The Big Farmland Bird Count helps protect our most cherished species – Dave Parish

The results of the annual survey will allow conservation efforts to be focused on where they are needed most, writes Dave Parish

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is asking farmers to count birds on a part of the farm for 30 minutes between 7 and 16 February
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is asking farmers to count birds on a part of the farm for 30 minutes between 7 and 16 February

Citizen science is a valuable means for many organisations to gather data these days and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is no exception. Indeed, one of our biggest citizen science projects, the Big Farmland Bird Count, takes place this month and we are urging farmers, land managers and game keepers to take part. We are also encouraging members of the public the length and breadth of the country with an interest in birds and wildlife to contact their local farm or estate and offer to do a count for them!

The BFBC was launched in 2014 to highlight the positive work done by land managers in helping to reverse the decline in farmland birds. The count offers a simple means of recording the effects of any conservation work currently being undertaken by farmers and gamekeepers on their land, such as supplementary feeding birds through winter or growing crops specifically to provide seed for birds.

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Back for the seventh successive year, all the count involves is to spend just 30 minutes spotting species on a patch of farmland on any day between 7 and 16 February 2020.

The results of this annual survey, which will need to be submitted by the farm or estate, will help to determine which farmland birds are benefiting from conservation efforts while identifying the ones that are most in need of help.

Those who make decisions on how our farmland is managed, who are planning planting and cropping, or doing other work on the farm are vital in helping to ensure the future survival of many of our most cherished farmland bird species like skylarks, yellowhammers, corn buntings and wild grey partridges.

Farmers are responsible for managing the largest songbird habitat in this country but frequently their efforts to reverse bird declines are largely unrecorded and the Big Farmland Bird Count is the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s national project to help to remedy this.

There are many positive steps that farmers can take to encourage birds and wildlife – the new support measures replacing the Basic Payment outlined in the recently re-introduced Agriculture Bill south of the border, and which will no doubt be reflected in future Scottish policy will, it is anticipated, allow farm businesses to become even more involved.

Simple measures such as hedges, field margins, beetle banks, skylark plots and farmland woodland all help support bird life as well as providing the plants that birds need for cover and the insects and seeds that they need for food.

Last year was a record breaker for the Big Farmland Bird Count with 1,400 returns made – a 40 per cent increase on the previous year, recording 140 species over 1 million acres. Encouragingly, a total of 30 red-listed species were recorded in 2019, with five appearing in the most-commonly seen species list. These included fieldfares, starlings, house sparrows, yellowhammers and song thrushes, with the first four seen by more than 30 per cent of the farms taking part in the count.

At the end of the count, the results are analysed by the Trust. All participating farms will receive a report on the national results once they have been collated.

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The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is also a partner in the EU Interreg North Sea Region funded PARTRIDGE project which aims to give many farmland species a helping hand, especially during the colder winter months.

The Trust’s specially developed wild bird seed mixes not only provide food for seed-eating birds, but also contain broad-leaved plants which provide partridges, brown hares and other animals with a place to hide when other parts of the landscape are more exposed.

These mixes are constantly being assessed and improved.

During the last meeting of the EU PARTRIDGE project partnership in Göttingen, Germany, many of the successes and problems that farmers across Europe have encountered were discussed, and a number of solutions proposed to help farmers and wildlife get the most out of the habitat provided for them including different soil preparations, adapting seed mixes and providing a more mosaic-type habitat with more variety for wildlife.

GWCT’s work for the PARTRIDGE project in Scotland includes supplementary feeding, providing wild birds and other farmland wildlife with a helping hand during October to March when food is hard to source.

For more information about the Big Farmland Bird Count and how farms and estates can take part see www.bfbc.org.uk

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