Birds flock to farmland in a million-acre count

A redwing, one of the species spotted during the Bog Farmland Bid Count. Picture by Peter Thompson
A redwing, one of the species spotted during the Bog Farmland Bid Count. Picture by Peter Thompson
  • More than 127 different species of birds recorded on farms this winter
  • The five most common were blackbird; robin; blue tit; chaffinch; and carrion crow
  • Thirteen species of raptor were counted
  • Starlings and fieldfare seen on more than 40 per cent of farms

An army of farmers, gamekeepers and land managers looking after nearly one million acres of farmland turned out in their droves this winter to count their birds in the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s second Big Farmland Bird Count.

Nearly 1,000 people, representing every county in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, swapped their tractors for binoculars for half-an-hour during the week-long count to see how their conservation efforts are boosting the recovery of farmland birds.

Once farmers see that their actions are achieving results it spurs them on to do even more for their farmland birds.

Graham Hartwell

Jim Egan, from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project, who originated the idea, said, “We are delighted to have received so much industry support, which is reflected in the results of this second count.

“Double the number of farmers turned out this winter and between them they recorded more than 127 different species on their farms.

“This was a remarkable achievement, particularly as they monitored an additional 11 species compared to 2014.”

The five most common birds seen on farms this winter during the count, from February 7 to 15, were blackbird, seen by nearly 90 per cent of farmers, followed by robin (80 per cent), blue tit (79 per cent), chaffinch (75 per cent) and carrion crow seen by over 70 per cent of the farmers taking part.

A total of 19 red-list species of conservation concern were also recorded with six appearing in the list of 25 most commonly seen species list.

Starlings and fieldfare were seen on more than 40 per cent of the farms taking part and were the most abundant red-listed species recorded followed by linnet, yellowhammer, house sparrow, lapwing and redwing.

Compared with last year, 10 additional species of birds were added to the list of birds recorded during the count, including cirl bunting and Cettie’s warbler.

In addition, 13 species of raptor were counted with goshawk included in the results for the first time this year.

Mr Egan said: “Even though this is only its second year, we are seeing an increase in the number of birds and the range of species seen – especially red-listed species. These are some of our most rapidly declining birds but they are still out there and are being supported by our farmers through the many conservation measures that are now being implemented on UK farmland.”

Guy Smith, vice president of the NFU, is an enthusiastic supporter of the GWCT’s survey and said, “Having taken part in the bird survey in February, it’s always interesting to get the national results to see how you compare with your fellow farmers.

“I clocked up 24 species, starting with some lapwings taking the low lying sun on some winter wheat and ending with a barn owl quartering one of our grassy margins as dusk fell. The great thing about the Big Farm Bird Count is it gives us a chance to be proud of the birdlife on our farms as well as an opportunity to be loud about it as well.”

Before the count started in February, the GWCT ran a series of farmland bird identification days, which were held across the country in January. Sponsored by BASF and supported by partners including the FWAG Association and the RSPB, these days helped to give people insight and the confidence to recognise those sometimes difficult to identify ‘little brown jobs’.

Graham Hartwell, environmental stewardship manager with BASF and the main sponsor of the Big Farmland Bird Count and the ID days, said, “For a highly respected research charity like the GWCT, the success of the farmland bird count is very impressive. Not only is it helping to raise awareness about the level of conservation being carried out by farmers in this country, it also gives farmers an opportunity of seeing what their efforts are delivering on the ground as part of a whole farm approach to sustainability. Once farmers see that their actions are achieving results it spurs them on to do even more for their farmland birds. This in itself is a wonderful achievement.”

The Big Farmland Bird Count revealed that nearly 70 per cent of farmers taking part in the survey were in an Environmental Stewardship Scheme.

Mr Egan said, “We all recognise that some farmland birds are suffering serious declines but by understanding what is going wrong and working with farmers we can use our science to help support them to turn it around.

“Many farmers continue providing supplementary food at least until the end of April, so that birds go into the breeding season in a healthy and fit condition.

“Within the survey more than 70 per cent of farmers said that they were growing wild bird seed mixes and this popular activity helps to sustain farmland birds through the winter period. Growing good insect-rich habitats such as areas of wild flowers or pollen and nectar mixes near good nesting sites provides a vital food source for birds during the breeding season. Many young birds are completely reliant on insects for food in the first few weeks of their life. All these activities are increasingly important, especially after the bad winters of 2012 and 2013.”

The third GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count will take place during the week of February 6 to 14, 2016. Mr Egan said: “Interest in the results of our count is definitely growing and we very much hope that even more farmers will get involved in counting their farmland birds next year. This knowledge is important as it will help those farmers taking part to start building a more comprehensive picture of how their over-wintering birds are faring from conservation measures being implemented.”

As well as farmers, the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count also received support from a range of farming, industry and conservation organisations.