RSPB demands action after Defra report highlights decline of farmland birds

Turtle Dove. Picture: Ian Burt

Turtle Dove. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

A continued, drastic decline in farmland bird numbers has prompted the RSPB to demand that future government subsidies are targeted towards effective wildlife-friendly agricultural schemes.

Official figures released today reveal a sharp drop in the number of species reliant on farmed landscapes between 1995 and 2012, with the turtle dove population plummeting by 89pc in its breeding stronghold of the East of England.

Defra's Farmland Bird Indicator tracks the fortunes of 19 bird species including grey partridge, which has declined by 41pc in the East during the same period, along with skylarks (down 23pc), corn buntings (17pc) and yellowhammers (18pc).

Since 1970, the overall indicator has fallen by more than half to its lowest recorded level, with the majority of the decline occurring between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, largely due to the impact of rapid changes in farmland management.

In a bid to reverse these trends, the RSPB is working with hundreds of farmers in the East to put in place measures including planting crops that provide insects and seeds for foraging birds, and leaving spaces for ground-nesting birds.

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The current environmental stewardship schemes which reward farmers for conservation efforts are being phased out to be replaced by the New Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS) from 2016.

Niki Williamson, RSPB senior conservation officer in the East, said: 'Many farmers right across the region are already doing some great things through these schemes and, without farmers' help, today's figures would be, undoubtedly, worse. But we need more to step up if farm wildlife in the East is to recover.

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'If we carry on like this, it may be too late for the wildlife that calls our region's countryside home.

'Defra has proposed a new scheme for the next six years that could help to address these declines. The key now is following through on these proposals to ensure that the right actions are targeted to save these precious species. Only then will the public get value for money in the form of a countryside richer in nature.'

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) pointed out that the latest Defra update shows encouraging signs for many wild birds, with the stock dove, goldfinch and jackdaw all showing positive increases since the 1970s.

NFU countryside adviser Claire Robinson said: 'Figures from The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust Big Farmland Bird Count in 2014 demonstrated there were 116 different bird species on farm. It would be wrong to highlight one specific industry or one specific practice to be solely responsible for bird numbers.'

Brian Finnerty, a spokesman for NFU East Anglia, added: 'Farmers across Norfolk are working extremely hard to protect and enhance the environment, for the benefit of wildlife, as well as producing our food.

'Figures from the Campaign for the Farmed Environment show there are more than 4,700 skylark plots on Norfolk farmland, more than 2,000 hectares of wild bird seed mixtures, 580 hectares of uncropped, cultivated areas for ground-nesting birds and 7,400 hectares of over-wintered stubble.'

Farming and Wildlife Advisory Groups (FWAGs) have a long tradition of supporting farmers in making the most of the ever-changing agri-environment system.

Heidi Thompson, from the Norfolk branch of FWAG, known as Farm Conservation Ltd, said: 'This is not just about birds. Birds are just a very visible indicator of the health of a farm ecosystem. FWAG members have made an enormous difference to the farmland bird numbers their land. For example, one of our directors, Joe Martin who farms near Denver in the Fens, has recorded a threefold increase in numbers of corn buntings, tree sparrows and linnets since he introduced conservation measures and supplementary feeding six years ago'

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