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.

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