‘If we’re not providing this food, what would these birds be eating?’ – How farmers are feeding winter wildlife
Andy Hay / RSPB
One of the nation’s biggest salad and vegetable growers has shown how conservation schemes – critical to the winter survival hopes of farm wildlife – can work alongside intensive food production.
With its snowfall and sub-zero temperatures, this week has illustrated the annual struggles of the region’s wildlife during the scarce winter months.
For our most threatened birds, finding food at this time of year could ensure survival and a greater chance of breeding success in the spring.
And while the intensification of agriculture has shouldered much of the blame for the decline of such species, large-scale farming operations can also play a key role in feeding their recovery.
Hainey Farm at Barway, near Ely in Cambridgeshire, is the home of Cambs Farms Growers, and part of the G’s group – one of the UK’s largest salad and vegetable producers, employing 7,000 people and working with 24 growers across 13,142 hectares of land in the UK, Spain, Senegal, Czech Republic and Poland.
Within this vast farming powerhouse, conservation manager Stewart McIntyre has been creating habitats and food sources for wildlife ranging from water voles to barn owls, and bumblebees to bitterns.
Cambs Farm Growers has four Countryside Stewardship agreements – two higher-tier, and two mid-tier – which have helped fund a host of wildlife-friendly features including hedgerows, woodland, lapwing plots, buffer strips, and a new reed bed.
The farm has also planted of 50ha of wild bird mix to provide winter sustenance and habitats for farmland birds like yellowhammers, linnets and corn buntings, added to 53ha of nectar and floristically-enhanced mixes which buzz with pollinators and insects in the summer.
Mr McIntyre said: “The cereal mix is full of seed for these farmland birds at this time of year, so it comes into its own in this cold weather.
“You can see where they have stripped it bare. If we’re not providing this food, what would these farmland birds be eating?
“The decline of farmland birds is a big deal for us, and it is really important to manage these habitats. It is not just a case of putting them in and expecting something to happen. It is part of the farming operation and it has to be managed.”
Mr McIntyre said inefficient field corners and low-yielding land were given over for wild bird plots, with field margins used as “corridors” to connect habitats and food sources across the farm.
“The farming business is set up with quite large machinery, so it is about creating straight edges to make the precision farming more efficient, but at the same time it is about creating more spaces for wildlife,” he said.
“To do that within an intensive farming business, the two have to work in harmony together. And we have found a way of doing that.
“We can run a successful farming business, but also farm in a way that’s fair to nature. A lot of the decline in these farmland birds is down to modern farming techniques, so we are doing what we can to reverse that.
“People have a certain understanding of what they think a farming business entails on this scale. So it is important for us to show people that while we are farming intensively we are doing a hell of a lot for nature and the farmed environment too.”
Mr McIntyre said although the conservation strategy owes much to the Countryside Stewardship scheme, which distributes EU funding for wildlife measures, the farm had gone far beyond its minimum requirements – which he attributed to the drive of Charles Shropshire, who runs this arm of his family’s business.
The company has a Fair to Nature accreditation which requires at least 10pc of the farmed area to be committed to managed wildlife habitats – but at Hainey Farm, this figure is 20pc.
A 2017 bird survey recorded 89 bird species, and put the farm in the top 10pc of the UK for lapwings, and the top 1pc for yellow wagtails.
Andrew Holland, a farm conservation officer for the RSPB, said: “There is 50ha of food here, and birds like reed bunting, yellowhammer and linnet will benefit from this winter food source.
“At this time of year, food is really difficult to find, the land is ploughed over and there is not much natural food available. This is a lifeline, especially when it is really cold. It gets more numbers through the winter in better condition, so when it comes to breeding time they have got more broods, which will improve their productivity.
“It is obviously very important that the big farms, as well as the smaller farms, take up agri-environment schemes. By placing options in certain places it can actually make farms more efficient. And with areas that are not so efficient and not going to yield as well, we can use them to provide these features for wildlife.”
HELPING THE TURTLE DOVE
As part of a group which has farms in East Anglia, Spain and Senegal, Mr McIntyre said G’s is in a unique position to help one of the UK’s most endangered birds – the turtle dove.
Turtle doves have suffered a 91pc UK population decline since 1995 and are on the Red List of Endangered Species.
Mr McIntyre has established areas of scrubby habitat and a tailored seed mix including fumitory, black medick, white clover and bird’s-foot trefoil, which ensures there are seeds available for the birds when they arrive in East Anglia from mid April.
But he is also hoping to instigate a tagging programme in partner farms in Africa so the birds’ migration can be tracked across Spain and back to East Anglia.
“Turtle doves are facing global extinction,” he said. “It is a serious issue. As a business group we are really passionate about making a difference.
“We had turtle doves on our bird survey four years ago, but we haven’t seen them since. We want them to come back, so we are putting in habitats across our land base.
“The habitats that are declining are the thick scrubby areas. Farmers don’t like a mess, so everyone clears away these scrubby areas, and the wildlife suffers. We provide a large area of thick scrub, especially for turtle doves, and we are creating food plots for them too.”
A senior conservation spokesman said the re-targeting of farm support funding after Brexit could help meet goals for farmland wildlife.
The RSPB estimates that the total cost of achieving its environmental ambitions on land is £2.3bn per year.
Martin Harper, the charity’s director of conservation, said the figure represents a 450pc increase on the money currently available for agri-environment stewardship schemes funded through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). But when compared to the UK’s overall CAP spending of £3bn, which also includes direct subsidies for landowners, he said it is “doable”.
“As I have mentioned many times before, agriculture has been and remains one of the biggest drivers of wildlife decline across the UK,” he said. “Poorly designed public policy has driven agriculture in the wrong direction, with actively damaging subsidies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s resulting in environmental degradation. Since then, reformed agricultural policy has been insufficient to right these wrongs.
“Farming and land management policies need a thorough overhaul, and the environment should be the overriding focus of any future payments. With powerful voices calling for an end to all farming payments, refocusing future payments toward the clear environmental benefits that farmers and land managers are uniquely placed to provide presents an opportunity for the sector to continue to receive public support.
“We need to maintain the funding associated with the CAP – in excess of £3bn per year – for at least a ten year period after our departure from the EU.”