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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Farmers boring? Who told you that?...

The farming community are a mixed bunch. Describe each and every one of the UK's farmers in 3 words and you'll struggle to find any with a matching description. They truly are a cross section of society but  despite this the media seems keen to come up with a stereotype of 'a farmer' and of what being a farmer means.

A recent survey of 1000 teenagers has shown that farming is suffering from something of an image crisis. Farming topped the 'least liked' jobs category, and was voted fourth in a list of jobs teens see as 'most boring'. Hardly a ringing endorsement of a career in agriculture. It seems the youth of today are more drawn to careers in the media, creative services, sports, leisure and IT.

Before we get too worried it's probably wise to sit down and think about what 'being a farmer' means to these kids. As the surveys were carried out in London, Birmingham and the southeast it's safe to assume that many of these young people are not directly in contact with farming so their ideas will be based upon what they perceive farming to be about. But what has 40 years of television taught these young people about farming life...

Farmer 1... Old MacDonald

Open a children's story book or watch a TV programme from the 1970's and a farmer is probably a jovial character who can be found sucking a piece of straw as  he drives his tractor. When he's not tractor driving he's leaning on a gate smiling or passing the time of day.  This farmer will have cows, sheep, pigs, hens, ducks and even a horse- his life is a series of animal related calamities interspersed with lots of head scratching.

It's a stereotype from a previous generation that's pretty hard to shake off as it's the one we're all taught as children. Despite being something of a myth it's a lifestyle that is believed then adopted by television chefs and misguided small holders who give 'being a farmer' a go.

Farmer 2... Bogis, Bunce & Bean

Perhaps the least flattering of the stereotypes this is the 'townie'-hating, subsidy-grabbing farmer of the 1980's suburban middle classes' perceptions- this is Mr Get Orf Moi Land.

This farmer was invented at a time when Europe was a place of butter mountains and wine lakes. Farmers were believed to have lined their pockets with public-funded subsidies and all while Africa starved. This was also a time when the environmental impacts of pesticides and post-war 'modernisation' were being felt and from all directions fingers were pointed at the farmer. This greedy, grumpy, bloated stereotype was last seen persecuting the cast if an 80's sitcom in an episode set in the 'countryside'.

Farmer 3... Mr Hard-Done-To

The 1990's and the 2000's were undoubtedly a hard time for farmers; food scares, competition from overseas and the growing demand for cheap food hit the rural economy hard. The public were shown slow-motion footage of BSE infected cows stumbling in mucky yards and later giant pyres burned across the countryside- topped with the bloated corpses of Foot and Mouth infected herds.

Farming became about poverty, hardship, danger and loss. Thousands of farms were driven out of business, and thousands of young people sought work elsewhere. The average age of a farmer rocketed and rural suicide rates soared.

Perhaps the most horrible thing about this image of the farmer is that is rooted in truth- I know this as I was 11 when in 1996 the then-Conservative Government confirmed that BSE had jumped the species barrier. This and the 15 or so years that followed have not been great times to be a farmer in the UK.

Farmer 4... The 'Modern' Farmer

As we have moved into the 2010's (is that what we're calling this decade?) some areas of farming saw a slow recovery. Farms are now different places as those that survived the last couple of decades did so through self-sacrifice and/or diversification. The farming community felt ready for a new label but finding one was difficult.

Perhaps in an attempt to move away from the depressing truths of the past and  to appeal to the non-farming rural community (many living in the converted cowsheds of yesteryear), the media has switched its focus to a more general rural economy not so centred on food production. This may explain why Countryfile is now a Sunday evening show about smiley young presenters paragliding over the Malverns or taking nut-picking mini breaks in Cornwall- all while wearing brightly coloured outdoor gear.

The farmer himself is now equally at home on the laptop as he is strolling through his organic Dexter herd which he will later mince into premium burgers. This is the farmer that looks on as Jimmy Doherty crouches down smells a handful of restoration meadow hay and talks about the future of farming.

So who is right?

Is it any wonder young people aren't drawn to farming- they have no idea what farming actually is. All of the above may be true of a tiny minority (I've met all four on different occasions) but none are representative.

The 'rural economy' the media now features is about leisure and retreat. Food production has become about the peripheral rather than the mainstream. When the public aren't jotting down the recipe for Hugh's wild chestnut and saddleback stuffing they're rallying to Jamie's fight against intensive chicken production- but what about the vast majority of farmers producing food somewhere in the middle ground? I suppose they'll just keep quietly farming on.

And as for those teenagers, I totally understand their misconceptions of 'farming'.  They're just another generation we've failed to teach the truth about British agriculture.

The reality is they were never going to be farmers anyway. I just hope they find all the excitement they require from a life in IT.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Field barns: can we afford to save them for the birds?

A lush green valley or rolling hills criss-crossed with dry stone walls and dotted with field barns. It’s a quintessentially English scene. One you can find across the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District, and beyond. 

These unassuming little barns are a relic of a bygone age, when farms were much smaller. In centuries gone by  transporting things was  much more laborious and four walls in which you could lamb the sheep in spring, store the hay in summer, house geese in the autumn or chain a couple of cows in the winter was vital.

Field barns strategically dotted the landscape between other settlements, making far flung meadows and high grazing much more farmable. They were never the hub of daily life- that took place around the farmyard- but they served an important purpose for storage and occasional use.

Over the centuries their usage changed- reflecting the social and economic needs of the rural population of the day. Some became milking parlours, blacksmiths or labourers’ dwellings, others became chapels and schools, but the vast majority retained their original purpose.

Farming went boom...

It’s very easy to idealise the past as some golden yesteryear. The reality is that as soon as tractors, and barbed wire, big asbestos sheds, concrete blocking, silage production and continental breeds of livestock became affordable farmers understandably embraced these innovations to increase profits.

It didn’t happen overnight, farms changed over hundreds of years, one by one the field barns fell out of use and it’s only within the last couple of decades, as most of the remaining small farms and traditional farms were squeezed out of business, that we’ve seen many of our field barns become truly redundant.

Field barns for wildlife...

These quiet little buildings, maintained but isolated, provided a unique habitat for a variety of species able to exploit them. The creature perhaps most associated with our quiet farm buildings is the Barn Owl. In today’s landscape of vole-less silage meadows, fast roads and illegal persecution it is evermore vital that Barn Owls offset their high mortality rates with large broods.

With a lack of suitable nesting sites and specialised boxes supporting such a large proportion of the population today they’re crying out for somewhere safe to nest.

Then there are the bats. All UK bat species have been recorded using buildings to roost and many species use suitable buildings such as field barns readily. Brown and Grey Long-Eared Bats, Natter’s Bats, Greater Horseshoe and Lesser Horseshoe Bats all need flight space and flying access to their roosts so particularly favour the hollow space an old barn provides.

Many bird species readily use buildings as nesting sites- some nest almost exclusively in and around buildings. Field barns can be particularly useful for those species that feed on insects or small mammals as barns are typically sited in meadows and grazed pastures where their food supply can be found. As well as Swallows, House Martins and Swifts, House Sparrows, Tree Sparrows, Starlings, Kestrels, Blackbirds, Wrens, Robins, Spotted Flycatchers, Wagtails, Tits, Pigeons, Doves  and corvids will all use a suitable building as a nesting site.

It’s not just that it would be a nice option for these birds- some of them have experienced marked population declines over recent decades. The causes of such declines are many and varied but for some of them a lack of suitable nesting sites can be a contributing factor. House Sparrows have experienced a 62% population decline in the past 25 years- a lack of suitable nesting sites has been highlighted as a key factor in this decline.

Many terrestrial species  will also take advantage of the additional shelter a field barn can provide hedgehogs, reptiles and amphibians are particularly drawn to them

What we’ve lost...
Field barns fell out of use as farming changed- in many cases keeping them standing was no longer viable. Their roofs sagged and fell in, their walls bowed and they became empty shells. The problem accelerated as the farming industry (rocked by food scares and cheap imports) stagnated then declined.

In recent years farms have diversified and sought other forms of income. Tourism and a housing shortage have driven up the demand for rural accommodation and hundreds of remaining barns (like the farmyards they once served) have been converted into dwellings. In some parts of the country grants have been offered where field barns have been used for business purposes in a bid to save the barns and boost the rural economy- quite canny I'm sure you'll agree.

Neither of these are bad things, such developments keep the barns standing- they find a use for them and they help supplement the farming income- in short they make them viable again but with roof lights, gravel driveways, plumbing and leylandii they have become a suitable habitat for just one species. It simply means that whilst many thousands of barns crumbled and fell, the remaining hundreds have been converted- often unsympathetically- and we now have very few barns that function as barns.

Now I'm not suggesting that money should be provided to keep barns standing just in case a barn owl may want to nest in one- it'd make for some pretty expensive chicks. But when you consider their history, their aesthetic charm, their role as landscape features, and their increasing rarity in their original form- then suddenly they have a significance and a purpose.

I say save them before it's too late. I'm not entirely sure how we should go about doing this, perhaps we could include their upkeep as agricultural buildings into the requirements of ELS stewardship schemes. Give farmers a reason and an incentive to maintain them and maybe, just maybe, our little barns will be protecting wildlife and adorning teatowels for years to come.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Farming and Conservation: It's about doing what you do best...

Our farm is by no means a glowing example of conservation in action. When the land is your only source of income sometimes you have to put your own needs first. The economic viability of small and even medium sized farms is questionable so we’re not talking boosting profits, we’re talking damage limitation.

Not all farming models suit all farmland species, we are a small pastoral farm at around 700ft above sea level so we’re never going encourage the sort of species that enjoy vast tracts of open arable land or heather moorland. When planning realistic conservation measures farms should be encouraged to play to their strengths and one of our farm success stories is the Brown Hare.

The hares breed on the farm and despite high mortality among the leverets (as is typical of the species) by late summer up to 8 hares have been counted at one time.

How our farm works...

The farm is over 200 acres: just over 100 acres is in small blocks away from the farm and just under 100 acres sits in a ring-fence with the farmyard at the centre.

The land away from the farm itself is used for four purposes:

  • Growing the vast majority of winter feed (predominantly silage with a small amount of hay) for cattle during the winter, particularly the milk cows and young calves that are housed indoors from November till April.
  • Grazing and fattening sheep (excluding the few weeks they’re moved onto farm itself for lambing).
  • Grazing young stock (the future dairy cows) throughout the summer- and the winter if the conditions allow.
  • Grazing and fattening a handful of beef cattle- their calves being sold annually to supplement income.

The land on the farm is used for three purposes:

  • The land is grazed by the milk herd from April until November, the land is divided into two blocks. The southern block is grazed in the day (prior to the evening milking) and the northern block is grazed at night (prior to the morning milking).
  • Some of the better fields are used to provide a single cut of silage early in the year- they are then grazed by the milk cows as part of the daily rotation. As the sheep graze this ground well into spring the cut can be later than is typical.
  • In-lamb sheep graze some of the land from November till April (during which time the cows are housed indoors). Following lambing they are moved to out-lying land.

How it benefits the hares that live on the farm...

1.    We have a patchwork of 16 small fields that make up the 100 acres immediately around the farm. These fields are farmed in a cycle meaning they are grazed by cattle and sheep, or occasionally mowed. Not all of the fields are used for the same purpose at any one time.

2.    The majority of the land around the farm is pasture land and is not mowed regularly. Most of the land that is subject to the high demands of early and repeated silage cuts is found in the 100+ acres that are in blocks away from the farm.  This land has fertilizer and manure applied regularly and therefore has a higher denser sward.

3.    As well as a seasonal rotation- the daily and nightly milking cycle means that during the day (approximately 11 hours) the northern side of the farm is stock-free and during the night (approximately 13 hours) the southern side of the farm is stock-free. For various reasons the hares prefer to graze on land without livestock present. As a result the hares graze in a cycle opposite to that of the cattle. Being crespucular allows for more efficient grazing.

4.    The farm has other features that hares favour. There is a small woodland block, hedges between all the fields and patches of rush and scrub. There are also steep slopes upon which it is not possible to apply fertilizer or manure, and as a result wildflowers grow well.


The success of the brown hare on this site is more a side-effect of the farming model we practice. A model is determined by the type of land, it’s distribution, it’s features and capital (or lack thereof) invested in the land for farming purposes.

I strongly believe that for conservation and farming to work effectively together we should be looking at what a particular farm can do. That’s not to say farms shouldn’t be encouraged to change the way things are done occasionally- but let us all play to our strengths.

To force an unworkable conservation strategy onto a farm is as destructive to the business as practising an unsympathetic farming strategy is to it’s wildlife.