Ten years of saving skylarks

The RSPB’s ten year long project at Hope Farm in the Cambridgeshire countryside has been a “bigger success than expected”, says the charity.

The organisation embarked on the project in 2000 in an attempt to show that a modern commercially-run farm could make a profit and provide habitats for wildlife at the same time.

In that time the number of farmland birds at Hope Farm has increased by 177 %, with particular successes in the populations of skylarks, linnets and yellowhammers.

A skylark perched on a fence post with a caterpillar in its bill. Pic Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

A skylark perched on a fence post with a caterpillar in its bill. Pic Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

The overall diversity of farmland birds and other wildlife has also received a boost.

The 181-hectare farm celebrated its tenth birthday recently by hosting a reception for politicians, farmers, agricultural industry figures and conservationists.

“We have learned so much from our ten years of farming in the Cambridgeshire countryside,” said RSPB conservation director Dr Mark Avery. “We really didn’t know whether this project would be a success when it started all those years ago, but the results have been better than we ever imagined”.

According to RSPB figures, farmland birds have declined by 50% since 1970 .

At Hope Farm, and in other small corners of the country, real efforts are being made to do something about this before it is too late.

Roughly 7.5% of the land at Hope Farm was placed into environmental management for this study.  The results suggest that if the current 2% of arable land managed for wildlife were to be doubled it could reverse the 50% drop in farmland birds.

Over the past ten years the RSPB has used Hope Farm to spread its message about farmland birds as well as developing  and trialling important measures like skylark plots which are now included as an official option in the Entry Level Stewardship scheme which is open to all farmers in England.

The site has been visited by many influential figures in Government and the farming industry and has helped the charity raise the profile of its campaigning work on farmland wildlife.

One farmer who attended the Hope Farm celebrations this week is Robert Law who recently hosted Cereals 2010, the largest arable farming event of the year, at his farm near Royston in Hertfordshire.

“The RSPB now has ten years of evidence from working on the ground at Hope Farm to show what we can do to make a real difference for wildlife,” he said.

“But it’s not just large conservation charities that can achieve these results – I have achieved real results on my land with many of the measures used at Hope Farm through my agri environment schemes.

Linnet Carduelis cannabina (female or immature bird), perched on barbed wire fence. Pic Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Linnet Carduelis cannabina (female or immature bird), perched on barbed wire fence. Pic Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

A recent survey of wild birds on my land found 38 species of birds including 7 pairs of corn buntings, 13 skylark pairs and 2 grey partridge pairs.

If the agricultural industry’s Campaign for the Farmed Environment is to work, then we need to learn lessons from projects like this and prove that as farmers we truly are custodians of the countryside”.

As well as skylark plots, other environmental measures in place at Hope Farm include field margins, beetle banks, pollen and nectar mixes, wild bird seed mixtures and well managed hedgerows.

These help to provide the three most important things for farmland birds – a safe place to nest, food for growing chicks in spring and summer and food and shelter over the winter months.

Dr Avery added: “The challenge for the RSPB at Hope Farm in the future will be how we continue to build on the farmland bird successes of the past decade whilst also tackling the issues of carbon and diffuse pollution.”

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