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.

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