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.

1 comment:

  1. Great to read, keep writing .( Our single payment delayed because we went into agri enviro scheme, cut because we have lovely bits of woodland and scrub.)