accept blame or slash productivity it’s simply the first step in reversing the downward trend.

Reversing the decline is a complex business. I can't save the Turtle Dove; Lord knows I would if I could. The reason I know I can't save them is because I've never seen one on our farm. Whether or not my ancestors saw Turtle Doves as they farmed this land I don't know. We live in a very different world now and all the evidence from my time here would suggest that these 200 acres of Derbyshire aren't really what a Turtle Dove is looking for.

It's the same story for Yellow Wagtails, we get the odd one drop in on passing, they usually favour feeding among the very short grass after the cattle ground has been winter grazed by the sheep. But the grazing habits of our dairy herd and the pressure for a good silage crop mean our fields don't have the varying sward heights, the bared patches or the presence of standing water that really benefit the Yellow Wagtails- for that these birds have to head down to lowland wet grassland.

The farmland species that are thriving here are birds like the Goldfinches, the Greenfinches, the Jackdaws and the Stock Doves- the 'generalist' species that are doing well everywhere. Our farming operations crawl onwards and some of the commoner farmland species seem ok with that- but I am helpless to save the 'specialist' species such as the Turtle Dove and the Yellow Wagtail.

Listing the birds I can't help may seem rather defeatist, but sometimes we all need to use our common sense. Of course the neighbouring farmers and I could switch our whole farming system to arable and leave nice big field margins, or we could raise the water table, tear up our drainage and graze a few cattle at very low stocking rates. We may attract the odd Yellow Wagtail to stick around but it would be financial suicide.

Biodiversity vs Productivity

Of course no-one is suggesting for one moment that we should carry out these measures- but there is a general consensus among farmers that too much emphasis is being placed on farming for biodiversity while farming for productivity is expected to play second fiddle.

This sentiment has been particularly prevalent since last months announcement that the European Commission was looking to 'green' the Common Agricultural Policy. Of all the proposed criteria the requirement by farmers to leave 7% of their land fallow has perhaps produced the most comment.

Many farmers are not opposed to rewarding sustainability- but for some this will come at great cost to productivity- for them this is a case of being paid hand-outs to 'farm badly' a notion that doesn't sit too comfortably with their aims as business people. In effect they see this as being forced to come back to the EU cap in hand (no pun intended) when really they would like to be allowed to boost productivity in an economically viable, competitive and profitable way.

Equally there are other farms, farms like ours, which are trying to make ends meet on a small acreage. We understand that the halcyon days of booming profits and growing productivity have long gone. Small farms tore up their hedgerows, fitted shiny new milking parlours and doused the land with new fertilizers but our time at the forefront of a post-war productivity drive was short lived. Economies of scale and a strong pound meant larger holdings and foreign farmers were able to do things much more efficiently. Although average farm size had increased- we were soon struggling to compete. Farmers who share our position acknowledge that we rely on the subsidies to allow us to keep 'maintaining' the countryside, and we accept the conditions that come with this payment.

And here-in lies the problem: as a rule the farms opposed to the CAP reforms i.e. those that feel they stand a chance of being able to make a profit without the 'restrictions' of a greener policy are in many cases the ones that are best placed to help specialist species like the Turtle Dove and the Yellow Wagtail.

It's hardly a surprise that nationally the species with more specific habitat requirements are fairing much worse than the more generalist species- but the problem is being compounded by the fact that the specialists inhabit the parts of the UK with the largest, most industrialised farming operations- the areas that could make a living from farming.

It's a bit of a conundrum isn't it.

Farming with environmental restrictions means these larger (typically arable) farms could become less economically viable while smaller (mostly pastoral or mixed) farms may be less affected. Numbers of both the more specialist and the more generalist farmland bird species that inhabit these two farming models respectively should fair better.

Turtle Doves and a farming future?

I can’t deny that coming from a small farm and enjoying seeing the farm's birds as I do- I am perhaps biased towards a more sustainable, less intensive way of farming.

And it’s not just our farm. Pastoral farming covers vast swathes of the UK. It’s intensive farming by historical standards but not by modern standards. Our farming operations are always going to be limited by the land we farm so being paid to ‘maintain’ the countryside might not be the future many pastoral farmers had hoped for, and nobody enjoys being dictated too by bureaucrats, but it is a means to an end.

I can sympathise with those farmers that are responsible for growing the majority of the food, fodder and fuel we as a nation consume, and I can understand why they oppose the CAP reforms. In light of spending cuts it does seem that the economic scales are being balanced by taking away from the one side rather than adding to the other.

Our farm can provide the Goldfinches and the Jackdaws, but these are the men and women that can save the Turtle Dove- we just have to find a way of helping them do that without causing too much damage to their businesses.

It's important our farms remain as productive as possible and it's vital we don't allow species to disappear from our countryside. It's not an easy trick to pull off but can achieve both. Our smaller farms may be more accepting of environmental restrictions but we need to actively work with our larger and more productive farms to ensure compromises are seen to come from all sides.

Farmer's must accept that all businesses will increasingly face environmental restrictions and as a result productivity potential will be affected- subsidised farming will always come with terms and conditions. Equally ministers and conservation groups must acknowledge that frustrating as it may be, measures to help the Turtle Dove and our other farmland species will be slow, at times difficult, and must (where possible) work around a productive farming system.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mycology: Stepping into the unknown...

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing...

I like to think of myself as a lover of all wildlife, even the things that at times can be hard to love- but for me (as the blog's title would imply) it's all about the birds. That's not to say I'm an expert by any means- a Mealy Redpoll and a  Lesser Redpoll are basically one and the same, the only difference being I am more likely to see one and less likely to see the other, but I know enough to get by.

I'm also not too bad on mammals and trees, and simply because of  the limited number of species and the infrequency at which I encounter them I can also just about cope with reptiles and amphibians. Clever old me.

But the more I thought about it the more I became aware of all the other things I'm not very good at identifying. Being able to recognise and therefore appreciate the big stuff, the rare stuff or the stuff that flies overhead is well and good, but why is it I draw the line there. It seems I'm missing out on the majority of the species I encounter because either I hardly notice them or because identifying them is a bit tricky.

I took this thought to bed with me, and this morning I awoke determined to learn a little more about the things I had previously overlooked. As I scanned the farm on this mild, damp, foggy November morning I was feeling rather uninspired- and then it came to me.  Fungi.

Equipped with my phone I snapped some of the species I encountered as I went about my daily routines. I know this has been a bumper year for fungi (I've eaten more field mushrooms than you would believe) but the diversity and beauty of what I encountered surprised me.

Below are the photographs I took today. I have labelled the ones I could name (i.e. the easiest ones). Identifying the rest is my aim for the week, I have numbered them and any suggestions would be much appreciated...

Field Mushroom
(Agaricus bitorquis)

Dryad's Saddle 
(Polyporus squamosus)

Yellow Brain Fungus
(Tremella mesenterica)

Many-Zoned Polypore 
(Coriolus versicolor)

Honey Fungus
(Armillaria mellea)

  Ear Fungus
(Hirneola auricula-judae)

Candle Snuff Fungus
(Xylaria hypoxylon)

Glistening Ink Cap
(Coprinus micaceus)

The Miller
(Clitopilus prunulus)

Unknown 1

Unknown 2

Unknown 3

Unknown 4

Wood Blewit
(Lepista nuda)

Unknown 5

Panaeolus sphinctrinus


Mycena galopus

Unknown 6

Unknown 7

Fairies' Bonnets
(Coprinus disseminatus)

Unknown 8

 Meadow Wax Cap
(Hygrocybe pratensis)

Brown Roll-rim (Paxillus involutus)

Unknown 9

Unknown 10

Unknown 11

Unknown 12

Unknown 13

Unknown 14

Unknown 15