Making bird-safe farms in Britain

A war is being waged in Britain between farmers and wild birds.

The birds are losing.

So Britain's bird people - The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) - have bought a farm. The aim is to demonstrate, to farmers, the general public, and political decisionmakers, how modern agriculture can be practiced without reeking havoc on the natural world.

Graham Wynne, the society's chief executive, writes "In many areas modern farming methods are the biggest single cause of wildlife loss."

Buying a farm is the latest move in the RSPB's vigorous campaign to save farmland birds. Its magazine, Birds, frequently addresses the problem. The RSPB is Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity, with over a million members. Since February, it has already raised 1.4 million ($2.1 million) to buy and run the lowland, arable farm of about 450 acres near Cambridge.

Farmland birds are declining faster than any other kind. They include such once common types as blackbirds, bullfinches, kestrels, and lapwings. The UK government already lists 27 species in a conservation action plan. But about 20 of these species are still rapidly decreasing.

In some desperate cases, the RSPB is taking localized emergency measures with some success. But this is where species such as tree sparrows, cirl buntings, stone curlews, and corncrakes are reduced to comparatively small areas. Birds on a wider scale are more difficult to help.

Since WWII there has been a persistent drive to intensify farming methods in the UK. Conor Jameson, who writes regularly in "Birds," calls this "a crusade, a culture that has just gone too far."

To meet demands for increased productivity, farmers use ever more effective chemicals. They sow crops outside their traditional season - winter wheat and oil seed rape, in particular. Old grazing meadows and hayfields have disappeared. Hedgerows and grasslands have been destroyed, sometimes with the aid of government grants.

The winter sown crops are believed to damage the established nesting and feeding patterns of many field birds because these crops grow too high at the wrong time. Also, the stubble that was once typical of winter fields is plowed in.

Dr. Roger Buisson is the Project Manager for the RSPB's new farm. The aim, he says, is "not a landscape restoration." Nor is it an effort to return nostalgically to some idyllic pre-war agricultural past.

According to Mr. Jameson, the farm must be "efficient and modern." Buisson talks of developing "new techniques" and of taking risks that purely commercial farmers cannot take. "The RSPB can weather such risks," he says.

It may be three years before any of the project's scientific monitoring and experimentation bear quantifiable fruit. Grahame Madge, an RSPB spokesman, suggests that the annual trimming of hedgerows (where these still exist) may well not be necessary. If it were done once every two years, it would be better for wildlife, he argues, and also save farmers money. Some research also supports reducing the amount of pesticides used. "For example, it may not be necessary to spray the whole crop," he says.

Madge also talks about strips in mid-field that are called "beetle banks, two or three meters wide, slightly raised, a haven for ladybirds [ladybugs] and beetles." And it's possible that herbicides used selectively on areas where birds are known to be nesting might allow coexistence between farming and birds.

Lapwings were once a common sight, wheeling and diving over British farmland. Statistics quoted by Madge show that the decline of this ground-nesting bird warrants concern. In 1998, the total population was 65,000 breeding pairs. In 1987, the figure had been 123,000.

Some birds suffer acutely from the disappearance of mixed farming in an area. Lapwings are known to nest in arable areas and then take their chicks to pasture land. If a large farm has no pastureland, the bird's habits are disastrously affected.

Drainage of land is also a damaging effect on the balance of wildlife. Just published - and further grist to the RSPB's mill - is an impressive report by Britain's Soil Association, strongly arguing that the UK's "farmland biodiversity is in steep decline" due to modern agricultural practice. Its solution: much more organic farming. Although organic farming currently accounts for only 3 percent of the country's land, "it is growing rapidly."

A small farm adjoining the RSPB's new farm has been run by Graham Desborough for 27 years. While he is basically in favor of the society's efforts, he points to some challenges: He grows winter crops because the area's clay-dense land makes preparing the ground for winter sown crops far easier than for spring sown crops. Always interested in wildlife, and already keeping most of his hedgerows intact and taking other eco-friendly measures advocated by the RSPB, he still isn't convinced such steps will increase his farm's wildlife.

"It'd be nice to know," he says. "But I am not entirely sure that farming is to blame for the loss of birdlife."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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