How did farmland birds fare in 2019 on RSPB’s Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire? In this blog, Farm Manager Georgie Bray tells us.

A key part of the work we do at Hope Farm is to demonstrate wildlife friendly farming, in terms of its practicalities on the ground. What sets Hope Farm apart is our ability to monitor the changes to farmland bird populations to quantify the difference of taking a wildlife-friendly farming approach. This year has once again shown what a difference the provision of the right habitat can make to survival and breeding success of farmland birds, here and inferably other wildlife-friendly farms, whilst growing profitable, sustainable crops in the process.

Scores on the Doors

Monitoring for farmland birds is undertaken using the Common Bird Census. Here, surveys are walked across the farm to identify the number and distribution of territories on the farm.

Hope Farm birds graph 2019

This graph shows the increase in the Hope Farm index by 185%, having maintained the index at the same high level for over a decade now. This year has also seen a bounce back after a decline in 2018, that potentially resulted from the severe weather events of that season. This sits against a background decline of England’s farmland bird index since 2000 by 20%.

Below, are the changes in territory numbers between 2000, when we took on management of the farm, and 2019. Yellow wagtail and corn bunting have returned to the farm after an absence in 2018. Goldfinch numbers have continued to increase this year, whilst reed bunting, yellow hammer, linnet and starling territory numbers are similar to previous years. Surprisingly, grey partridge has been scarce in terms of territories on the farm, although this autumn has witnessed a couple of large coveys remaining on the farm.

  Number of Territories in 2000 Number of Territories in 2019   Number of Territories in 2000 Number of Territories in 2019
Kestrel 0 1 Jackdaw 0 4
Grey Partridge 0 3 Starling 3 12
Lapwing 0 4 Greenfinch 18 4
Stock Dove 2 6 Goldfinch 3 19
Woodpigeon 33 61 Linnet 6 19
Turtle Dove 0 0 Yellowhammer 14 27
Skylark 10 32 Reed Bunting 3 13
Yellow Wagtail 0 2 Corn Bunting 0 1
Whitethroat 25 34      


So what management has made the difference at Hope Farm?

Hedgerow management

It is always rewarding to see the difference that can be made for farmland birds, through provision of summer food, winter food, and nesting habitat. We have continued to manage hedgerows in a way that creates a diversity of hedge structures, and this helps to cater for a diversity of hedge nesting species. Some are maintained as shorter 2m high and at least 2m wide structures, whilst encouraging long vegetation growth at the bottom most suited to yellowhammers and grey partridge. Other taller scrubby hedges should be better suited to turtle doves should they return, or greenfinch, with the adequate feeding habitat in nearby areas.

A few hedges have been earmarked to flail back already this autumn, where the hedges have become very tall, and have spread so far out that they come to a hard border with a track rather than having a softer border for ground nesting birds. The decline in use of these hedgerows by yellowhammers and whitethroats could well reflect this change in structure. With over 12km of hedgerows on the farm, management of 3km will still leave plenty of berries and pollinator resources in full swing for the winter and following spring next year.

In field management

Farmland birds at Hope Fram

Newly hatched lapwing chicks in an insecticide-free bean crop at Hope Farm. Photo: Georgie Bray/RSPB

Out in the field, we have managed skylark plots, lapwing plots and a corn bunting plot, funded within the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS), to keep our ground nesting farmland birds as safe as we can from mammalian predators. 25 skylark plots across the farm, in every field with a winter cereal, help to maintain accessible and safe nesting habitat all the way through the breeding season. The lapwing fallow plot has also been a great success, with lapwings using the 2ha fallowed plot and surrounding areas to host 4 lapwing territories within a bean crop and on a spring barley field following a cover crop.

Summer food availability

On the farm, we do our best to make sure that birds can find food nearby suitable nesting areas. We grow 4.4ha of wildflower margins, and 4.3ha of leguminous pollen and nectar rich areas, to ensure plenty of flower rich resources on farm. These areas are a fantastic resource for pollinators and natural enemies to insect pests in the crop, helping us to farm, but also resulting in more chick food! Seed resources are important for species like linnet using the oilseed rape in the rotation, but also for turtle doves where we grow and spread some seed through the summer, ready for their hopeful return.

Insecticide-free harvest

All of these practices, mostly funded through CSS, have been practised for many years at the farm. One key additional change to management this year has been the ceasing of insecticide use. Up until September last year, insecticides were not used as a rule throughout the bird breeding season, to prevent the destruction of key bird food resources or a natural enemy army to help with in crop pest control. This year we have taken this one step further by removing insecticide use altogether. So far, our crops are looking as good as ever, and the farm is full of insect life.

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