Northumberland Bird Club, October meeting

The speaker at the North Northumberland Bird Club’s October Indoor Meeting at Bamburgh Pavilion was George Dodds from Glanton.

George’s job is a professional advisor to farmers managing land under the various state schemes promoting flora and fauna. Some 75 members seethed in silent jealousy as George freely confessed that his hobby was his livelihood – out and about in the Northumbrian countryside, often in areas where there is no public access.

Ever-increasing world food demand has meant global changes to agriculture. In the UK the change from spring to winter cereals, greater use of fertilisers and herbicides has generally been bad news for our traditional farmland birds. However, Northumberland has fared far better than the more southern English counties, with our only serious loser being the corn bunting. In contrast yellowhammers, tree sparrows, linnets and twite are at least holding their own and goldfinches are on the increase. Skylarks and grey partridge are having difficulties but benefiting from specific projects.

Most of the management schemes encouraged field margins to be left fallow. Tall grass was an excellent habitat for the barn owl’s staple diet of voles but mowing in July produced the short grass preferred by grey partridge. A bare earth strip between the short grass and the crop was particularly good for brown hares, partridges’ dust baths and nesting space for skylarks.

Many of the field margins were also used for pheasant rearing. The game crops planted to give cover and food for the pheasants also benefited farmland birds. Predator control – where practiced – also benefited farmland birds. Foxes, stoats, carrion crows and magpies all take their toll.

Along the coast at Goswick and Holy Island, sluices had been built to control and retain tidal floods and ditches had been reprofiled with shallow edges to benefit lapwing, snipe and redshank.

Upland projects were also important. Grazing was the key to managing wild flower hay meadows and rushy fields. Only lapwing liked the very short grass left by sheep. Today the policy was to encourage diversity in these habitats through cattle grazing to help skylarks, ring ouzels and waders.

The talk stimulated many interesting question and George was at pains to emphasise the key role of farmers. Many farmer s were concerned about the decline in farmland bird species much commoner in their youth. Farmers’ co-operation and commitment were key to our children’s and grandchildren’s enjoyment of Northumberland’s farmland birds in the decades to come. The evening ended with hearty applause and warm thanks to the speaker.