Dr Dave Parish: Many birds and animals live life on the hedge – let’s give them a hand

Chaffinch - the most commonly seen farmland bird in the Big Farmland Bird Count in Scotland 2017. Photo: GWCT
Chaffinch - the most commonly seen farmland bird in the Big Farmland Bird Count in Scotland 2017. Photo: GWCT
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The humble hedgerow ­provides food and shelter for many of our farmland birds but the drive towards more extensive farming and less mixed farming since the 1950s has seen many of them lost.

Through late November and early winter, the blackthorn, hawthorn and rowan cling on to their berries, and beech hedge desperately holds onto its brown, withered leaves until their spring drop. Hedges, along with farm woodland, field margins, stubbles and headlands, provide that semi natural habitat on which many of our farmland birds have come to rely.

Dr Dave Parish, Head of Lowland Research, Scotland, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

Dr Dave Parish, Head of Lowland Research, Scotland, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

But read the latest Defra report Wild Bird Populations in the UK 1970 – 2016 and it’s a discomforting picture where farmland bird species have been hard hit and some such as corn bunting, grey partridge, turtle dove and tree sparrow are identified as being in “strong decline”.

Generalist species too, such as ­yellow wagtail, kestrel and greenfinch, once far more common over farmland, are also struggling.

But it is not all doom and gloom. For example Scottish Government data shows that it has contributed £32 million through its Rural Development Programme to create some 2655 km of hedgerows, all of which will benefit biodiversity. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, as well as pressing government to do more, has developed a bank of science tracking how habitat – hedges, field margins and neighbouring woodland – provides food and ­cover for birds and other ­wildlife such as brown hares and bats. This work is being undertaken at the Trust’s Allerton project, and at Rothamsted, and now in Scotland at the Game & Wildlife Scottish Demonstration Farm at Auchnerran on Deeside.

Out on a winter walk on ­Boxing Day, to shake down the excesses of too much turkey, cake and too many chocolates, it’s worth stopping to take a look at the hedgerows.

A good hedge can take up to 10 years to become properly established (and blackthorn can reputedly live up to 100 years) and, cut to an ‘A’ shape, this provides shelter but limits the shading of herbaceous plants beneath. It is home to finches, blackbirds and thrushes, and no surprise then that the chaffinch and blackbird were the two most commonly seen ­species recorded in the Big Farmland Bird Count in Scotland in February.

The field margins below the hedge provide valuable food, shelter and nesting cover for grey partridge, yellowhammers, warblers, whitethroat and other species, so do consider what you might be disturbing as your dog snuffles his way through these inviting strips of ground.

The hawthorn’s dark red berries are a staple diet for blackbirds and thrushes and can be stripped ­completely by the foraging of winter visitors such as redwing and fieldfare that come here to escape the bitter cold of Russia and Scandinavia.

There are valuable links for biodiversity between hedges, field margins and farm woodland, not just for ­farmland birds and mammals, but also for insects and pollinators.

Clear scientific evidence has been found between a rich harvest of ­berries and the success of pollinating insects. Prescriptions through the SRDP particularly have helped Scottish farmers to maintain and promote habitats that benefit biodiversity and, come Brexit, early indications are that future subsidy support will be significantly geared towards farming for the environment.

There is a delicate balance, however, between farming for nature and farming for food. It’s not easy when farm businesses also need to make a profit to survive and no one really knows what can be expected post Brexit and 2021. The general public has a responsibility also – think where you walk and what you might disturb. In and around farmland, keep to footpaths where possible, and be ­conscious of where your dog is and what it might be doing!

Farmers have every reason to take pride in the hedges in their stewardship – we know the benefits they bring and the part they play in farmland conservation. So, enjoy the ­festive break, and enjoy your walk!

The Big Farmland Bird Count takes place between 9 and 18 February 2018, when farmers are asked to spend 30 minutes on any day between these dates recording the species and numbers of birds seen on one particular area of their farm.The count is sponsored by BASF and delivered with FWAG Association and LEAF, and support from the NFU and CLA. Google ‘Big Farmland Bird Count’ for more details.

Dr Dave Parish, head of lowland research, Scotland, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.