Alex Nairn: Looking forward to more baby buntings

Alex Nairn, Trustee of Elie Estate.
Alex Nairn, Trustee of Elie Estate.
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Scottish estate managers have a wide list of responsibilities – from managing holiday lets, to creating new social housing developments, to ensuring land is being managed – both by ­ourselves and by our tenant farmers – in an environmentally ­efficient way.

While it is essential that we make ends meet, the role of an estate ­manager goes far beyond keeping the business running. A big part – and by far one of the most rewarding elements of the job – is responsible land management. That means doing our bit to protect the natural environment, including taking part in conservation initiatives.

The corn bunting was once widespread in Scotland and Ireland but modern farming practices have put populations under pressure

The corn bunting was once widespread in Scotland and Ireland but modern farming practices have put populations under pressure

In 2017, Elie Estate, along with the five other estates that make up East Neuk Estates – Kilconquhar, Balcarres, Balcaskie, Gilston and Strathtyrum – secured the Conservation Award at the Scottish Land and Estates Helping It Happen awards for our work to increase the rapidly declining corn bunting population.

This beautiful bird was once widespread but large declines led to extinction in Ireland and made the corn bunting one of the fastest declining birds in England and Scotland.

A late breeding season, a preference for nesting in growing crops, and the dependence on the availability of cereal seeds over the winter and large insects in summer, all made corn buntings especially vulnerable to modern agricultural practices. ­Numbers fell by 83 per cent in eastern Scotland between 1989 and 2007.

Over the past few years, East Neuk Estates have worked with farmers and land managers in Fife on a range of measures to provide safe nesting places, insect-rich summer foraging and winter seed food to help increase the corn bunting population.

Measures have included growing plots of a cereal-based bee and bunting seed mix which are left unharvested over winter, delaying silage harvest to avoid nest destruction, and improving the habitat on a wider scale, for example by introducing conservation headlands, leaving land fallow after stubbles or managing some fodder crops extensively.

Recent figures from the RSPB showed that corn bunting numbers are now increasing and last year we saw the highest increase in Fife in any single year since monitoring began. The birds have recolonised farms in Angus and Fife where they hadn’t been seen in years. Together with a first local range expansion in the East Neuk, this gives hope that the species may start to spread once again.

Yvonne Stephan, conservation advisor for RSPB Scotland, with whom we worked closely, found this record breaking increase amazing and told us that she wouldn’t have dared to dream of such fantastic results in such a short time.

Our work with the corn buntings is only one aspect of our conservation activity. We have an ongoing focus on environmental issues with emphasis on increasing the diversity of wildlife through the creation of grass margins, hedge planting and pond creation. A red squirrel conservation project at Balcarres Estate is also delivering encouraging results.

This year Elie Estate is working with Butterfly Conservation to increase the Common Blue butterfly population along the coastline from Elie to Ardross.

As recently as five years ago, the Common Blue could be seen in this area during June, July and August. However, recent winter storms have caused coastal erosion and loss of plants for them to feed on. In conjunction with Scottish Natural Heritage, Fife Coast & Countryside Trust and volunteers from Butterfly Conservation, we are planting a huge number of wild flowers and butterfly-friendly plants to encourage its return, including birdsfoot trefoil, thyme, buddleia and thrift. We are also encouraging walkers along the Fife Coastal Path to stick to the designated trails rather than walking on the dunes to help protect their natural environment.

We also have large areas of game cover, which is utilised by many species. Last summer did not make things easy for ground-nesting birds like grey partridge, which rely on thick grass for camouflage while nesting and use the same grass to forage for cereals and insects with their chicks.

Sadly, the grey partridge has been in decline for several years due to a lack of chick food, a shortage of food in the winter, also a characteristic of the modern farmed landscape, and increased pressure from ­predators. Since 2012 we have been working with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust on their grey partridge project. This involves, among other things, counting ­partridges in the spring and autumn to determine the total population and productivity.

These are just some of the examples of work we are undertaking to preserve the delicate balance of wildlife and conservation on our estates. Other estates are doing fantastic work – from black grouse preservation and wildcat counting to bat protection and nesting initiatives. Perhaps this year one of them will be recognised in the Scottish Land and Estates Helping It Happen awards too.

To nominate, people can share how their local estate, farm or rural business has made a positive contribution to their area. Entries can be submitted via the Helping It Happen website – www.helpingithappen.co.uk – before 13 July. The awards, sponsored by the MacRobert Trust, will be held in Edinburgh on 3 October.

Alex Nairn, trustee of Elie Estate.