Yellowhammer - a farmland bird under threat

Yellowhammer
Photo by Peter Thompson

Threatened farmland birds are likely to survive the winter better on conventional farms with specially designed wildlife habitats than on organic farms, according to a new study from the University of Southampton.

Winter farmland bird populations compared across three different wildlife schemes showed the ‘Conservation Grade’ approach, that aims to grow crops efficiently while giving farmers specific designs for wildlife food and shelter plots, produced higher survival rates than the organic sites.

The researcher, Dominic Harrison, said the greatest numbers of chaffinches, yellowhammers, skylarks and lapwings were recorded on Conservation Grade farms.  “A strong link was found between the number of specially-designed habitats created and the richness of bird species found.  While the organic farms did provide some wildlife habitats, they were dominated by grassland, which meant they provided little winter feed and scored the lowest,” he explains.

Corn bunting singing - a species in decline

Corn bunting singing
Photo by Peter Thompson

“This indicates that organic farms don’t provide significant benefits to overwintering birds but instead, farm-scale management specifically designed to be beneficial to wildlife can have positive farm-scale effects.”

Dr Darren Moorcroft, Head of  Species and Habitat Conservation at the RSPB agrees that the best results in sustaining farmland bird populations are to be gained from a targeted approach.  “There’s no doubt the more specific the approach, the better the results”, he said.

Brin Hughes of Conservation Grade says it’s important for farmers to be clear what outcomes they want before they start.  “Organic production is a philosophy that upholds certain environmental values, but doesn’t specifically focus on achieving specific results in terms of biodiversity improvement,” he explains. “We’ve designed Conservation Grade to deliver biodiversity ‘yields’ in much the same way farmers aim to optimise their yields of wheat.

Mr Harrison’s paper can be downloaded from:

www.southampton.ac.uk/engineering/research/projects/conservation_farming.page?#publications

It was researched independently and funded by the Vitacress Conservation Trust and Conservation Grade.