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Farmland Bird Talk

by Juliet Hawkins

Passing on a passion
I recently had to talk to a group of farmers at a Suffolk Agricultural Association and RSPB farmland bird conference. The morning RSPB and BTO speakers had a plethora of graphs to show long term bird survey results, the indisputable depressing declines in farmland birds and the research into optimum habitat improvements to reverse this dire situation. This was followed by an excellent talk by the farm manager of a large light land Suffolk estate where stone curlew nesting success is largely attributable to predator control and a huge amount of staff effort in pinpointing nests and working around them.  Another landowner from the Suffolk coast gave an inspirational talk explaining how scrape creation, grassland management and sustained predator control had resulted in incredible lapwing success - amongst other wader increases.

I am not a birder or a twitcher and I find little brown jobs quite difficult to identify unless they are perched still for some time facing the same way as the bird identification book illustrations and emit the perfect given song or sounds for that bird. However, the chairman of the day was kind enough to point out that in many ways my talk was the most important. So how, you may wonder, can a birding amateur contribute to this conference?  Well, it was very simple – I simply talked about why we continue to farm in an era of financial loss - because of our passion for the ordinary birds (amongst other wildlife) on our farm and why passing on this enthusiasm to the next generation is essential.

Heavy clayland farm birds
Male House SparrowWe farm a typical, rather small by today’s standards, 500 acre predominantly arable farm on heavy clay farmland in south Suffolk – and like most farmers have diversified in different directions to survive. We don't have a long list of bird rarities that frequent the farm and we don’t have spectacular semi-natural habitat such as ancient woodland or SSSI grassland. What we do have is a passion for the relatively widespread, but declining, typical 70 or so farmland birds of our area and, through sensitive farm management (not organic) and use of government stewardship schemes over the last 20 years to fine-tune habitat management and use set-aside constructively, we have managed to keep relatively high densities of many of the birds that are declining elsewhere – skylark, yellowhammer, linnet, bullfinch and house sparrow.

Our imperfect weedy crops provide food for skylark; our less than zealous tidying of spilt corn when filling lorries and our set-aside wildbird cover provides winter food for a range of seed-eaters – linnet, flocks of flitting goldfinches, scavenging chaffinch, chirping house sparrow, and the neat little dunnock; our rough rather untidy grass margins and old hay meadow provide good hunting ground for the tawny owl and little owl and the hovering daytime kestrel; our tall free-growth hedges provide ample ash key seed and berries for the bullfinches who weave up and down the hedge, keeping just ahead of me along the drive; our rotationally coppiced hedges provide perfect yellowhammer, whitethroat, blackcap and nightingale ground-nesting conditions in their various stages of shrubby re-growth.

The pleasure of seeing these birds from the tractor while ploughing the field or whilst walking the dog is difficult to quantify but nonetheless, immense. And so we try to pass on these simple pleasures and basic knowledge to our children and to members of our Wildlife Watch group who come to listen to the dawn chorus in the spring, who come to learn about the tit family and make bird boxes and, this year, we moved on to distinguish between the different members of the finch family.  Through greater exposure to, and understanding of, these birds and other wildlife, we hope that the next generation will support conservation policies and action to keep on improving the countryside and the lot of the birds within.

Juliet Hawkins
Juliet is an independent farm conservation adviser married to a Suffolk farmer.
Their farm offers B&B accommodation in the Suffolk countryside.