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Sodden nests don't help birds recover

by Juliet Hawkins

The skylark, grey partridge, reed bunting and tree sparrow are all seriously declining farmland Biodiversity Action Plan bird species that have a lot more than wet spring weather and sodden nests to cope with in their road to recovery. They need more food - all year.

Ground-nesting birds are obviously vulnerable to May's torrential outbursts. Skylark nests must have been washed out again and again - the RSPB's Skylark project made us realise that just hearing the skylark singing sweetly above our set-aside fields didn't necessarily mean they were successfully nesting. In one wet spring and summer, we barely had a successful brood hatch off. (right - Skylark chicks by Juliet Hawkins)

Miserable, wet grey partridge chicks migrate to the refuge of a relatively quiet and dry roadside only to be scattered, motherless, by a car. To hatch off is one thing, to keep dry and find enough to feed on is quite another. The grey partridge, like many other birds, is hugely dependent upon plenty of insect food in its first few weeks of life - difficult to find in today's clean crops. 'Conservation headlands' can significantly help farmland birds by allowing broadleaved 'weeds' to flower along arable cropped field margins, which, in turn, support the insects needed by young chicks - in the field or hedgerow. These, headlands, together with 'beetle banks', grass or nectar-margins and winter wild bird cover, grant aided by DEFRA's Countryside Stewardship scheme, are being established by committed 'green' farmers, to improve the all-year round bird food table.

Juliet Hawkins is a farm conservation consultant involved in conservation projects on her family-owned farm.

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